INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

Conrad Smith is Managing Director of ReardonSmith, hotel and resort specialists with over 25 years in the business and a formidable international reputation. The practice has projects spanning the globe, but perhaps two of the most famous are The Savoy and, more recently, London’s latest hip-spot, The Beaumont Hotel in Mayfair. Conrad will be telling us a little about these two exceptional hotels later on. He'll also be letting us in on why one of them reminds him of a certain, sultry stage and screen goddess, the importance of a good night's sleep, and why he's fascinated with hotel basements!

Getting back to his own story, after a spell in retail design for Stewart McColl, in 1987 Conrad made the move to the Richmond Design Group, where he gained what he describes as ‘an excellent foundation in hotel interior design’. It was also here that he first encountered Patrick Reardon, now chairman of ReardonSmith. Patrick and he teamed up in 1992 and after a tough start at the onset of a major recession, from small beginnings came great renown. We’ll be asking Conrad what he thinks has made their hotel projects so successful over the years.

But first, we were very privileged to have Conrad on our judging panel for ‘Hotel Interiors’ in this year’s World Interiors News Awards. Here’s what he has to say about it...

Did you enjoy the whole experience of judging this year’s World Interiors News Awards Hotel Interiors category?

Yes, it was great fun. It was the hottest day of the year up in London so it was a bit hot and sticky outside, but yes, we had a really enjoyable time doing the judging at Soho House and it was interesting to discuss everything properly with all the different ideas coming through. By no means did everyone agree all the time either, so it was nice to have the discussions, and little arguments, before we got to the winner.

You were spotted on the dance floor at the recent WIN Awards Dinner in London – did you have a good evening?

It was a wonderful evening. It started off in an excellent way because the venue, The Saatchi Gallery, is a very interesting place to be in, rather than just a standard hotel ballroom. The meal itself was excellent, the company around the table was great fun, and then of course you had Matthew vanKan singing up on stage. He looked a bit lonely up there by himself so we thought we’d join in and make a little bit of a party out of it, so that’s what got us up dancing. He is an excellent singer.

What did you think of the overall calibre of the entries in the Hotels category? Any personal favourites?

I think the quality was excellent. It was a vast range of offerings from the more corporate sort of hotel through to the more individual or bespoke hotels. Have I got a favourite? Well, my favourite won so that’s quite easy to answer! But it was a good spread, and very, very good quality of work. MKV put in a very good hotel as well.

Did you pick up on any new emerging trends among them?

If we put fashion to one side, because fashion comes and goes so I wouldn’t say it’s a trend, I think the trend is to integrate technology so that it’s not intrusive. A few years ago, everything was getting incredibly complicated, but I think now, while there is all this wonderful technology, it is becoming simpler to use. Rather than getting the latest fad and gadget, it’s moving towards generic technology for the traveller.

And I think we’re finally getting through to lighting designers that it’s all very well giving a guest a whizz-kid iPad to change all his light settings, but if he can’t turn the light on when he gets into the room having got off a plane at 2 in the morning, then it’s all getting a little too baffling.

And what, for you, made the winner – the Al Khan Resort in Sharjah, UAE – stand out?

It was unique, it was relaxed, it was of its location. It mixed traditional metaphors with wonderful furniture like the Carl Hansen wishbone chair. Anyone who can put a really traditional interior with a modern piece of furniture and pull it off – well, I respect that.

When you say ‘of its location’, what do you mean by that?

Well, it takes references from the area, so it isn’t a traditional Disneyland hotel just copying everything. It takes influences from fretwork design, from ceilings, doorways, floor finishes, so it is using traditional elements, but in a modern way.

Can you tell us about ReardonSmith's involvement in the interiors at the new Beaumont Hotel in Mayfair, described as London's latest hip hangout?

We’ve been working with Jeremy King and Chris Corbin on the hotel for about five years in total. Firstly it was operational layout and architectural planning for the building, but then we were fortunate enough to work with Richmond International on the interiors, of which they made an excellent job. They worked very closely with Jeremy, who put the brief together. It was a wonderful brief because it didn’t say ‘I want this, I want that’.

Instead, he wrote a story about how he saw the hotel – how the original, fictitious owner saw things. He wanted the hotel to be a backdrop for the guests, rather than a great big fashion statement where you go in and you end up staring around the place. He wanted people to feel comfortable and at home straightaway and I think that has been achieved exceptionally well. It’s a beautiful 30s/40s inspired interior which is calming and when you walk in the door you don’t think ‘oh this is a new hotel’, you feel as if you’ve always been there.

Going back to Jeremy’s brief, which features a fictional character named James Beaumont, can you tell us a little bit more about it?

