Intrepid Traveler London Calling, Again
For devotees of design, Britain’s ancient capital remains ever alluring by MAYER RUS
Like Richard Rogers’ sci-fi-flavored Lloyd’s building a generation earlier, Norman Foster’s “Gherkin” stands as a proud, defiant symbol not only of corporate hubris but of London’s stature among the world’s great modern cities. Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern addition, scheduled to open in 2012, will undoubtedly plead the same case—that London is as invested in the future as it is in the past.
But beyond its showstopping architectural marvels, the city’s vibrant design culture flourishes in endless hotels, restaurants, galleries and shops, from the toniest stretches of Mayfair to the recently fashionable East London neighborhoods of Shoreditch and Hoxton.
Consider Shoreditch House, a private club spawned by the ever-expanding Soho House Group. British design darling Tom Dixon’s interiors firm, Design Research Studio, responded to the site’s industrial architecture with a crisp, contemporary scheme that, predictably, puts a premium on exclusivity and sex appeal. Attractions include a rooftop pool and lounge, with fine views of the nearby Gherkin, and the Cowshed spa, a den of bodily indulgence that is now open to the public.
Terence Conran’s Boundary hotel, another swelegant arrival in Shoreditch, inhabits a renovated late-Victorian warehouse. Each of its 12 guestrooms pays homage, in a caricatured way, to a particular design luminary. You can choose between Josef Hoffmann, Le Corbusier, Andrée Putman, Eileen Gray and Mies van der Rohe—or if you’re feeling homesick, Charles and Ray Eames.
Within walking distance of the two hotels are Gallery Fumi, a hotbed of esoteric European design, and White Cube, Jay Jopling’s art gallery on Hoxton Square, which paved the way for the area’s eruption of art and commerce.
A brief caveat: The trendy scene in East London does not unfold neatly on a few compact blocks but is instead diffused over a fairly large area, much of it charmless. Here, the locals speak the lingua franca of international hipsters—beards, mustaches, skinny jeans and so forth. (Think Silver Lake or Brooklyn with an accent and fish ’n’ chips.) For maximum enjoyment, engage one of those hipsters as a cicerone. They look like they could use a few crowns.
The density of design delights naturally rises in central London. At Claridge’s, the historic Art Deco hotel and avatar of luxury hospitality, Diane von Furstenberg recently conjured a series of signature rooms and suites decorated with riotous colors, geometric patterns, animal prints and florals (occasionally swirled together in a kaleidoscope of DVF style). The rooms may be a bit outré for conservative travelers, but they’re said to be very much in demand among jet-set fashion folk.
Claridge’s sparkling Foyer, which was renovated by Thierry Despont in 1999, feels as fresh as ever—the ne plus ultra of decadent Deco allure. It’s the best spot in town for traditional afternoon tea.
Just around the corner, the Connaught boasts two of the loveliest watering holes in London: the Coburg Bar by Paris’ India Mahdavi and the Connaught Bar by acclaimed British designer David Collins. Both have riffed on the hotel’s stately ambience with makeovers that respect its venerable history while reinterpreting glamour, comfort and chic for the 21st century.
Earlier this year, Aman Resorts opened its first urban spa (complete with a dreamy cloistered pool) in the Connaught’s new West Wing. Indonesian designer Jaya Ibrahim applied his take on Aman’s signature Asian-inspired aesthetic to create an experience he calls “luxurious calm.”
“At Dean Street Townhouse in Soho, Martin Brudnizki put a mischievous spin on English propriety and Georgian architecture...
pornographic leaf-patterned wallpaper.”
Well-heeled travelers seeking a discreet, quintessentially English experience might also try the Goring, a small, family-run hotel that is celebrating its centenary this year. Located behind Buckingham Palace, the Goring has hosted members of the royal family for years. (Is that the Queen having tea on the terrace or simply a queen?) Designer Russell Sage, formerly of the fashion demimonde, has renovated many of the guestrooms, updating their dignified mien with sumptuous fabrics and bespoke decorative details.
