By Robert Such. Published in Frame Magazine.
The 38-room Hi Hotel in Nice may occupy a narrow spatial footprint, but its cultural reach is far wider, thanks to two hotel entrepreneurs, a young French designer and staff who are knowledgeable about the contemporary arts, architecture, design and music. It is also a place where notions of four-star luxury and comfort are given a contemporary twist.
Painted a pearly white, the shutterless building has undergone a radical change since its days as a boarding house. The fun begins as soon as you walk through the purple-tinted glass door on avenue des Fleurs. Purple, which signifies something “quite spiritual and high class,” says the designer Matali Crasset, is the dominant colour of the hotel. Flanking the ramp that leads up to the front desk are two low concrete walls, which have the shapes of speakers moulded into their surfaces. This is the first indication that music has a central role in the day-to-day life of the hotel. Music, provided by F Communications, the French electronic music label, plays all day and all night, and the bar area is a venue for DJ nights. Caressing the concrete is like stroking silky smooth chocolate, and it leaves a trace of dust on your fingertips. Visitors turn right into the lobby, passing through a cylindrical arrangement of colourful screen prints on unwoven fabric. Further inside, the colours include raspberry red, pistachio green, vanilla white and yellow chartreuse. A mezzanine, stacked with books donated by museums, galleries and publishers, overlooks the double-height bar and dining area. At the far end is the so-called nacelle (hot-air balloon basket). Made of birch plywood, it surrounds you in a light, protective embrace. The furniture is also in birch, with upholstery in skai artificial leather.
For the owners, Philippe Chapelet and Patrick Elouarghi, the Hi Hotel is quite different from their first joint business venture, a three-star hotel and restaurant in Brittany. They won top-notch guide-book acclaim for that, but when the weather and the clientele began to get them down, they decided to head for the French Riviera. “We worked in a château,” says Chapelet, “where it’s ‘Bonjour Madame’, and we made small talk at the table…you play a role…Life’s too short for false relationships that are a pain in the arse.” They considered places like Cannes and Monaco, but Nice seemed like the right choice. It was both working class and bourgeois (it also has a tacky and seedy side), it had a famous name and it had great weather. Travelling in other countries made them rethink what a businessman or a lone traveller required. So, they rejected the need for an enormous wardrobe and a chest of drawers and instead decided to include a goldfish (or red fish in French), as a room companion. The name Hi Hotel evolved from that idea of having a poisson rouge. On the Internet, they read that the red mark on the Japanese Koi Carp was called the Hi. As well as being the widely known one-syllable greeting, Chapelet points out that they want the hotel to attract international clients – thus, hôtel international (international hotel). It also represents hôtel interactive: Windows XP- and broadband-equipped laptops are available 24/7.
Once they had acquired the building and some firm ideas about its contents and service, Chapelet and Elouarghi scouted around for a designer at the Paris, Milan and New York design fairs. “They all proposed what we see everywhere in the design world – a little 1970s. We didn’t want fashion,” says Chapelet. So when the world-class French chef Alain Ducasse suggested looking at designers who had worked under Philippe Starck – they liked Starck – they checked out the petits enfants de Starck (Starck’s little children). Matali Crasset struck them as “very different,” says the Paris-born Chapelet.
Crasset graduated from the Ecole nationale supérieure de création industrielle in 1991, which was followed by a one-year stint under the Italian designer Denis Santachiara and five years under Starck. While working with the latter she was the art director for Thomson Multimedia, before becoming the head of the Tim Thom design centre. Since then she has worked in many areas, such as graphics, exhibitions and furniture design. Her interiors include the refurbishment of the offices of Paris-based advertising agency Red Cell and a house near Lake Annecy, France, in 2001.
When Chapelet and Elouarghi saw Crasset’s work, they telephoned to arrange a meeting at her Paris office.
“The brief,” says Crasset, “was very, very flexible… We had a good understanding…From the start, it was looked at from this point of view: change things and throw out hotel typology.” Nine room types were developed. This wide range underlines the fact that “there is not one way to live; there are lots of possibilities,” says Crasset.
Monospace was the first room to take shape. It is divided into three areas, each one using different colours and materials: an invigorating red-coloured sleeping area; a cool white, lounge area with a light wood finish; and a refreshing blue-coloured bathroom with resin floor. The room is not large, but that is not important, says Crasset. ”When you think about comfort, most of the time it’s the [depth] of the foam. In fact, for me, it’s the opposite. Comfort is the structure which allows you to move and to have much more liberty…It’s more about mobility. It’s more about freedom to move…this is contemporary comfort.” As regards her thoughts on ‘luxury’, Crasset’s thinking runs along the same lines. “Luxury is not a matter of materials or cost, it’s more about the idea of space.”
Not every rooms’ spatial layout has been reorganised so radically. White & White, which to look at could be a massage parlour or clinic, has a bed that resembles a table and bath that looks like a bed. Digital has a pixilated decor and Technocorner is dedicated to video and music. Up-until-three-O’clock-in-the-morning brainstorming sessions between Crasset, Chapelet and Elouarghi gradually squeezed out the idea for the ninth room, Strate. Another concept, which was based on a giant wave made of resin, called In/Out, would have been the last one, but it was abandoned. “It was a good idea,” says Chapelet, “[but] it wasn’t strong enough. We wanted to go further.” Going further got them a room in which the glass shower and toilet cubicles each stand on a metal-framed platform, which if considered as a stage, makes a daily activity into a small performance. The stratified colour scheme on the walls signposts different activities and uses of space at various levels – white at the base points to storage, so there is a safe on the floor, and blue at the top stands for dreaming.
The crossover between private and public space in a hotel already exists; Strate breaks down the barriers even further. If there are two of you in the room, there is little privacy. It also makes entering the shower a pleasurable experience for the observer and the subject.
Objects in Matali Crasset’s world are multi-purpose. A poof can be a table. A small padded table can be a footstool. A table top can be a shelf that slots into the wall. Crasset’s work also contains elements of playfulness, or in French ludique. “Ludique means to play, to experiment,” says Crasset. She hopes that Hi Hotel visitors will use the objects they find there as children do with objects everywhere – using them not for one specific purpose but as something to stimulate the imagination and action.