Climb Every Mountain
Ali Tayar finds his dream project, USM's luxury Omnia hotel in the Swiss Alps.
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 1/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Seven years ago, USM opened a hotel at the base of Switzerland's majestic Matterhorn. If that seems like a surprising move for a manufacturer of modular furniture systems, consider the company's history. Founded as a locksmith in the 1880's, in the Swiss village of Münsingen, USM began making windows in the 1920's. In the 1950's, amid the postwar construction boom, the owners decided to build a larger headquarters. To design it, they turned to Fritz Haller, an architecture professor at the Universität Karlsruhe.
Haller was renowned for creating buildings from interlocking, interchangeable parts. For the interiors at USM, he designed a system of modular office furniture resembling high-tech Tinkertoys. They attracted so much notice that the company began producing them under the name USM Haller in 1963—and never stopped. Once Haller's furniture propelled USM into the stratosphere of the contract industry, window production fell by the wayside.
The hotel, called the Omnia, is USM's first. Soon after opening in 2000, however, it was forced to close as a result of structural problems. The 32,000-square-foot building needed to be virtually reconstructed, which offered a chance to reduce the number of rooms from 45 to 30, increasing the level of luxury.
For the interiors, Maryana Bilski, creative director of the hotel project, turned to Ali Tayar of Parallel Design. Several years earlier, when Tayar won an Emerging Voices award from New York's Architectural League, one of the award sponsors was USM, putting Tayar on the company's radar. But that wasn't the only reason the two were a perfect fit. Born in Istanbul, Tayar studied architecture in Germany, where he came to admire Haller's work, and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he heard Haller deliver a lecture. Tayar was captivated by the professor's approach, in which structure, skin, and mechanicals merge into elegant building components.
Those ideas dovetailed easily with USM's charge to Tayar: Design something tasteful—not a flavor-of-the-month boutique hotel. "The people who stay at the Carlyle always stay at the Carlyle," he says. "People who stayed at the Royalton went looking for the next big thing."
There are a number of star-rated competitors in Zermatt but none, Tayar says, with anything like the Omnia's location: both a part of the town yet apart. Reached by an elevator carved into the mountainside, the hotel luckily came with lots of glass, so the stunning views would dominate.
In the public spaces, Tayar left the concrete structural columns exposed while adding white-oak floors. Ceiling panels, also made of white oak, feature a variety of CNC-milled openings designed to accommodate pin spots and audio speakers. The panels help give unwieldy spaces a unified geometry. And the dropped ceiling, typically a synonym for tacky, becomes, in Tayar's hands, an elegant kit of parts. Haller would have loved it.
In the service of an aesthetic that's "contemporary but subtle," Tayar says, his own furnishings mingle with pieces by others who made the journey from the Old World to the New, among them Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, and Raymond Loewy in addition to Vladimir Kagan, whose swoopy sofas are perfect for the round corners of the tower suites. "It was more than mixing pretty things," Tayar says. "It was important to tell a story—the story of ideas flowing across the Atlantic." Even David Weeks, the American designer of much of the hotel's lighting, owes a debt to a Frenchman, Serge Mouille.
Tayar limited his palette to blond wood, gray granite, and white walls. But "low-contrast interiors," as he calls them, don't mean low aspirations. Each bed has a built-in reading light on one side of the headboard and a Weeks sconce on the other. Tayar designed the comforters to suggest skiwear. In dressing areas, handles appear to peel away from the cabinetry.
Two suites contain bathtubs made of dozens of pieces of Japanese cedar CNC-milled to interlock. The company that fabricated them has been building furniture since the mid-19th century. "They were drawing on four generations of woodworking experience and, at the same time, using the latest technology," Tayar says.
Anywhere but Switzerland, with its extremely high level of craftsmanship, the tubs alone could have taken years to get right. In fact, Tayar and USM's Bilski completed the entire hotel in 18 months—skiers are there right now. They can only hope that the snow compares to the accommodations.