Words: Neena Dhillon Portrait: Alessandro Paderni
A designer’s work is never done, Sleeper discovers, while waiting for Patricia Urquiola at the newly opened Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona.
Having committed the best part of three years to crafting the interiors of this 98-room luxury property found in an enviable location on the exclusive Passeig de Gràcia, Urquiola is back for an intensive series of meetings to oversee the final touches of her distinctive design vision.
She sinks, exhausted, into an elegant white custom-made leather chair at the hotel’s restaurant/lounge Blanc and takes a contented look around before ordering a green tea. Turning to husband Alberto Zontone, who also forms part of the Studio Urquiola team, she checks whether there will be a break in her schedule to relax in the spa she has created, but is reliably informed there’s a dinner engagement for which to prepare. Shrugging nonchalantly, she promises herself some much-needed ‘me-time’ in the morning before jetting back to her studio base in Milan.
Covering more than 17,000m2 and costing €150m this highly anticipated project represents both Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group’s first foray into Spain and Urquiola’s first full-scale hospitality commission. “I should have started with a small boutique hotel, not a huge investment like this,” admits the designer with a wry smile. “But then I’ve always liked testing myself.”
She may not yet be a hospitality design luminary but Spanish-born Urquiola has impressive credentials in architecture, installation and products. Having graduated from the Politecnico di Milano as an architect, where she inherited her deep passion for design from mentor Achille Castiglioni, she co-managed De Padova’s product development office before leading Piero Lissoni’s team for five years.
But it was only after her first marriage ended that her career really began to flourish in a period when she had “nothing to lose”. Setting up her own studio in Milan in 2001, she has since gone on to create award-winning products with the likes of B&B Italia, Bisazza, Moroso and Alessi, while completing architectural projects for Roberto Torretta, Valentino and Max Mara. Named Furniture Designer of the Year by Wallpaper* in 2006, she even has pieces featured in the permanent collection at MOMA in New York.
Recalling how she made the leap into hotel design, Urquiola candidly explains that her brother-in-law, an architect by profession, recommended her to the building’s owner Maria Reig. As the main investor, Reig was searching for someone who could bring something extra to her plans to transform what was previously the head office of a bank into a five-star property. “It turned out she was a fan of my furniture so we spoke a lot about how she wanted this strong building to become a public space with iconic elements that would be interesting to everyone in the city,” Urquiola says.
The site has a rich history dating back to the late 1800s when it was frequented by Catalan bourgeoisie as the centre of the Equestrian Circle. A period as the headquarters of a local Trade Union followed before damage caused during the Civil War resulted in a new building being erected by architect Manuel Galíndez, after which the location served as a bank. The hotel’s General Manager Luís Marcó, who spent many years with Ritz-Carlton, remembers inspecting the location on behalf of Bvlgari Hotels. “Several companies were interested but something clicked for Mandarin Oriental,” he says. “As a booming destination for meetings, congresses, tourism and art, Barcelona was very important to the brand.”
While the 1950s Catalan façade has been left untouched stylistically, architects Carlos Ferrater and Juan Trias de Bes have made some major changes to the former bank while retaining its symmetrical simplicity. Beginning at the end of 2006, construction has involved major feats of engineering as the ground-floor façade has been set back off the pavement, new stairwells inserted, an entrance ramp installed and the atrium opened up. “We thought hard about the building’s relationship to the city,” says de Bes. “As a youngster, I recall accompanying my father to this big, bold room where cashiers would serve customers and bank employees looked down from their small offices above. You see, the space is well-known in Barcelona so we wanted to create an entrance that would naturally flow into the heart of it – inviting people in.”
The solution they have hit upon is quite spectacular. The nine-storey building’s unassuming façade opens to a light-drenched atrium, around which the hotel rooms have been designed. Crossing the atrium via a floating catwalk, guests pass into a lobby before being drawn to a split-level mezzanine platform – flanked on one side by Moments restaurant and on the other by Banker’s Bar – from where they view the central Blanc lounge below. “Previously visitors walked down into the building, so we designed an elevated ramp for the gallery entrance to make it feel as though you are walking on air,” adds de Bes. “By placing black reflective stone at floor level, there is a multiplying effect to the perceived height of the windows and atrium.”
The building’s character also provided much inspiration to Urquiola, who knew she must come up with a visual story specific to Barcelona while hinting at the Oriental roots of the Mandarin Oriental brand. “I noticed all this light flooding into the building, and wanted to harness it to mirror the light that shines in this Mediterranean city,” comments Urquiola. “Then I thought of how a white glove represents elegance and service. Closing my eyes, I knew there had to be a continuity of design flowing through the spaces; one point of view. But I also wanted there to be a sense of memory here.”
Pinning her vision to the three ideas of innovation, quality and tradition, she decided to draw on her own perceptions of grand old hotels, while designing an extensive collection of custom-made furniture, fixtures and fittings in conjunction with trusted collaborators such as B&B Italia, De Padova, Flos and Moroso. The hotel represents Patricia Urquiola’s first collaboration with B&B Italia’s contract division who have provided a variety of custom-made furniture. The hotel’s dazzling white palette is tempered with oak parquet flooring, naturalistic fabrics, metalwork and beautiful hand-woven wool and silk carpets manufactured by Tai Ping, each displaying a different pattern relating to the city, the architecture, or the brand’s Oriental heritage. In the lobby, gold metalwork grids in anodized aluminium and mirror-effect ceilings enclose and define the open-plan space for a sense of welcome. The lobby sofa is adapted from a traditional Chesterfield design while contemporary artwork behind the oak reception desk is courtesy of famous Beijing artist Huang Yan.
