Located in the prestigious 16e district of Paris, the 5-star Saint James hotel offers guests a castle experience in the heart of the bustling capital. Inside the historic 19ecentury neoclassical building, Laura Gonzalez envisioned a space that combines 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 love revisiting classic references and playing with materials, fabrics, colors and patterns to create interiors that are both chic and warm. And that’s partly due to a fairly simple palette of warm colors and fabrics that invite you to touch them. I think of design as 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 main consideration when you first started designing the hotel, and the overarching main idea you were trying to achieve?
The Saint James is one of the biggest projects of my entire career. The stakes of such a structure are high as it is a matter of preserving the spirit of the place with its neoclassical Parisian architecture, while modernizing it. We saw it as a private collector’s home in every space and room, with many artistic and architectural references 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 artisans and myself.
Describe to me your creative process from the moment the hotel commissioned you to finalize the design. How did you help them define the design aesthetic?
Like every time I work with Olivier Bertrand, the hotel owner, he gave me permission to contribute ideas and share the vision I had in mind. I am always very happy to work with him, because during our many years of cooperation I understand what he is looking for and he trusts me and my aesthetic. By the way, I started drawing ideas in watercolor during the first lockdown! Then meeting after meeting we decided on the style and colors and designed all the furniture to match the environment perfectly, and we completed the project. In years past, the Saint James was 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 into a five-star Paris hotel? How does a hotel modernize itself while preserving 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’re as freezing cold as we were 30 years ago, which means we don’t pigeonhole ourselves. And of course you can see that in the interior. In this case, we dared to mix opposing 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 audience, and the intimacy I wanted to create allows us to win visitor loyalty.
How did you take into account the architecture and character of the building in the interior design and what original elements did you retain?
The pre-existing architecture of the building and cultural heritage obviously represented a large part of the interior. Not only did I respect it, but I drew inspiration from it to transform the interior and build bridges between the indoor and outdoor spaces. From pediments on the doors to straight lines, geometric shapes and Greek meanders present inside, you can feel the neoclassical spirit. I kept the lobby floor, the bar/gentleman’s club stayed that way – I just took care of the custom furniture – and of course the beautiful staircase. As for limitations, I didn’t run into any because I like challenges in my work.
Tell me about the materials, furnishings, lighting, artwork, and color schemes you’ve incorporated into each of the hotel’s key areas.
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 are reminiscent 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 has sculpted plaster chandeliers that can be found in almost every room to also give a harmonious touch between the different parts of the rooms. The bar-library has been kept as it was, with woodwork on the ceiling and velvet for 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 facade. So it is inspired by romantic garden houses from the 19e century. The garden has been completely designed and redesigned by the landscape architect, Xavier de Chirac. As for the mixing of 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. There had to be something imposing to impress at first glance, but of course while maintaining the warm side of the place and the intimate character. Atelier Roma created frescoes for the hall’s two domes and Manufacture Pinton wove custom tapestries. These masterful works make the place beautiful.
What are the custom-made 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 notable for creating the plaster chandeliers found in practically every guest room. The fresco in the reception room is also particularly representative of Saint James. One can also notice the tailor-made sconces and vases by Jean Roger Paris that can be found throughout the hotel, as a common motif in all areas. I would also like to mention Sofrastyl, who carved a three-meter high bas-relief in the lobby, and Pierre Mesguish, who made 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, other than keeping some pre-existing elements, which turned out to be opportunities as they guided me through the creative process.
What is your favorite room in the hotel and why?
My favorite part is the lobby as it represents the essence of the style I was trying to bring to the hotel.
How did you feel when you were selected as the next female designer to be tasked with redoing the interior, after Andrée Putman and Bambi Sloan?
I was excited and honored to be able to work on a project of such magnitude! It’s a great story because the Saint James has always been a gentlemen’s club, designed by women.