JEAN-MICHEL GATHY, FOUNDER OF DENNISTON
Synonymous with ultra-luxe interior design, Jean-Michel Gathy’s work has been described as dramatic, intimate, and charismatic. As the gold dust settles, following the much-anticipated launch of Aman New York, Emma Kennedy discovers more about the creator of some of the world’s most luxurious hotels and resorts.
It is a foregone conclusion that securing an interview with anyone who is at the top of their game will take time and patience. You sit tight and prepare to play the long game. At the time of submitting my request for an interview with Jean-Michel Gathy, his most recent project, Aman New York, was dominating the industry’s news, for all the right reasons. Whilst the eye watering cost of staying at Aman New York has received some quizzical eyebrow raising, the sublime interiors have been hailed globally as a resounding success. So, taking all the above into consideration, I was pleasantly surprised when the response to my request was both prompt and positive.
There are obvious reasons why Mr Gathy is so successful, and his communication skills are surely amongst them. His answers to my questions are clear and precise, and reassuringly free of generic responses. They are possibly well rehearsed, given he is now in his mid-sixties and obviously no stranger to interviews- but non the less he sounds fresh and honest.
Born and raised in Belgium, where he studied and worked until he was 25, he moved to Asia 41 years ago. First to Hong Kong, where having set up his own firm, Denniston Architects, in 1993, he stayed for the next 11 years. Following a brief stint splitting his time between projects in Bali and Singapore, he relocated to Kuala Lumpur in the early nineties. Now with a team of 150 designers and architects, a portfolio of iconic projects and three further studios in Singapore, South Africa, and Mexico, I start by asking Gathy how he arrived in hospitality design.
“I arrived in this field by means of opportunities,” he begins. “I had developed a construction system which I was using while renovating a hotel, and after meeting hotelier Hans Jenni in 1987, I was asked to work on two projects, one in Hong Kong and one in Beijing. Fortunately, he liked what I did and introduced me to Adrian Zecha, Founder of AMAN resorts, and I was then given the opportunity to work on the Amanwana, and I loved it. After this, he gave me more and more projects before taking me on full-time.”
Fast securing his position as the purveyor of luxury, he has gone on to work with all the major brands, trusted to deliver unparalleled opulence. His recognisable aesthetic draws you in and quietly invites you to stay—to study the layers and join the design dots. As curious as I am to know how Gathy would describe his style, I also wonder how he feels his aesthetic has changed over the years. “First, I am going to quote someone here, who I believe gave the best description of my style, and that is: ‘Sometimes dramatic, sometimes intimate but always charismatic.’ It’s the best description because it is the way I design. It describes my personality perfectly—sometimes I’m a bit of a show-off, but I am also deeply romantic. I may look fearful but I’m not at all. My style reflects my personality.”
With regards to the second part of my question on how his style evolves, he calls on his own thoughts. “It’s simple. When you work in a luxury brand, you design for a specific clientele. That clientele goes to a hotel—not to sleep—but for a lifestyle. So, once you understand their likes and dislikes, their habits, and idiosyncrasies you basically integrate them into the hotel you design. Ultimately, they are the client. So, these things change along with their lifestyle and therefore my hotel designs change with that lifestyle. For me, it’s very simple. I see what they do and what they like, and I apply it to the next project.”
Gathy’s interiors clearly draw upon both his European roots and his obvious love of Asia, resulting in a harmonious fusion of the two cultures. I wonder which aspects he attributes to which culture when he is designing. He ponders, acknowledging he finds the question interesting. “My European influence shows through my geometry. I don’t say symmetry, I say geometry. You feel the balance of volume, the balance of space—the flow, the dynamic of the circulation etc. That’s my European influence. I have a structured mind for certain things and a totally unstructured mind for others. I have been fully immersed for 41 years by the Asian way of life and the layering of that life. Therefore, what makes my style is a mix of a European structured geometrical mind together with an Asian, more organic layered mind. That’s my style.”
