Renaissance of an icon16 October 2018
The history of the Hôtel Lutetia and the history of Paris are as closely entwined as the many lovers who walk the streets of the city of lights. Architect and designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte feels this keenly, and he was always aware of the hotel’s glamorous history as he oversaw its recent, extensive restoration. Grace Allen speaks with Wilmotte to find out what it was like to work on this most beautiful and Parisian of grande dames.
In 1918, Pablo Picasso moved to live in the Hôtel Lutetia, situated on the bohemian Left Bank of Paris, accompanied by his new wife, ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova. It was here, working on a self-portrait, that he learned of the death of his friend and creative spur – the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.
The hotel hosted James Joyce 21 years later as he finished his masterpiece, Ulysses. Ernest Hemingway occasionally acted as his editor, and the writers were drinking – and brawling – companions: Joyce would provoke fights before pushing the brawnier Hemingway into the fray.
Just a few years later, the hotel played a role in the Nazi occupation of Paris as the headquarters of military intelligence, the Abwehr. After the liberation of the city, it became a repatriation centre for prisoners of war and concentration camp survivors. Juliette Gréco was one of many who returned to the hotel after the Liberation of Paris in search of her family.
The weight of history is heavy on Hôtel Lutetia – and this is even before considering its musical heritage, with past regulars including Joséphine Baker and Serge Gainsbourg, or its role in the fashion of the overblown ‘80s, when Sonia Rykiel based a boutique in the hotel and redesigned the interior.
It’s something that architect and designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte is acutely aware of; his firm, Wilmotte & Associés, undertook the Lutetia’s restoration for hotel group The Set. “Our challenge was to rejuvenate a place while respecting its roots, its identity, its originality and its personality,” he says.
Echoes of history
Architecturally, too, the Lutetia is significant. The only grand palais on the Left Bank, it was built in 1910 by the Boucicaut family to accommodate out-of-town shoppers at their department store, Le Bon Marché. Designed by architects Louis-Charles Boileau and Henri Tauzin, the hotel is often characterised as a witness to the stylistic transition from art nouveau to art deco.
Constructed in a period of experimentation following the relaxation of Hausmannian building regulations, the facade swells outwards from the pavement and is decorated with foliage and vines carved by sculptor Léon Binet. Nevertheless, these art nouveau features are far more restrained than the kickback curves of the style’s heyday. The windows are neatly symmetrical, and Wilmotte points to the presence of a motif of overlapping circles, a signature art deco element that he has echoed in the design of the hotel’s interior.
Respecting the hotel’s original features has been at the core of the renovation. “We have cleaned up everything that was out of memory and highlighted everything that conveyed some of it,” Wilmotte explains, describing the discovery and restoration of a fresco hidden under layers of paint, and the highlighting of original friezes and bas-reliefs that had become lost to view.
The same cannot be said of the later interior furnishings, however: a palimpsest of history sold at the beginning of the restoration process, and famous rooms – such as the Arman suite – gone.
“Successive stages of refurbishment, and especially a stratification of initiatives by architects, interior designers and decorators, caused her to lose her personality,” Wilmotte says.
The preservation of relics from the Lutetia has, seemingly, focused on the hotel’s 1910 iteration, but a commitment to retaining a memory of the hotel’s many-sided past does remain. “There is the full history of the place, built over more than a century. And then there is a second layer of history that overlaps the first one, from the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the hotel was the headquarters for artists, the place where they would spend the night – their second home. Artists and fashion designers alike. We are trying to resuscitate that,” Wilmotte says.
Wilmotte’s intent has been to capture the Lutetia’s true identity as a grande dame with a place among Paris’s most storied and luxurious hotels. The number of rooms has been reduced from 233 to 190, creating the space appropriate for a location that has hosted Charles de Gaulle and Peggy Guggenheim; the Brasserie’s double-height ceiling has been restored; and Wilmotte has created a garden courtyard in the centre of the hotel because, “it was one of the only Paris grand hotels that didn’t have one”.
