“When I die, I don’t want to go to heaven,” said Spencer Tracy. “I want to go to Claridge’s.” London has other grand hotels, but none compare to Claridge’s, famed for its Art Deco opulence and hyper-attentive service. A fixture of international high society for over two centuries, it has hosted princes, potentates, politicians, and pop stars from Winston Churchill to Lady Gaga.
The current hotel, a stately hulk of russet brick and stone, dates from 1898, when its original premises in Mayfair were rebuilt by then-owner theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte. His architect, C. W. Stephens, also designed Harrods, London’s most famous department store. During the 1920s, keeping pace with the Jazz Age, the interiors were remodeled in a sleekly luscious Art Deco style that became Claridge’s signature. Its present owner is the Maybourne Hotel Group, which also has Mayfair neighbor the Connaught among its portfolio of deluxe establishments.
Though Claridge’s appeal is rooted in its reassuring aura of history and hedonism, it also needs to keep moving and modernizing. Its latest enterprise is a new café and art gallery—the first dedicated space for contemporary art within a luxury hotel—designed by John Pawson, whose oeuvre of exquisitely refined minimalism has encompassed Calvin Klein’s flagship store in Manhattan and a Cistercian monastery in the Czech Republic.
Accessed directly from Brook’s Mews at the rear of the hotel, and connected to it only through back-of-house spaces, Pawson’s gallery and café are effectively self-contained and public-facing. The gallery occupies the lower ground floor, with the café above activating the mews frontage and drawing people in.
On the lower level, a large but pared-down gallery features a polished terrazzo floor (1 & 2). Photos courtesy of Claridge’s
Featuring white walls and an almost colorless polished-terrazzo floor, the gallery is among the largest in Mayfair. One of Pawson’s earliest projects was for a similarly pared-down exhibition space in neighboring Cork Street for the influential art dealer Leslie Waddington, which cemented his enduring relationship with the modern-art crowd.
Inaugurated in 2021 with a show by Damien Hirst, the ArtSpace, as the Claridge’s gallery is known, aims to stage changing exhibitions every two months. Clay excavated from associated construction work, part of a wider hotel expansion that involved digging down six stories, will be donated to artists to create ceramic objects.
A banquette of soft caramel leather wraps the white walls. Photo courtesy of Claridge’s
Completion of the café was interrupted by the pandemic, but it finally opened earlier this year, so the two spaces can now play off each other as originally intended. Combining a supple banquette of soft caramel leather snaking around white walls, with another subtly glinting terrazzo floor, it’s a modern take on the grand European café, where you can while away the day. It also contains a small art bookshop.
Custom-designed chairs in solid ash recall traditional bentwood furniture, their sinuous contours like pale, sculpted wishbones. “I wanted them to have a presence so they bring some character to the space,” says Pawson. Having an aversion to squashy furniture— “sofas are anathema to me”—Pawson prefers the version without the leather seat pad, but acknowledges that comfort is a factor. Remarkably, it’s his first chair design, now in general production with Italian company Passoni, with whom Pawson collaborated closely. “To have a focus, a specific place to design them for was good,” he says. “It’s very difficult designing in a vacuum.”
Tables are also custom-designed, with polished Carrara-marble tops inset with discreet drawers to conceal the clutter of cutlery and napkins. A larger, refectory-style table can accommodate 10 people for larger gatherings, and rotund stools of leather, wood, and brass have a pleasingly solid heft. Everything appears seamless and curiously sensual, despite—or perhaps because of—Pawson’s rigorously edited palette of materials.
At the rear of the café, an expansive marble and glass counter provides a literal showcase for the skills of the hotel’s pastry chefs. Gleaming brass hardware and simple globe light fittings complete the picture. As with the gallery, the café is conceived as neutral armature, with people, rather than art, adding animation.
Though his approach might seem at odds with Claridge’s more “maximalist” design heritage, ultimately Pawson has proved an apposite choice for this latest phase of the hotel’s evolution. Beautifully detailed and exuding an air of calm intensity, his interiors clearly signify a new venture for Claridge’s, as it endeavors to retain its edge in a ruthlessly competitive market.
Click plans to enlarge
John Pawson — John Pawson, principal; Stefan Dold, Stephane Orsolini, Nina Ismar, design team
Architect of Record:
Blair Associates Architecture
WSP and McGee (structural); AECOM (mechanical and electrical)
Light IQ (lighting); Rainey & Best (surveyor and project manager)
Mastercraft Construction and McGee
Maybourne Hotel Group
3,780 square feet
Erco, Lucent Lighting