Posted in People on 27 October, 2016

SPACE’s Can Faik speaks to Jean-Michel Gathy, Principal Designer and the creative vision behind Denniston Architects…

Master architect Jean-Michel Gathy is the visionary behind some of the world’s most iconic luxury hotels, resorts and landmarks, from Cheval Blanc Randheli by LVMH in the Maldives to The Setai Miami.

Specialising in luxury hospitality design for over 30 years, Jean-Michel Gathy is always one step ahead of the curve, forging new  trends and inspiring his peers.

Can you tell me about your role at Denniston Architects?

At Denniston Architects, I’m the one who has the network and therefore I get the jobs. I go and visit sites before we start projects and I’m the one who conceptualises the project. So for every job we start, I’m the one who begins with a blank white page. I design the concept completely, then I also review every single part of each phase of the design, even though it’s handled by a project architect. I review every single plan and every single design option. At work, I’m an architectural designer.

What five words would you use to describe Denniston Architects?

Creative, experienced (in the hotel industry), we think outside the box, committed and knowledgeable.

How long have you been involved with hotel design?

1987 was my first design of a hotel, so almost 30 years. Since then we have been involved in many projects, but not all of them get built for political, financial, or administrative reasons.

Have you noticed any particular trends in hotel design?

Trends don’t change overnight. It’s not like fashion, where it can change from short skirts one day to long dresses the next. Architecture is not the same because the trends are not as specific. Ultimately you have to design something that not only responds to the needs of a hotel, it must make money.There are a lot of codes and regulation requirements, so you can’t just do whatever you want. You have to work within certain parameters and therefor the trends don’t really change, because you can’t just change the rules and regulations. So there are not major striking changes, but the changes progressively sneak in by means of new media.

How important are public spaces in hotels?

People now entertain in hotels and they want to be able to associate themselves with the hotels. People use hotels as a venue for entertaining and they choose the hotels that suit their image and what they want to project. Therefore public areas are very important as they are what determines the look of a hotel. If I want to invite someone socially, I would choose a certain type of restaurant, but if I want to invite someone for business, I would choose another one, and if I wanted to impress someone, I would choose another.

With so many hospitality designers and architects in the industry, how does Denniston Architects stand out?

There are many good architects, we aren’t the only good ones, but we have a specific niche. I’m going to compare us to branding; you have thousands of people who buy Toyota’s, but you have a few people who buy Bentley’s, and I would tend to believe that we are more Bentley than Toyota – it doesn’t mean that a Toyota is not a good car. Toyota is probably one of the greatest cars in terms of reliability, price strategy, brand positioning, after sales service and it’s a fantastic commercial car, but I prefer Bentley. Designers are the same, whereby most of them prefer commercial projects and properties, because the only interest is financial and they just want to make money, which means they are not romantic about their project. Then you have others, which is where I belong, who are much more interested in the success of the project and the excitement of the journey of designing a hotel and having the pride of making something fantastic, even though you earn less money.

What is the biggest lesson the company has learnt over its years in the industry?

Designing a hotel is not an intellectual trip, it is a business and you have to design for your guests, not yourself. Lots of designers design for themselves, whereas in reality a hotel is a place that has to be consistently full or as full as possible.

What has been your favourite project to date?

As long as I have achieved the goal of designing a successful hotel, I’m proud. The success of a hotel is as a result of many things and also the management company. The management company cannot sell and earn money from a hotel that is not well put together, and the management company cannot earn money if the hotel is not properly designed. Therefore, if the hotel is successful, then I am happy and I love it.

Where currently ranks highest on your travel wish list?

Antarctica! I would also love to visit the Galapagos and the South of Chile.

Where do you see hotel design in the future?

I believe there will be two main families. You’re going to have big boxes that will have to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of Chinese, Indian and Russian travellers, therefore we will need some major properties. That is what I call a market-driven property. Then there is the second side, which will be the hotels with identity. I call these product-driven properties. They will have a very strong identity, which could be a sports, lifestyle or art hotel – whatever it is, it will have a very specific identity.

What would you say are the three best places you’ve ever stayed?

There are so many, but I love the Four Seasons in Florence, The Huka Lodge in New Zealand and some Safari lodges in Botswana.

How would you describe your style?

I’m going to quote somebody who one day interviewed me and I came up with all sorts of explanations, so he said “Sometimes dramatic, sometimes intimate, but always charismatic”. He’s right – If you meet me, I’m exactly like that. I’m a bit of a loud and showy guy at certain moments, but I’m very romantic and always put my heart into everything I do.

How and why did you get into the design industry?

I’ve always been fascinated by travel When I was a kid, my parents asked me to organise a family trip to Italy, we went to all the historical monuments in Rome so I studied the ruins, churches and other architecture along the way. I was interested in the construction part of it and the way hotels combine architecture and travelling.

What do you love about being a designer?

Creativity. I’m a creative, artistic person, but I’m also disciplined. So even though I’m an artist, I’m not just a dreamer and therefore this field, especially hotel design, gives me room for that creativity and my little bit of technical knowledge helps of course.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Travelling. When you travel from morning to night and night to morning, you observe. For example, I’m talking to you now and I’m obviously in the hall near my gate and I’m observing everybody, the way they behave, the way they dress, the way they look at the window. From morning to night, I think of the land and I look out of the window at the scenery like it would be my first trip. It’s my first girlfriend, you know it’s all about her, I travel, I look outside at the scenery and I visit other projects.

Is there anything exciting that you are working on at the moment that you can tell us about?

Yes, the Aman resort of New York, and two for Cheval Blanc. The Mandarin of Bali is quite exciting. We’re also doing three for One & Only – Montenegro, China and the headquarters in Dubai. Many projects; a fantastic private villa in Greece, two Four Seasons, Tokyo and Bangkok, both of them in construction.

What colours, textures and furniture pieces do you love the most?

I believe that a hotel is a place that has to please most people, you can’t go in too strongly, because then you will automatically create resistance. You must have a palette of colours that most people will like and that is the reason we often go with the Oyster Grey and tonally related blues.

What is your philosophy on design and life?

I think that if you live life to the fullest you will be healthy and happy. And I believe in energy, I love life – I am a life lover. I’m not a defeated type of person, I am very positive.

What’s your favourite part of a hotel?

I think my bedroom, I’m happy to crash! I think it’s important to have a comfortable room because, really, when you travel the way I do, I tell you, when you find your room at night – oh my god it’s so good!

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