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Inside Paris's Refurbished Monceau Hotel

A look at Paris’s refurbished Monceau Hotel, designed by Philippe Starck.

By Charles Gandee

Steps from the Champs-Élysées, between the Arc de Triomphe and Parc Monceau, Le Royal Monceau–Raffles Parisembodies a glamorous, artistic sensibility. Built in 1928, the unapologetically luxe hotel was closed for two years and reopened in October after a monumental transformation by Philippe Starck, the 61-year-old designer responsible for placing an acoustic guitar in every room, not to mention a private screening room just off the lobby that features 99 oversize leather chairs modeled after first-class airplane seats. Because Starck is Starck—that is, forever a bit perverse—98 of those seats are dove gray, while one, arbitrarily situated among the others, is lipstick red.

There are 85 rooms, 54 suites, and 10 apartments in the new Royal Monceau, which is now a Raffles property. In terms of five-star hotels in Paris, Le Royal Monceau is a viable alternative to the Ritz, the Crillon, the Meurice, or the Plaza Athénée. Though not quite as centrally located, the hotel has a keen sense of modernity, of the now. Which is not to suggest that Starck thumbed his nose at history. He did not.

If there are projects in Starck’s portfolio that have a haven’t-I-seen-this-all-before? quality, at Le Royal Monceau the designer appears to have been fully committed to the endeavor; that is, he didn’t mechanically reach into his well-known bag of visual tricks. Perhaps this is to the credit of client Alexandre Allard, the French businessman who took over the fading dowager in 2007, then summoned Starck, who rose brilliantly to the occasion. In fact, no detail was too small or inconsequential for the designer to rethink. For example, in lieu of terry-cloth slippers in the guest rooms’ walk-in closets, which are modeled after the private cabines in couture houses, Starck specified traditional French canvas espadrilles. And while he does use overscale mirrors, leaning them nonchalantly against the guest-room walls, something he has been doing since the 1995 revamp of the Delano Hotel, in Miami Beach, here they serve a purpose aside from introducing Brobdingnagian scale, and an opportunity for shameless narcissism: at the flip of a switch, they turn into televisions.

“It is all about ‘inhabited’ rooms,” Starck says. “I tried to imagine the rooms of creative, cultured, elegant people. But most of all, I blurred the style.” What that means is that the hotel’s guest rooms, like its public spaces, do not have a relentless, wall-to-wall Philippe Starck character. Which is inevitably tedious, no matter who the designer may be. Even 1930’s French legend Jean-Michel Frank, surely the ne plus ultra design talent of the 20th century, collaborated with other artists and designers, from Jean Cocteau to Christian Bérard and Emilio Terry.

Also refreshing is the fact that Starck did not use the hotel as an opportunity for product placement of his countless furniture and accessory lines for Kartell, Cassina, Alessi, and others. Instead, the rooms are a welcome mix of furniture and lighting, carpets and fittings, an eclectic fusion of talent—including Murano glass lamps and classic Milanese designs from the 1970’s and white stone-topped oval tables with polished-metal pedestal bases that instantly recall Eero Saarinen’s 1956 Tulip collection.

The one area where Starck did not collaborate was in the bathrooms, which are extraordinary feats of precision. Imagine an operating theater in some paradigmatic Swiss hospital, and you begin to get the idea. White on white on white, with shimmering polished stainless-steel fittings and glazed doors—some translucent, some transparent—that open to the oversize shower, the WC, and the capacious walk-in closet, the bathrooms feature blindingly radiant ceilings that take the form of a luminous grid. Mercifully, at least for those over the age of 25, the designer installed a rheostat to control the megawatt lighting.

“I worked on two levels,” Starck says. “For the public spaces I went back to the deep French modernity before it was influenced by other cultures in terms of design; therefore, there are some influences of the 1930’s, but twisted in a modern and timeless way with materials such as mahogany and vegetable-tanned leather.”

In the public spaces Starck laid down a custom-designed carpet with an intricate tree-branch motif and set out a mix of furniture pieces ranging from Arne Jacobsen’s 1958 Egg Chair, upholstered in cognac-colored leather, to a wildly polychromatic hand-beaded chair from Africa that looks like a small throne. Lower profile, but no less welcome, are the streamlined sofas, ottomans, and side tables where guests and visitors relax over drinks and light snacks in Le Grand Salon, the lobby area. There is also that perennial Starck favorite, a long communal table (for 16), adjacent to the bar at one end of the expansive, high-ceilinged salon, which is something Starck first introduced at Asia de Cuba, the restaurant by the entrance of the Andrée Putman–designed Morgans Hotel in Manhattan. Also off Le Grand Salon is a wood-paneled bookstore stocked with some 700 art publications.

