London Design Festival 2018: The Hotels


17 September 2018

Later this week, Disegno will host a roundtable discussion examining Arne Jacobsen’s design for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, a 1960s modernist hotel for which Jacobsen designed everything, from the architecture down to the fittings. Somewhat meaninglessly, it is often described as the first design hotel.

Jacobsen’s design hotel was a gesamtkunstwerk – a full expression of Jacobsen’s vision – whereas today’s design hotels are typically of a somewhat different stripe. Contemporary design hotels are typically not singular projects in the sense of Jacobsen’s work, but rather repositories for design – curated spaces in which furniture, products and interiors are brought together, rather than tabula rasa gesamtkunstwerks in the fashion of Jacobsen.

If Jacobsen conceived of his hotel as a design, today’s hotels are more at ease of commissioners and patrons for design. Certainly, this seems apparent during the 2018 London Design Festival (LDF), which has seen both the city’s Ace and citizenM Shoreditch design hotels commission new works to mark the festival’s commencement. While both hotels may have the overarching aim of positioning themselves as culturally progressive destinations for design, their approaches to this have proven markedly different.

citizenM continued its policy of commissioning installations for the hotel’s entrance, inviting designer Fernando Laposse to follow 2017’s Estate Playground installation by Yinka Ilori. Thankfully, Laposse has proven to be an inspired choice, able to translate his deep, research-led practice – which frequently mines the material history of his native Mexico – into a crowd-friendly installation that has lost none of its intellectual rigour in the translation.

Sisal Sanctum is a series of curved screens and broad benches, upholstered with thousands of strands of dangling sisal, a natural fibre harvested from a species of agave cactus grown in Yucatán, Mexico. Sisal was once widely used in rope and net making, but fell from favour in the 20th century with the advent of plastic fibres. Working with Mayan sisal harvesters, Laposse has begun an investigation of the biodegradable material, examining its potential as both a response to the environmental damage caused by plastic fibres, but also a vehicle for employment and economic growth within communities in Yucatán.

Deep, worthwhile issues, then – but Laposse wears his rigour lightly. The benches are lovely and shaggy, like Dougal from The Magic Roundabout, and invite you to sprawl across them and admire your reflection in the hotel’s mirrored canopy. Meanwhile, the centrepiece of the installation is a shaggy golem – a Cousin It statue constructed from Sisal, who is chubby and hairy like a yak, towering over proceedings with a funny face made from artfully coiled sisal ropes, inviting visitors in for a hug. This is intelligent, breezy design: a dose of levity that draws you in and which invites immediate affection for a little-heralded material that Laposse would encourage society to reexamine as it grapples with environmental decline and economic disparity. As to what it has to do with citizenM is less than clear, but frankly who cares? The hotel should be applauded for its engagement with the project.

No less successful, but operating within a somewhat different sphere, is Ace Hotel’s Ready Made Go – an ongoing project curated by Laura Houseley of Modern Design Review, which is now in its fourth year. If Sisal Sanctum grapples with heavy issues in a playful, attention-grabbing manner, Ready Made Go stands out for the modesty of its approach. Each year, Houseley commissions a series of practitioners to develop objects for use in the hotel: door handles by Philippe Malouin; tiles by Assemble; soap trays by Silo Studio, for instance. This year sees a series of further objects join the growing roster: a wall hanging by Abigail Booth; a cake stand by Minimalux; hooks by Will Drye and Dominic Postlethwaite; a board game by M-L-XL; and stainless steel tableware by Laetitia de Allegri.

The project has produced a number of intelligent, memorable designs (Tomas Alonso’s copper ashtray, designed to be as affordable as possible to ameliorate the inevitability of theft, is particularly choice), but it is its overall ethos that impresses. In a week that typically accommodates design at its most ephemeral and glitzy, it is commendable that Houseley has built a programme which, while admittedly luxuriant, is built upon practicality and production for purpose. Whereas citizenM’s installation is gleefully unmoored from its host, Ready, Made, Go finds success in its desire to embed itself within the hotel’s everyday functioning.