“When you’re designing a luxury hotel, it’s not just about accommodations—you’re creating a lifestyle,” says Jean-Michel Gathy. For nearly 35 years, the award-winning architect and interior designer, and founder of noted firm Denniston, has been doing just that, beginning with his work on one of the earliest Aman resorts (after which he went on to help define the signature aesthetic of that brand with several more Aman projects) to spots like The Setai in Miami, Marina Bay Sands in Singapore (home to world’s largest rooftop pool) and Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives.
Along the way, the Belgian-born visionary says he’s discovered that one of the secrets to creating these luxury lifestyle hubs is “to live like these guests do. I travel like them, go on yachts and jets like them—I don’t have to think about what the trends are, or what luxury travel needs, because it’s my life, also. I accommodate what they unconsciously want—but that’s a moving target. Plus,” he adds, “I am a little bit of an artist, so am sensitive to the way people live and their choices. I enjoy making those observations, and luxury resorts have to address those kinds of details.”
Gathy also stresses the importance of “choosing your horse for the course”—that is, building something with a sense of place and that reflects the setting. “What are the surroundings, it is a high-rise or on the sea, in a city versus beach? You dig out of the country or location the fundamental characteristics, and all this informs how you look at the building, and what it is going to be.” Ultimately, though, he stresses that “a resort or hotel is place you have to feel at home away from home. Whoever the guest is—regardless of gender, age, profession—if I have created something where the people feel comfortable, I have succeeded. I don’t want them to know why they like a place—just that they want to go back.”
It’s these types of insights that have made Gathy and his firm among the most sought-after designers in the five-star hotel space—a distinction that’s led to a monumental slate of 2020 openings and master plan announcements, from Montenegro to Tokyo. Here, Gathy walks us through three of this year’s most notable launches, revealing the inspirations behind their designs and some of his own favorite highlights.
Aman New York
RR: Tell us how you approached this hotly-anticipated project?
This was originally supposed to be an office building, which are built for efficiency, so they’d built it with reduced corridor size, put the elevator core in an efficient place for that type of business, and all that. It was all meant to serve a different purpose—not a hotel! So that was a major challenge, but we dealt with it. The building existed and we couldn’t just subdivide it, so it’s resulted in a unique room design, with some rooms being a bit long. Rooms are very special here—all are around 800-square-feet, which is large for New York.
RR: What will the vibe be here?
New York City is a place where people like to meet, so we have created a very large terrace on the 10th floor—the whole public area is created around that level, with a lounge, cigar bar, and dining. It’s a little dense, but everything on that floor is there to create energy and movement, while still being an Aman. Vibrant, but classy—a peaceful energy that’s about interconnections, a low profile, and being understated. The energy of NYC meets the Aman aesthetic. There will also be two levels of spa, and a 60-foot internal swimming pool.
Four Seasons Bangkok at Chao Phraya River
RR: What inspired the design of this riverside property, which will mark Four Seasons’ return to Bangkok?
A foreigner wants to feel like they are in Thailand, but not with obvious things—so it’s not about putting a spirit house in the lobby, but about the little things, and sending a message in a discreet way. So we thought about ‘What is Thai?”—things like silk, the color purple, rice fields, the warm temperatures. You will still find the DNA of Four Seasons here, with their classic geometry, but we slip in references to local rituals, beliefs, and colors.
RR: How is that evidenced in the spaces?
You won’t see pictures of monuments or anything—we hint at things, which to me is more luxurious. Art is also a big focus here; I designed many of the pieces of artwork, and then we had Thai artists create them. All the main decorative parts—the art pieces, the fabrics—are dramatic. The landscaping also represents different regions of Thailand, from large shaded areas to a “flooded” water-scape. It’s very powerful.
RR: What’s one of your favorite spots in the hotel?
I love the ballroom. We wanted to do something a little Chanel, a little 1940’s, so we kept the space black and white, and added some purple for that Thai touch. We created a large, contemporary version of an old theater curtain made of wood and mesh steel—it looks like a curtain but it’s a fixed piece of artwork, and was a bit of a nightmare to do because every single piece of steel mesh was shaped to look like fabric. If I was to host a wedding here, it would have to have a 1940’s theme—it’s perfect for that.
RR: What’s the story behind this project?
The building was designed separately—we didn’t do the architecture here—so the little challenge here was incorporating our interiors with the architecture. Since they were designed separately, there were some matching challenges. But it all worked out, and is beautiful. There are some many types of hotels in Bali, so we had to do something different—and we have.
RR: What are some design details we can’t miss?
The aesthetic is a mix between Indonesian royalty and Dutch colonial, which you won’t typically find in Bali. It’s classy, proud, a little bit formal—not the typical Bali, not that organic feel. Look for the colonial Indonesian photos and other nods to Javenese royalty.