Sage is currently designing five restaurants in England and Las Vegas for chef Gordon Ramsay, including London’s historic Savoy Grill, set to open in late November, a month after the legendary hotel emerged from a three-year renovation by Pierre-Yves Rochon.
The restaurant at the Dean Street Townhouse in Soho is the latest triumph of Martin Brudnizki, an established star in the London design firmament. (He did J Sheekey Oyster Bar and Scott’s, among other popular eateries.) At Dean Street, Brudnizki put a mischievous spin on English propriety and Georgian architecture. Be sure to get an up close look at the pornographic leaf-patterned wallpaper in the parlor. Stateside, Brudnizki’s work can be seen at Cecconi’s in L.A., Le Caprice at the Pierre in New York and the new Soho House outpost in Miami.
In January, the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park will open Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, a restaurant by the chef of the Fat Duck in the village of Bray, which follows the May launch of Bar Boulud, chef Daniel Boulud’s first London venture. Both are designed by Adam Tihany.
Design-minded shoppers will find a rich assortment of furniture, accessories and objets de vertu that have mercifully not been overexposed in America. Skitsch, the cheeky Milan-based interiors bazaar, recently opened its doors on Brompton Road, a short distance from home-design wonderland Mint and perennial mainstay the Conran Shop (in the Michelin building). It’s quite the fertile cluster.
Vessel, in Notting Hill, remains one of the most creative, well-edited galleries of contemporary glass and ceramics on either side of the Atlantic. The inventory and exhibitions change constantly, so there’s always something new and gorgeous to be admired. Continue west, and you’ll find Tom Dixon’s first company-owned shop in a retrofitted wharf building on the Portobello Dock in Ladbroke Grove. To pepper the pot, he has gathered sympathetic brands from around the world to display alongside his latest introductions and golden oldies.
The Aram Gallery in Covent Gardens focuses on experimental work and site-specific installations by both emerging and established design maestros. Some of the more conceptual shows can be a bit opaque, but the truly inspired ones are richly rewarding. In the same vein, Established & Sons’ Limited gallery—so named for the one-off nature of the enterprise—is home to provocative exhibitions that range widely from amusing to extraordinary to ludicrous. (Established does not yet have an independent shop for its own product lines, but its wares can be found in several of the stores mentioned above.) Darkroom, a concept boutique that explores the intersection of fashion, interiors and art, is another intriguing venture predicated on the blurring of traditional boundaries.
Of course, one should never overlook obvious cultural institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Design Museum on the south bank of the Thames and the Serpentine Gallery’s temporary pavilions featuring a changing roster of international starchitects (Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry et al.). The V&A’s Cast Court alone is worth the trip to London.
Finally, a personal favorite: Sir John Soane’s Museum, the house and studio of the British neoclassical collector and architect of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Say what you will about the aggressive avant-gardism and breathless design calisthenics of the Norman Fosters and Tom Dixons of the world. For sheer eccentric genius and charm, there’s no beating Soane.
Mayfair, London, W1K 4HR
15 Beeston Place
London, SW1W 0JW
2–4 Boundary Street
Shoreditch, London, E2 7DD
BARS & RESTAURANTS
Dean Street Townhouse
69–71 Dean Street
The Savoy Grill
London, WC2R 0EU
Coburg Bar at the Connaught
Mayfair, London, W1K 2AL
SHOPS & GALLERIES
52 Lamb’s Conduit Street
London, WC1N 3LL
114 Kensington Park Road
London, W11 2PW
Tom Dixon Shop
Wharf Building, Portobello Dock
344 Ladbroke Grove
Ladbroke Grove, London,
2 North Terrace
Alexander Square, London, SW3 2BA
270 Brompton Road
London, SW3 2AW
The Aram Gallery
110 Drury Lane
87–89 Tabernacle Street
London, EC2A 4BA
Established & Sons Limited Gallery
2–3 Duke Street
St James’s, London, SW1Y 6BJ
The Conran Shop Chelsea
81 Fulham Road
London, SW3 6RD
28 Shad Thames
London, SE1 2YD
London, SW7 2RL
London W2 3XA
Sir John Soane’s Museum
13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields
Camden Town, London, WC2A 3BP