James Beaumont was a hotelier in New York. When he fell out of favour there, he came to London and set up The Beaumont Hotel, which became a place for the glitterati and the famous to come before the Second World War. Then over the years it grew tired and no investment was put in. So when Jeremy and Chris came along, they found this faded hotel and renovated it back to its former glory. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s it in summary.

It’s an unusual way to brief, but if he’d said ‘I want blue rooms with pink dots on’, it would have been so over-specific. This way, there’s room for the imagination and it leads the interior design and architectural teams together to embrace ideas, question the client, delve deep into the brief – rather than 10 pages of ‘I want this or that and a hair dryer in the drawer’. It isn’t saying ‘I want an Art Deco hotel’ – that wouldn’t have worked. It’s saying ‘I want a hotel that’s evolved over the years, has character, has history based on an idea of a period’.

What do you think makes ReardonSmith and its projects such a success?

I think Patrick’s deep understanding of hotel operational planning is where we’ve gained our reputation from – it isn’t just about designing pretty buildings. It’s having that knowledge of how a hotel works from not only a guest point of view but the housekeeper’s point of view, the van driver delivering stuff to the hotel, it’s everything combined to make sure it works operationally, and then we can bring in interior design elements and more architectural embellishments. But unless you get it right from the start, you’re losing the battle.

Also, I’m a great believer that you start designing a hotel from the bed, not from the outside in. You start with the bed because that’s what a hotel’s all about – people sleeping overnight – and if they don’t have a good night’s sleep they won’t come back to your hotel. Whether it’s a Travelodge or The Savoy, it all comes back to that.

What are some of the major challenges you commonly experience in balancing aesthetics with functionality and operating performance?

Working with good interior designers is an absolute pleasure and a joy, and it brings the design together and it brings about successful results. But what happens sometimes is you are faced with a design team that doesn’t have hotel experience, or decorators rather than experienced designers.

How do you see those challenges developing or changing in the future under the influence of ever-evolving factors such as technology?

Everyone talks about hotels of the future and what they’re going to be like, and we’re all going to be floating around space in little bubbles. But if you go back to basics, the biggest revolution that happened with hotels was the en-suite bathroom, and to be honest there hasn’t been a revolution since that. We have fashion, we have fads, we’ve got technology, we’ve got coloured lights coming in and out, desks facing this way, desks facing that way, but basically, as I said before, the hotel is a place to stay the night – it’s an inn. It’s for travellers.

That has been going on for thousands of years, but what is changing is the level of service and the expectation of service. At the high end there’s an expectation of quality, service and space, space being a luxury and the new trend is larger guest rooms and bathrooms. At the budget end of the market people are looking for ease, non-fussiness, convenient locations, ease of check-in and check-out, efficient showers rather than a bathtub with a curtain, technology for their pads and smartphones and so on – a stress-free experience.

Looking specifically at ‘grand’ or heritage hotels, you’ve said that you’re a great fan of their basements! Why is that?

I’m the grandson of a plumber! And I love boiler rooms. There is nothing better than going into a hotel where there’s a beautiful boiler room where everything is clean and well looked after. There’s a sort of warmth down in these basements which is fantastic. And vice versa, if you go into a hotel where there’s a badly run boiler room, the hotel is usually badly run as well. You can tell a lot by a boiler room.

Another reason I like basements is that the first big hotel I worked on in Edinburgh, which is now known as The Balmoral, had four vast basements that hadn’t been explored for years and years – since the Second World War. There were still air raid shelters down there with the beds in them, wine bottling facilities and coalholes – you could easily get lost down there but they were absolutely fantastic. Amazing basements.

You’ve also described heritage hotels as ‘grandes dames’. What makes you see them that way?

Well they’re just wonderful things. If you come across one of these heritage hotels that’s past her best, think of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’. Bette Davis in her 40s in ‘Now, Voyager’ was the most elegant, beautiful film star and then 20 years later when she made Baby Jane, she was this caricature – parody – of herself. That is what a lot of these buildings had become, but fortunately now there IS the investment.

There were a lot of British Transport hotels that were run as well as possible with the limited budgets they had. But these fantastic buildings/film stars, at a certain stage in their lives hit a mid-life crisis and it’s getting them out of that. Bette, at the end of her days, was back up there as a huge star again, but had to go through the trials and tribulations of waning and lack of investment and interest. When you first walked into The Savoy 20 years ago, it was tired, it was shabby round the edges. But now you walk in and think ‘yes, she’s back where she should be, she’s a star’.

Taking London’s iconic Savoy Hotel as an example, if it were a person, what sort of grande dame would she be?

