Situated in the prestigious 16th arrondissement of Paris, the five-star Saint James hotel offers guests a chateau experience at the heart of the buzzing capital. Inside the historical 19th-century neoclassical building, Laura Gonzalez imagined a space combining grandeur and intimacy, classicism and extravagance, as the third female interior designer to be given the responsibility after Andrée Putman in the 1990s and Bambi Sloan in 2011. She shares her creative process.
Describe your design language and what makes your approach unique.
I like revisiting classic references and playing with materials, fabrics, colors and patterns in order to create interiors that are both chic and warm. And it’s all thanks in part to a fairly simple palette of warm colors and fabrics that invite you to touch them. I consider that design is like fashion and this “mix and match” is part of my style and has allowed me to make the Saint James a place that is not only grand and impressive, but also intimate and welcoming.
What was your brief and the most important consideration when you first started designing the hotel, and the overarching main idea you tried to achieve?
The Saint James is one of the biggest projects of my entire career. The stakes of such a structure are high because it is a matter of preserving the spirit of the place with its neoclassical Parisian architecture, while modernizing it. We thought of it as a private collector’s house throughout every space and room, with many artistic references as well as architectural ones, ranging from Ancient Greece to China. This is a very important project to manage, and I had to think about how to share the decorative work between the craftsmen and myself.
Describe to me your creative process from the time the hotel commissioned you to the final design. How did you help them to define the design aesthetic?
Just like each time I work with Olivier Bertrand, the hotel owner, he gave me permission to suggest ideas and share the vision I had in mind. I’m always delighted to work with him because throughout our many years of collaboration, I understand what he’s looking for and he trusts me and my aesthetics. As a matter of fact, I started by drawing ideas in watercolor during the first lockdown! Then, meeting after meeting, we defined the style, colors and designed all the furniture to perfectly match the environment, and we finished the project. In the past years, the Saint James had been designed by two iconic interior designers, so I had to create something completely new.
How did you transform the building from the spirit of a private London gentlemen’s club to a five-star Parisian hotel? How does a hotel modernize itself while retaining its soul – the same French art de vivre, refinement and excellence to ensure the continuation of a legend – while attracting a younger crowd without alienating older, loyal customers?
Today, it’s all about inclusivity and diversity. I don’t believe we are as frigid as we were 30 years ago, meaning we don’t put ourselves in one single box. And you can see this in the interiors, of course. In this case, we dared to mix opposite styles: we tried to sublimate the neoclassical style through, for example, the monumental staircase, while breaking the austerity through a diversity of patterns and fabrics. If this seems daring, this variety also allows us to attract a mixed crowd, and the intimacy that I wanted to create allows us to win the loyalty of visitors.
How did you take into account the architecture and character of the building when doing the interior design, and what original elements did you keep?
The already existing architecture of the building and its cultural heritage obviously represented a great deal of the interiors. Not only did I respect it, but I drew inspiration from it to transform the interiors and build bridges between the indoor and outdoor spaces. From pediments on top of the doors to straight lines, geometrical forms and Greek meanders present in the inside, you can feel the neoclassical spirit. I kept the floor of the lobby, the bar/gentleman’s club stayed as such – I only provided the custom-made furniture – and of course the magnificent staircase. As for constraints, I didn’t face any in particular because I love challenges in my work.
Tell me about the materials, furniture, lighting, artworks and color schemes you incorporated, going through each of the main spaces of the hotel.
The 50 rooms are decorated around four different themes that I created in a range of four colors, from squirrel cream to celadon green. In each of them, the space is furnished with custom-designed pieces and punctuated by French craftsmanship. The spaces remind you of the apartments of a collector who might live in the mansion, and that is what makes all the charm of the rooms. For example, Patrice Dangel sculpted plaster chandeliers that can be found in almost every room to also add a harmonious touch between the different areas of the rooms. The bar-library was kept as it was, with woodwork on the ceiling and velvet providing an intimate atmosphere. The restaurant is located under a pergola in the garden; I wanted the exterior to be harmonious and elegant and for the pergola to blend in well with the hotel’s façade. Thus, it is inspired by romantic gazebos of the 19th century. The garden has been entirely designed and redesigned by the landscape architect, Xavier de Chirac. In terms of mixing styles and the modernization of the place, I really enjoyed the spa where you can find both noble bas-reliefs by artist François Mascarello and mosaics everywhere. Finally, the lobby is the place of all admiration. It was necessary to have something imposing to impress at first sight, but keeping of course the warm side of the place and its intimate character. Atelier Roma created frescoes for the two domes of the hall, and Manufacture Pinton wove custom-made carpets. These masterful works make the place beautiful.
Which are the customized pieces of furniture or special design elements in the hotel that stand out in particular, and who were the craftsmen?
To put it in a nutshell, I would say that Patrice Dangel is particularly remarkable for having made the plaster chandeliers that may be found in practically every guestroom. The fresco in the reception area is also particularly representative of the Saint James. One may also notice the custom-made sconces and vases by Jean Roger Paris that may be found throughout the hotel, as a common motif in all the spaces. I’d also like to mention Sofrastyl, which sculpted a three-meter-high screen bas-relief in the lobby, and Pierre Mesguish, who created the decoration of the orangery in marble mosaic in the bar at the back of the garden.
What were some of the challenges you had to work around?
I didn’t have any particular challenges, except that I had to keep some already existing elements, which turned out to be opportunities because they guided me in the creative process.
Which is your favorite room in the hotel and why?
My favorite part is the lobby because it represents the very essence of the style I tried to give to the hotel.
How did you feel being selected to be the next woman designer tasked with redoing the interiors, after Andrée Putman and Bambi Sloan?
I was excited and honored to work on a project of such a scale! It’s a great story because the Saint James had always been a gentlemen’s club designed by women.