With a minimum of 20 projects in progress at any one time, clearly his days of searching for work are a thing of the past. But as any creative will tell you, you are only ever as good as your last project. With Aman New York still considered one of—if not, the—most celebrated openings of 2023, I don’t think that is a concern. However, I don’t believe this is a man who would ever settle into complacency, and I ask him what he believes clients are looking for when they hire a design team. “Well, obviously investors in hotels, are serious people. A hotel is not a trophy hunt, but it’s a business. So, when people look for an architect or a designer, or whoever to do their hotel, they look for security. They look for stability, experience, and background. From a personal viewpoint, we have been designing hotels for forty years—beautiful, successful hotels and none of them have been white elephants. Because of that the clients—the investors—feel secure. We tick the box. Our reputation is purely designing top hotels. Not many people specialise only in this field. A lot of people design a lot of hotels, but only concentrating on top-top-top hotels? Not so many, and I believe my team has one of the very best reputations.”
You seldom see Gathy’s name, without ‘luxury’ appearing in the same sentence, so it would be remiss of me not to ask him what his definition of luxury is. “Oh, I like this question,” he begins. “Luxury is impossible to define. Luxury for a banker in New York will be time. Luxury for a banker in Hong Kong will be space. Luxury for a man who lives in the desert will be water, and luxury for someone who lives on the water will be a mountain or a beach. My definition of luxury, associated with the hotel industry is comfort. Because the hotel must be a place where you feel comfortable. If you are comfortable, you will come back. If you are uncomfortable, even if it’s gorgeous—you won’t come back. And therefore, we have failed.” he concludes.
This brings us neatly round to the Aman New York. By this stage, I think it’s fair to assume anyone reading this interview will be visually, if not personally, familiar with Aman’s latest offering. Taking up residence in the Crown Building, circa 1921, it went on to become home to the original MoMA. Several incarnations later, Aman Resorts acquired the Beaux-Arts building, making it one of the group’s two urban outposts. Given its city location, I ask Gathy about the original design brief. “Simple” he states. “The brief was to respect the DNA of the hotel. It’s an Aman Resort, it therefore has a very specific DNA and I needed to respect that. However, it’s in New York and I also wanted to make sure that I respected the property, within that DNA, to give it a sense of place and energy—to capture the activity and the life of New York, and so that’s what we did. I think we did good!”
As with all projects of this calibre, it came with its own set of challenges. “While the whole project was exciting, there the problems with the location of the existing lift, along with vertical circulation, fire escapes, window positions etc. It was quite a fun project, despite the fact there were so many rules and regulations; the American construction industry isn’t the same as the rest of the world, and there were a lot of restrictions we had to comply with. But that’s the role of an architect, so really, it’s no different from anywhere. We just had to take all this into consideration within the context of all the restrictions, codes and regulations and try to design a hotel which made sense.”
My final question: ‘What advice would you give to a young architect starting out?’ may not be the most original, but is, in my experience one that gives as clear an insight as any into an interviewee’s career journey. Gathy’s response was no exception, “My advice is: it takes time to be recognised. You have to work 18 hours a day for many years. You will seldom—unless you are very lucky or you are from a privileged position—be given a serious project, without at least 20 years experience. Before that people are sceptical. You might be the best architect in the world. You may be fabulously talented, but you haven’t proven it—because you haven’t been given a chance to prove it. It’s like what comes first, the chicken or the egg? You can’t have a top-class job without the references—but you can’t get the references without a top-class project—and that is the difficulty in the business. Secondly, when you sell you are selling wind. You tell people ‘I’m going to do this for you, I’m going to do that for you… and you must trust me, and give me a deposit.’ And they will say ‘hello, you haven’t done anything for me yet.’ And that is the other reason you need your references.” Summing up his advice, he concludes “The answer is—work hard. Be very patient and don’t expect to be successful before 40 years old… and be creative.”
Upcoming projects 2023
Cheval Blanc, Seychelles
Aman Nai Lert Park
Aman Tented-Camp Al-Ula
Aman Rosa Alpina
Bauer Palladio, Venice
Chiva Som Bintan
Maha Resort, Napa Valley
SK Pinx Luxury Resort & Residential Village Project, Jeju-Obe Za’abeel, One & Only Dubai