An expression of luxury

With over four decades of experience, Gathy has helped elevate the hospitality industry with his stunning designs. — Courtesy of Denniston/Jean-Michel Gathy

IF he could have it his way, Jean-Michel Gathy would like to build the first hotel on the moon. “It would be the most stunning product in the world but given the many technical challenges at present, I believe it would be more of a technical achievement as opposed to a hotel or design achievement,” he says.

That answer alone sums up the genius approach Gathy, the principal designer of design firm Denniston, has adopted in his creative lens in building some of the world’s most renowned luxury hotels and resorts. A ‘living legend’ in the world of architecture, Gathy is an award-winning architect and interior designer with more than 40 years of experience in the hospitality industry.

Alongside the late Ed Tuttle and the late Kerry Hill, Gathy is one of the three core architects who established the DNA blueprint of Aman Resorts from its formative days to its present glory. He has since established himself as preeminent name in the world of luxury hospitality for his innovative and forward-thinking designs.

Some of the major projects and developments Gathy has lent his expertise to include the Marina Bay Sands infinity pool in Singapore and the Jumeirah Bali, an opulent sanctuary of tropical modernism perched atop the cliffs of Uluwatu. A major project of his was also the Aman New York, carved out of the fourth to 26th stories of the Crown Building on the coveted Fifth Avenue.

This year, Gathy’s celebrated portfolio of iconic projects is set to expand with a number of major new projects. This includes the launch of One&Only One Za’abeel Dubai, the first-ever vertical urban resort from the ultra-luxury hospitality brand, and Cheval Blanc Seychelles in the heart of the Indian Ocean as the sixth Cheval Blanc Maison.

Gathy has also honed his talents on Aman Nai Lert, entwined with the exceptional legacy of Thailand’s revered Nai Lert family and located within the historical Nai Lert Park. The recent opening of Janu Tokyo — Aman’s sister brand — was also met with fanfare as it celebrated the city’s rich, cultural fabric, exuding the brand’s signature energy inspired by connection, balance and exploration in the dynamic heart of Azabudai Hills.

Across Gathy’s prominent projects, one enduring element of luxury that remains is his definition of comfort, and this is intimately linked to his approach to designing for hospitality. His foundational desire for comfort has shaped his design process, and through his experiences, sought to create a level of comfort reminiscent of a home away from home.

In this exclusive interview, we find out more about Gathy’s view point on designing hotels and resorts and bringing luxury to the hospitality sector.

How did you get started in designing hotels and resorts?

I was designing offices and buildings in Hong Kong when I had my first opportunity to get involved in designing hotels — it was to develop a construction system for the renovation of hotel rooms. This led to my projects with Mandarin Oriental and The Excelsior in Hong Kong.

Hans Jenni, then-President of General Hotels Management (GHM), appreciated my work which led to several renovation projects that gained recognition within the industry and also kickstarted my relationship with Aman Resorts.

What appeals to you most about this sector?

I love what I do and what appeals to me most can be summed up in one word: Creativity.

Many design and architecture projects tend to have constraints regarding operations, logistics, budget, etc., but in designing hotels and resorts, there’s more room for creativity within the various concepts behind the project.

In your approach in designing a new hospitality property, what are the top considerations or factors you place an emphasis on first?

The most important thing to remember first is that a hotel is a business. The responsibility that I have is to ensure that our design for the hotel makes sense, is aesthetically attractive and corresponds appropriately with the client’s intended markets.

Your portfolio is vast and extensive with properties across the globe. How do you go about forming a sense of uniformity or familiarity of your design within each space?

After 43 years of designing hotels, I understand the various aspects and principles surrounding hotels and the basis of how a hotel works. The fundamental principle of designing a hotel remains consistent while the difference lies in how we apply the various nuances or characteristics of the hotel’s surrounding environment.

In order to gain more knowledge on the different locations globally, one has to travel, read books, interview people and retain a sense of curiosity about the world and its people.

In all the years you have done this, what would you say has been the biggest change or transformation in design that you have seen in the hospitality sector?

Twenty years ago, hotels were simply places for guests to sleep — they were accommodations. Most luxury hotels are now a translation of the guests’ lifestyles and their association to various luxury hotel brands.

Designing a hotel today is akin to designing a lifestyle venue to address the various demands of different lifestyles. Guests experience and relate to individual brands differently, and my job is to ensure that my design caters to the market the hotel is intended for, in order to meet that demand.

You have several properties opening this year, do you have a particular favourite amongst the list or at least a standout project that resonates with you personally and if so, why?

We have seven incredible hotel openings this year, so this question is akin to asking whether I have a favourite child. I love them all.

As a professional commissioned to design a hotel, my focus is on the hotel and how I can best showcase its strengths and character. My duty as an architect is to ensure that I give my best to every property I design, to contribute to its success.

From an architectural point of view, what are the elements that will make for a great luxury hotel?

A luxury hotel, to me, is where people find total comfort. Some may define luxury as time, space, fabric, great dining options, etc. But comfort encompasses all — these are just different aspects that allow guests to feel comfortable.

What continues to inspire you in this field of design and architecture?

Love. When we truly love what we do, we do not constantly question why we love our work and instead, I believe that new projects, activities and progress will naturally come along as we discover new avenues within our work.

Building a lunar hotel is out of reach for now, what’s another dream project you’d like to put on your wish list?

Well, my ultimate dream today would be to design a gorgeous hotel in Antarctica, the Arctic or Greenland, in a location where there’s ice and snow all-year round.

This article first appeared in Star Biz7 weekly edition.

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