Appropriately, the colour theme is vibrantly carried through into Blanc restaurant, which is characterised by a suspended patterned vinyl grid illuminated by shifting levels of light, architectural planting, ceramic stools by Rosenthal and tactile leather chairs designed by Urquiola. As a last-minute addition, installed to introduce intimacy into the double-height room, the screen initially caused some controversy. “I’m always pushing the boundaries of my clients because I really believe in my projects,” says Urquiola. “Don’t be afraid of technological advances, and always look at ways of being sustainable.” A good example of this ethos is her choice of a French tailor’s cutting table from the last century as the main serving station in the restaurant, which offers a menu of healthy Asian and Mediterranean fare. During Sleeper’s visit, the space looked to be fulfilling its intended role as the hotel’s main social hub, with guests lingering over bento boxes, tapas and coffee.
There is no compromise in the guestrooms where white and cream again dominate. Avant-garde fixtures such as a Foscarini Caboche pendant light are juxtaposed by subtle Oriental details. Playing on the concept of Chinese boxes, wardrobes are given a lacquered finishing. A gently folding wood and fabric fixed wall, meanwhile, is Urquiola’s interpretation of the Oriental paravent. Indeed, the screen concept is utilised more than once throughout the hotel, including in Blanc where it is executed in a printed textile material. In the spacious bathrooms, the designer has played with more texture. Oversized walk-in shower and toilet units are set off by an undulating wall of black Mutina and Bisazza mosaics, conceived as magical boxes of coloured glass. Agape supplied all the bathroom fittings, including washbasins, WCs, mirrors, bathtubs, and accessories.
Although care has been taken to minimise the expression of different styles, both Moments and Banker’s Bar differ aesthetically to varying degrees. Urquiola’s face lights up as we discuss the Director of the hotel’s signature restaurant Moments. “Can you imagine the honour of working with Carme Ruscalleda?” she enthuses. “As a chef with five Michelin stars, I felt that she was a destination in her own right. For me, Moments is like a box within a box, with an illuminated yellow window permitting people to view the magic of the kitchen.” Seating a maximum of fifty, Catalan cuisine is the focus here, with Ruscalleda’s son, Raül Balam, running the operation. While Blanc feels contemporary and feminine, there is an injection of gold and amber hues in Moments that lends depth to the room. A local craftsman has been employed to handcraft the false inset ceilings with gold leaf painted in a motif to reflect the pattern of the carpet. White resin flooring is contrasted with carpeting and elegant furniture from Moroso with lighting by Foscarini and Flos.
For the Banker’s Bar, Urquiola has taken the concept of a gentlemen’s club and given it her own unique twist, selecting weighty Canasta armchairs and Fat-Fat side tables from B&B Italia, as well as leather sofas from Moroso. Ingeniously the fronts of original steel safety boxes from the former bank have been recycled, serving as textured ceiling and wall coverings with three backlit display cases showcasing a Macallan Scotch whisky, Grey Goose Vodka and Cristal Champagne. The high central bar acts as a focal point with its contrast of black Corian and gold-coloured anodised aluminium.
Situated in the bank’s former vault, underneath the hotel, the 1,000m2 spa is clearly one of Urquiola’s favourite places. She explains: “We moved away from the hyper white to create a sensuous experience that could almost represent a signature for the brand.” This is a bold assertion considering that Mandarin Oriental is renowned for its spas in Asia but the Barcelona facility does indeed have an embracing, cocooning ambience. Dark wood detailing, black ceilings, white floors and granite stone may on paper equate to an overly minimalist aesthetic but in combination with a sexy lighting programme, as devised by consultants Isometrix, who also planned lighting for the rest of the property, it works. Other standout features include a large malachite screen sectioning off the communal hammam and black metallic chain curtains leading to the eight treatment rooms, which have been manufactured by a local Catalan company more accustomed to supplying butchers.
Of course, an excellent spa and superlative dining are what discerning travellers have come to expect from five-star hotels. But Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona does manage to keep two surprises in store. Hidden in an open-air inner courtyard, the Mimosa Garden is the brainchild of landscape architect Beth Figueras and is open to all visitors who want to drink, eat or simply read in a genuine urban retreat. Only those staying at the hotel, however, can access the Terrat rooftop on the ninth floor where 360-degree views of the Barcelona skyline are simply jaw dropping. Open in the summer months, there’s a dipping pool and bar to keep guests cool.
Urquiola isn’t signing off just yet because there are elements to be added to the Penthouse Suite, which occupies the entire eighth floor. What does she identify as her greatest challenge? “You know, it’s very important to me that I’ve succeeded in communicating modernity and tradition at the same time,” she concludes. “The guest must sense these qualities simultaneously. I’m very critical of myself but I’m happy and proud about what we have achieved here.”
Life after Barcelona for Urquiola involves unveiling the interiors she has contributed to W Retreat & Spa – Vieques Island, opening this month. Sleeper probes the designer about other hotel work and while she confirms there is another Barcelona project on the horizon, she is keeping this information under wraps for now.
As for Mandarin Oriental, surely this isn’t the optimum time to open a rate-leading hotel in a city that has its fair share of design-led properties? Responding in a matter-of-fact manner, Luís Marcó says: “There are extra challenges but by opening now we can invest in the appropriate amount of promotion and advertising so that we are well-established and have the recognition required to benefit from the economy when it turns around.”