For La Cuisine, the hotel’s French restaurant, Starck invited a group of contemporary artists to hand-paint porcelain plates for which he designed tall vitrines that line one side of the generously scaled dining room. A glass wall faces a garden where, on one level, trees and shrubs supply a verdant visual respite and, on another, herbs for the restaurant grow in neat black troughs. To Starck’s credit, no tricky, three-legged chairs with awkward arms, no too-clever-by-half cutlery detracts from the work of executive chef Laurent André. Also contributing to the aesthetic success of the restaurant, where Starck personally selected the photographs and prints that adorn the walls and square columns, is artist Stéphane Calais, who, at Starck’s invitation, assumed responsibility for La Cuisine’s white ceiling, now a simultaneously subtle and sprightly mix of biomorphic and geometric shapes and colors that recalls the work of Alexander Calder, albeit in two dimensions and with a more sophisticated palette. There is a second, smaller, Italian restaurant, Il Carpaccio, which Starck oxymoronically designed as part grotto, part solarium—with seashells embedded in the walls, ceiling, and chandelier.

Although the French now take their no smoking laws as seriously as Jean-Paul Belmondo once took his Gauloises, Le Royal Monceau does have a cigar bar, La Fumée Rouge, that, as the name suggests, is lined in bordello-red leather panels. It is fronted in glass and looks out onto a glazed wall of individual humidors that are remarkably reminiscent of safe-deposit boxes in a bank vault.

Still in construction is the spa, “Le Spa My Blend by Clarins,” including an 85-foot subterranean pool, slated for completion in early 2011. Next door is the hotel’s exhibition gallery and, upstairs, the hotel’s apartments, which measure up to 4,100 square feet.

Le Royal Monceau is Starck’s third hotel in Paris, the city where it all began for him in 1982 when he snared the commission to design the private offices of then president François Mitterand at the Élysée Palace, followed in 1984 by Café Costes, a cleverly designed trilevel café in Les Halles that catapulted him from relative obscurity to international fame. It has been a happy homecoming for Starck, who, in 2007, was invited to remodel the restaurant, bar, and ground-floor reception areas for the Hôtel Meurice, overlooking the Tuileries Gardens, where he drew his inspiration from Salvador Dalí, a frequent guest at the venerable 1835 hotel for more than three decades. A year later, Starck completed the new 170-room cheap-chic Mama Shelter, an altogether different endeavor in the far-flung 20th Arrondissement, near the hauntingly beautiful Père-Lachaise cemetery, where everyone from neurasthenic writer Marcel Proust to exhibitionistic rock legend Jim Morrison is buried.

Meanwhile, back on Avenue Hoche, where the doormen at Le Royal Monceau are dressed in gray morning coats and black felt top hats, which make them look as if they had just arrived from Ascot, Starck is waxing poetic about what is surely his most sophisticated, most mature, most nuanced…most satisfying work to date. “I think we have invented in Le Royal Monceau a new concept called ‘Mental Space,’ ” the designer says. “It is no more about interior design style and trends. It is more about making air in vibration like music, giving to the air a spirit like a perfume.” And just to put the final nail in the coffin of minimalism, Starck adds, “The guest rooms are not empty. They are full of a feeling, a spirit, a presence, as if someone invisible is welcoming you.” Which would explain why underneath the glass that tops the wooden desks in the guest rooms, the maps of Paris have been verysubjectively annotated with must-see spots boldly highlighted by the designer himself.

If there are those who thought Starck’s stock took a tumble a few years back when Ian Schrager, possibly the savviest hotelier of them all, tapped artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel to be his aesthetic guide in reimagining New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel, effectively ending the 14-year-long collaboration with Starck that produced the Royalton, the Paramount, the Delano, the Mondrian, St. Martins Lane, the Sanderson, the Hudson, and the Clift, eight stop-the-presses hotels that virtually redefined the industry, Starck responded by signing an “exclusive” contract in the United States—“from 2006 until 2021”—with L.A.-based hospitality and entertainment impresario Sam Nazarian for SLS Hotels, the first of which opened in Beverly Hills in 2008.

But then Starck is nothing if not philosophical, perhaps invaluable for a man now on his second marriage, with four children, some 19 houses, and a nine-seat private Swiss jet to maintain. “I never make architecture for architecture,” he says. “I am not interested in stone, aluminium, glass, and concrete. I am interested in life. That is why a hotel for me is a movie. I imagine why people will come, why people will come back. What they will live, what they will feel. I hope for them to feel more creative, more intelligent, more elegant, more sparkling, more poetic, more foolish, more in love.”

Le Royal Monceau–Raffles Paris; doubles from $1,062.