Blakes Hotel – The One and Only
There are many firsts when it comes to Anouska Hempel, and creating the first boutique hotel is one of them. And so it was with London’s Blakes Hotel, now a well established icon of hotel design that has had a spectacular impact on both the hotel industry and on design in general. Anouska may today be justifiably feted as a powerhouse of unrelenting creativity, and for her achievements as an interior designer, landscape designer, hotelier, couturier and even restauranteur, but when she bought an old run down hotel in London’s South Kensington in 1974, at first she was just winging it. A lack of training and experience didn’t phase her at all. With bucket loads of courage and energy and an innate knack for design, she did something very clever: she created somewhere she and her friends would like to go to. A hotel, bar and restaurant that was more like an especially chic private house, without a hint of corporate commercialism.
She speaks fondly of those exciting early days: ” The magic was that every room was different. It had everything I loved from around the world. We began with two houses and an old leather sofa. I was barman and housekeeper. We started to attract people who wanted a Bohemian milieu. The rich would pay a fortune but others I’d let stay for free at the last moment…. I was doing commercials and these were the days when advertisements brought repeat fees. The money paid for the roof and allowed me to go to a bank and borrow against my fantastic earnings. It was £25,000 for smoking a cigarette. As money came in, I put it into the business. It felt like a country house in England or Italy or a swanky suite in Manhattan. Blakes had a romance, as I had spared no expense. It felt lush and rich, as if it belonged somewhere else in time, as in a dream.”
It is greatly to her credit that from the start Anouska understood that hotel design is always at its best when understood from the point of view of the customer’s experience of it. From the initial experience of seeing it from the outside, then entering, sitting at the bar or even scrubbing in the bath, you feel as if it’s all been thought through experientially. A no brainier you may say, but trust me its rare when it happens at all, and rarer still when it’s happens with any skill. It helps that the owner is also the designer – and not just any old designer either, but an exceptional talent. It also helps that the owner/designer is positively obsessed with all the detail down to the very door handles, napkins and bath gel. Adhering to the belief that if you can’t find it, then design and make it yourself, Anouska’s career has taken her into the hallowed realm of ‘total designer’, that puts her onto a kind of par with Sir John Soane, and even in a sense William Kent and Robert Adam. One senses that for her, design is all encompassing and never ending… an evolutionary process as organic and vital as any in nature.
How right she also was to see that people don’t just want a home from home when they go stay at a hotel, they want something better! Otherwise just stay home. So she brings the four corners of the world together with a sense of theatre that Diaghilev himself might have envied, with her generous offerings of romance and decadence, intrigue and exoticism, magic and mystery. The grand mistress of the mise en scene will cater to fantasies you didn’t know you had, to tease out your inner Count of Monte Cristo, Sultan Suleyman, or Marlena Dietrich. With theatre everything looks better, tastes better and feels better doesn’t it? And so Blakes Hotel takes you on a seductive sensory journey from the opium dens of Indochina to the grandeur of the Pyramids, through the refinement of the Italian Renaissance, and plops you right back in the heart of London, when you trundle dazed, confused and more than a little bedazzled onto the pavement outside.
When Blakes Hotel first appeared on the otherwise dreary roster of London hotels way back then, it took the industry some time to come up with an adequate description for it. And so the ‘Boutique Hotel’ was born, and the idea has resonated around the globe. Of course that term is all a bit degraded now that the corporates have jostled into the unseemly scrum, with their soulless and lobotomised versions of the theme. A bit of modern art here, a blown up image covered feature wall there, and not forgetting the cliche emblazoned in cool pink fluorescent – demonstrating, one hopes, that the writing’s on the wall for the hotel industry. Anouska may no longer own Blakes Hotel in London, but no doubt she has given the new owners her customary manual for how to maintain and nurture her design. I am sure they in return will pay her the compliment of studying it well.
Photography supplied courtesy of Anouska Hempel Design.
Quotation from ‘Anouska Hempel’ by Marcus Binney, published by Thames and Hudson