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The Transformation of Luxury Hotel Design

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Previously regarded as a more functional and less worthy offshoot of the arts, modern design has risen in popularity and altered the way we view our surroundings. Whether we celebrate or scrutinize the modernity of soup bowls and skylines, our collective interest has grown. This design boom has become apparent through the high-profile openings of statement design museums—most recently in London and Lisbon—charting our changes in tastes and technologies. In the process, design pioneers like British designer Tom Dixon, Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola, and the ubiquitous Philippe Starck have become household names.

Bordeaux, home of the Musée des Arts décoratifs et du Design (MADD), has witnessed its own revolution of late, with the addition of design to MADD’s permanent collection. Meanwhile, the UNESCO-recognized city has also welcomed the arrival of the spectacular InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hotel.

Housed in a striking 18th-century building on Bordeaux’s Place de la Comédie, the InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hotel opened in late 2015 after being impeccably refurbished by French architect and designer Jacques Garcia. Applying his trademark opulent style, Garcia employed theatrical colors to bring the building to life while still preserving the property’s 18th century splendor. The 130-room hotel, which features a Gordon Ramsey restaurant and a rooftop terrace that recalls the nearby coastal town of Arcachon, showcases what Garcia has called a “bourgeoisie” palette of ochre, green, and bordeaux that has redefined the tenets of luxurious design.

An ever more discerning traveler is playing a major role in the evolution of high-end hotel design, as well. The 1990s and 2000s saw a worldwide homogenization of luxury accommodations that narrowed the aesthetic spectrum with streamlined forms and grey-scale color palettes. This sleek yet somewhat soulless minimalism grew to epitomize the global vision of sophistication. Recent trends have shifted, and a new breed of superstar designer is shaping our perception of sophistication with the likes of Dixon, Urquiola, and Starck—as well as Garcia. These aesthetes are lending their skills to establish a new visual language.

Rather than conforming to any generic global aesthetic, these designers now aim to integrate their visions with the surroundings. “Sophisticated design is about the intelligence of an object; how well it answers a problem,” says Constance Rubini, art historian and Director of MADD. “Design is rarely abstract. It is often linked to its context, its culture.”

This cultural context now lies at the heart of contemporary hotel design as travelers begin to shun cookie-cutter hotel experiences in favor of ever-allusive authenticity.

Set on charming Cozumel, an island off the coast of the Riviera Maya in Mexico, the InterContinental Presidente Cozumel Resort Spa is a state-of-the art facility that blends seamlessly into the island’s rustic backdrop. The core of its design ethos is rooted in simplicity, dovetailing with local aesthetics. Interior design firm Mob commissioned local artisans and Mexican firms including glass studio Orfeo Quagliata and graphic designer Tania Zaldivar to create a sophisticated oasis that, although highly luxurious, does not fall out of step with the island’s un-fussed appeal.

There is a delicate balance between upholding InterContinental’s standards of luxury without falling into the trap of standardization. In order to develop unique, locally-inspired elements, the designers have had to devote copious time to research. Rubini says, “By feeling more comfortable with your surroundings, you develop a different point of view.”

The InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort—a luxury waterfront hotel in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City—employed prolific architect Bill Bensley (regarded as the “king of luxury resorts”) to re-imagine traditional Vietnamese design for a contemporary audience. So began a year-long immersion process, during which Bensley explored the country’s temples, palaces, and imperial tombs, as well as the ancient streets of Hanoi. The result is an ethereal retreat, split into four levels: Heaven, Sky, Earth, and Sea. The details are finished with local traditional materials including merawan wood, richly embroidered silks, and custom-made ceramic tiles. Even the restrooms incorporate antique wooden furniture. Here, the old and the new harmonize through design and create an individualized experience that never feels contrived.

By nature of their inquisitive minds, designers are constantly expanding on the interpretation of luxury. Deviating from mundane options takes a degree of risk in any discipline. By challenging the the one-size-fits-all minimalist aesthetic that became ubiquitous a decade ago, these design pioneers have diversified the possibilities of design and expanded our understanding of sophistication.

When there is room to breathe, inspiration can take flight. An artist or designer’s approach differs from country to country and allows the spirit of each location to shine through. Customized design is now an integral pillar of the luxury hotel, and designers will continue to serve as the conduits through which modern style can reach the global audience. Whether manifesting itself in Mexico, Vietnam, or Bordeaux, the evolution in modern design is sending ripples through the entire industry.

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