The great and the good
The alteration and renovation of the salons on the ground floor, where writers, artists and musicians congregated, is a central part of Wilmotte’s endeavour to restore the glories of the Lutetia’s past atmosphere. The open-air garden allows natural light to enter the spaces around it – the Orangerie, to be used as a breakfast or conference room; the Salon Saint-Germain, a glass-roofed lounge and restaurant in which art deco influence is particularly strong; and a comfortable library.
The rediscovered ceiling fresco is the highlight of Bar Joséphine, a tribute to dancer, Resistance hero and civil rights campaigner Joséphine Baker, which will offer canapés and cocktails. The Brasserie Lutetia’s cuisine will be overseen by Gérald Passedat, whose restaurant in Marseille, Le Petit Nice, holds three Michelin stars.
Wilmotte hopes to bring the literary, bohemian inhabitants of the Left Bank back into the Lutetia’s salons. “Typically, he or she would probably be a book publisher from the neighbourhood,” he says, perhaps imagining a latter-day Sylvia Beach, the founder of bookshop and lending library Shakespeare and Company (originally located on Rue Dupuytren, a short walk from the Lutetia) and publisher of the controversial Ulysses.
The art nouveau and art deco origins of the hotel have been respected in an appreciation for fine materials and individual craft, a hallmark of both artistic movements. Artists Jean Le Gac and Fabrice Hyber have been commissioned to produce original pieces for the hotel, “just like in the old days”, Wilmotte says. All the new fixtures and fittings, from lighting to door handles, have been custom-designed; the same goes for the furniture. “We fought throughout the project to avoid ending up with standard furniture from a catalogue.”
Wilmotte claims the inspiration for the furniture came from the early 20th century, “It feels like a dialogue is beginning between restored traces of the past, recreated new elements and these brand-new, 1910-styleinspired pieces of furniture.” The unfussy, low-slung lines are also reminiscent of mid-century modern styles – a period in which the Lutetia was a centre for Parisian jazz.
This visual referencing of numerous points in the hotel’s longer history is also found in the use of polished-wood panelling throughout the circulation spaces. “1910 was the time of the big transatlantic adventures. Our idea was to draw in some of the atmosphere from those big old yachts,” Wilmotte says. In addition to classic sailing yachts, polished panelling featured in the ocean going cruise liners of the ‘20s and ‘30s, which showcased French art deco design.
The use of wooden panelling continues in the Lutetia’s rooms, here tinted in shades of sand or navy blue and carved in ridges that create stripes, a design continued in the bathrooms with screen-printed glass. The other design motif is the overlapping circles identified in the building’s facade and now repeated in wall sconces and in decorative elements in the bathrooms, furnished in white Calacatta marble; the two combine to produce a modern interpretation of the regular, pure lines of art deco.
The carefully realised design is further emphasised by the precise use of lighting, and particularly the interplay between natural and artificial light – a feature of many Wilmotte & Associés projects. All the rooms have a window, and this combines with spotlights to highlight three-dimensional elements on walls, panelling and window casings. Recurring elements are played upon – some light fixtures project stripe shadows, others recall the overlapping circles found on the Lutetia’s facade. “Lighting is a leading factor in the comfort of a place,” Wilmotte says.
Natural light also illuminates the new swimming pool in the Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre, where a consistent decorative theme is played out in Calacatta marble with navy blue touches, and circular skylights and wall fittings.
The required standard of a palace hotel means that even as the Lutetia seeks to recall its past, it must also offer its guests the luxury of modernity. “Another critical side of the project was technology,” Wilmotte states. Integrated technology in the rooms is managed from a dashboard, while soundproofing counters noise from the street and other rooms, and functions such as air conditioning have been improved.
All in all, Wilmotte hopes that the Lutetia’s visitors, from the Left Bank and further afield, will find “an experience that no other Paris hotel will ever be able to offer”. This hotel is more than a place to stay; it has a resonance that stretches far beyond Paris. In the Guggenheim in New York, you can find a 1911 study by Marcel Duchamp for his Portrait of Chess Players sketched on stationery marked ‘Hôtel Lutetia’. This significance is understood by Wilmotte. “I believe that people from the neighbourhood will easily get accustomed to their favourite address again; tourists will discover something genuinely new; the dream of the Lutetia will start again.”