She would be Marlene Dietrich: glamorous, popular, sexy, intelligent, talented, outrageous and able to reinvent herself. The Savoy is a place where people met, they got married, danced the night away during the War. It had a personal history, so it wasn’t so much the history of the building itself – all buildings have a history – it’s what the building evokes and the people who lived in it over the past 140-odd years. Everyone wanted to have tea at The Savoy, stay there for one night.

Key to your work is peeling back the layers of time and immersing yourself in the original designs of a grand hotel. Do you have an inner historian that likes to get out? Where does that love of discovering history come from?

I remember being at school and hanging round the goalpost talking to a friend – it was wet and miserable and we didn’t want to play football – and I said to him that one day I was going to restore old buildings. And he said I bet you £10 you don’t. So, it does go back a long way.

I think it probably comes from visiting Brighton in the 1960s when they were clearing the slums from the North Laine area. I’d go down there shopping with the family and a month later you’d go back and another section of streets would have been pulled down and you think well, ‘if they pull down all the old buildings there’ll be nothing left’. When you’re a six year old you think like that.

History informs everything we do. If you don’t know your history, you don’t know your future. I loved history at school, how things have developed and why, and what made people think as they did and what made them design as they did.

What’s the biggest and best revelation you’ve discovered while stripping a hotel back to its original state? (You’re allowed to mention more than one if you like!)

How they still stand up is the biggest revelation most of the time! Once you’ve taken off all the old layers of wallpaper and some of the plaster has come off with it, then you find the wall underneath has been changed and modified so many times that it’s unstable and has to come down and be rebuilt. So, what you thought was a nice, solid building can end up a crumbly old thing...And when people say ‘oh, they don’t build things the way they used to’, sometimes that’s a good thing! Some of the building techniques are a little bit suspect.

Sometimes when you take down ceilings you discover an original ceiling above it, or sometimes you’ll come across stained glass windows or even cupolas that have been boarded up, or sometimes even rooms. We actually found a nice big room off the staircase at The Savoy that had been blocked up for years and no-one knew about. In another hotel we discovered a linen room in the attic which we converted into a fitness suite and two additional guest rooms. So sometimes by finding extra space that’s an asset for the owner that they didn’t know they had, they become rather pleased!

So, I haven’t come across a Rembrandt tucked away somewhere as yet, but certainly some interesting architectural features.

On a more personal note, what were your early creative influences and why did you decide to pursue a career as an architect?

With my Lego, I was always going to be an architect! It was never going to be an option or a choice! I just always wanted to build buildings.

In terms of early influences, I’d say The Festival of Britain. My dad, who was a graphic artist, was a great fan of the Festival and of the post-War design era. I was brought up on a diet of Arne Jacobson, Hugh Casson and all that type of wonderful stuff just after the War which was a breath of fresh air. They were optimistic designs – hope instilled in architecture.

And when and why did your particular passion for hotels begin?

That came in 1987 when I joined Richmond, working with Bob Lush on fantastic projects. Once you start on hotels you don’t go into anything else because, for an architect, they are just a marvellous thing to design. You’ve got restaurants, bars, offices, guest rooms, ballrooms, boiler rooms – everything is contained in that hotel, it’s like an ocean-going liner. It’s a fantastic privilege to be able to work on hotels.

Do you have a personal favourite among your many hotel projects?

Yes. The Balmoral in Edinburgh, which I mentioned earlier; but when I worked on it, it was the North British. It was my first hotel and I was given lots of responsibility. It’s special to me not only because it was the first, but because I did everything from designing through to detailing, through to being on-site, through to hoisting up the flag on the top.

You studied and qualified in Brighton, a popular resort on the UK’s south coast that has its own ‘grandes dames’, such as the Grand Hotel and The Metropole. You still live in Brighton, so what made you stay?

Again, I think it’s a family connection. My dad went to art college there, my granddad was in the Home Guard there. When it came to my studies, Brighton Polytechnic had a very, very good school of architecture, so that was obviously a draw.

There were so many of us students in the nearby Hanover area – now known as Muesli Mountain – and a number of friends from then are still in Brighton or the surrounding area.

What do you like best about the city?

It’s unique. Every Saturday morning when you wake up you feel like you’re on holiday, and what could be better than living in a place where you feel like that?

And what might we find you doing in moments of spare time?

For me it’s about enjoying the place you’re in and spending time with friends – home is a bit like a B&B with people coming to stay for the weekend! So you’re up and down the seafront, you all scoff donuts on the Pier, you visit a gallery, or drive out to the [South] Downs. And, of course, I love Bette Davis, I think she’s wonderful. A wet Sunday afternoon watching one of her films is the best thing you can think of! The great thing about Brighton is that every weekend is different.

Gail Taylor