French designer Laura Gonzalez explains how she reinvented the Château-Hôtel Saint James in Paris
Located in the prestigious 16e arrondissement of Paris, the five-star St. James The hotel offers its guests a castle experience in the heart of the bustling capital. Inside the historic 19e-century neoclassical building, Laura Gonzalez imagined a space combining grandeur and intimacy, classicism and extravagance, being the third female interior designer to be entrusted with 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 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 design to be like fashion and this ‘mix and match’ is part of my style and has allowed me to make the Saint James not only grand and impressive, but also intimate and welcoming.
What was your mission and most important consideration when you started designing the hotel, and the main idea you tried to achieve?
The Saint James is one of the biggest projects of my entire career. The challenge of such a work is considerable because it is a question of preserving the spirit of the place with its neoclassical Parisian architecture, while modernizing it. We have thought of it as a private collector’s house in every space and room, with many artistic and architectural references, ranging from ancient Greece to China. It’s a very important project to manage, and I had to think about how to share the decoration work between the craftsmen and myself.
Tell me about your creative process from when the hotel commissioned you to the final design. How did you help them define the design aesthetic?
As always when I work with Olivier Bertrand, the owner of the hotel, he gave me permission to suggest ideas and share the vision I had in mind. I am always delighted to work with him because throughout our many years of collaboration, I understand what he is looking for and he trusts me and my aesthetic. In fact, I started by drawing ideas in watercolor during the first confinement! Then, appointment after appointment, we defined the style, the colors and designed all the furniture to fit perfectly into the environment, and we finished the project. Over the past few 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 into a five-star Parisian hotel? How does a hotel modernize while keeping its soul – the same French way of life, refinement and excellence to ensure the survival of a legend – while attracting a younger clientele without alienating a clientele? older and faithful?
Today, it’s all about inclusivity and diversity. I don’t think we’re as frosty as 30 years ago, which means we don’t put ourselves in one box. And you can see it in the interiors, of course. 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 it sounds daring, this variety also allows us to attract a mixed audience, and the intimacy that I wanted to create allows us to retain visitors.
How did you take into account the architecture and character of the building when designing the interior, and what original elements did you retain?
The building’s already existing architecture and its cultural heritage obviously made up a large part of the interiors. Not only did I respect it, but I was inspired by it to transform interiors and build bridges between indoor and outdoor spaces. From the pediments above the doors to the 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 as is – I only provided the bespoke furniture – and of course the magnificent staircase. As for the constraints, I have not encountered any in particular because I like challenges in my work.
Tell me about the materials, furnishings, lighting, artwork, and color schemes you’ve incorporated, through each of the hotel’s main spaces.
The 50 rooms are decorated around four different themes that I have created in a range of four colours, from squirrel cream to celadon green. In each of them, the space is fitted out with pieces designed to measure and punctuated by French craftsmanship. The spaces are reminiscent of the apartments of a collector who might live in the private mansion, and this is what makes the rooms so charming. For example, Patrice Dangel sculpted plaster chandeliers that can be found in almost every room to also bring a harmonious touch between the different spaces of the rooms. The bar-library has been kept as it is, with wood paneling 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 fit in well with the facade of the hotel. Thus, it is inspired by the romantic gazebos of the 19e century. The garden was entirely designed and redesigned by the landscape architect Xavier de Chirac. As for the mix of styles and the modernization of the place, I really liked the spa where you can find both noble bas-reliefs by the artist François Mascarello and mosaics everywhere. Finally, the lobby is the place of all admiration. You had to have something imposing to impress at first sight, but of course keeping the warmth of the place and its intimate character. Atelier Roma created frescoes for the two domes of the hall, and Manufacture Pinton woven bespoke rugs. These masterful works make the place magnificent.
What custom furniture or special hotel design elements stand out in particular, and who were the artisans?
To sum up, I would say that Patrice Dangel is particularly remarkable for having made the plaster chandeliers that are found in practically all the rooms. The fresco in the reception area is also particularly representative of Saint-Jacques. We can also notice the custom-made sconces and vases by Jean Roger Paris that can be found throughout the hotel, as a common motif in all the spaces. I would also mention Sofrastyl, who sculpted a three-metre-high screen bas-relief in the lobby, and Pierre Mesguish, who decorated the marble mosaic orangery in the bar at the end of the garden.
What were the challenges you had to face?
I didn’t have any particular challenges, except that I had to keep certain elements that already existed, which turned out to be opportunities because they guided me in the creative process.
What is your favorite room in the hotel and why?
My favorite part is the lobby because it represents the very essence of the style that I tried to give to the hotel.
How did it feel to have been selected to be the next female designer in charge of redoing the interiors, after Andrée Putman and Bambi Sloan?
I was excited and honored to work on such a large project! It’s a great story because the Saint James has always been a gentlemen’s club designed by women.