A new school of British designers are making their mark on the world's finest hotels

Sarah Turner
·10-min read
Bedroom at The Mitre
Bedroom at The Mitre

A talented new school of British designers is making its mark on hotels, both in Britain and further afield. They come from backgrounds that encompass architecture, art and furniture design. Olga Polizzi, the doyenne of our group, says: “It’s like fashion, nothing comes back quite the same. The country house look has come back, but there’s a new twist to it.”

Common issues are being tackled in different ways, such as reducing waste, whether by using vintage and antique furniture or repurposing and restoration. Even in urban projects, there’s a new focus on crafts and local identity. These designers share a sense of fun too, just as British interior design did after World War I when Sybil Colefax and Nancy Lancaster exported the UK country house look across the world.

“Good hotels are another universe that you can escape into,” says Luke Edward Hall, whose first hotel opened in Paris late last year. “People want an experience that feels authentic, not a bland international look.” For Ciaran O’Brien of Red Deer, which created the look of Birch in Hertfordshire, being authentic is also about respecting the past. “You don’t need to rewire and rip out finishes totally, just celebrate the repair.”

All agree that the pandemic has changed the way we see both our homes and the way we will want to escape from them. Several, including Luke Edward Hall, Nicola Harding and Hannah Lohan, decided to move to the countryside after the first lockdown. Distinctive and thoughtful yet full of wit: it’s a golden age for British hotel design, even if every notion of bling has been firmly banished.

The artist: Luke Edward Hall

While studying menswear at Central St Martins, Luke Edward Hall sourced antiques. After graduation, he added illustration and journalism to his portfolio (he’s also an interiors columnist at the Financial Times) and has had previous collaborations with English National Opera, Habitat and fashion house Lanvin.

Les Deux Gares is Hall’s first hotel, a 40-room boutique hotel in Paris. “I don’t want to be a slave to one era, so there’s French Empire furniture mixed with 1970s lighting. I loved working on this so much.” Above all there’s colour. “We really went for it with the rooms; there are no white walls anywhere”. The gym has floral wallpaper and a checkerboard floor. Hall has provided furniture throughout, from mirrors to lamps and tables. “A hotel should be an escape, another universe [...] a fantastical experience,” he says.

Les Deux Gares - Benoît Linero/Benoît Linero
Les Deux Gares - Benoît Linero/Benoît Linero

He already has new projects in the pipeline. In March, Hall and his partner moved full time to the Cotswolds. “I did worry that it would be a bit white cashmere,” he says, “but there are fun places and people as well as amazing nature that’s so good for the creative process.” lukeedwardhall.com

The industrialists: Holloway Li

Alex Holloway, who together with Na Li make up this architecture and design duo, is still in London, heading between projects on his bicycle. Responsible for Bermonds Locke as well as the new extension to the original Hoxton hotel in Shoreditch with a roof terrace bar, 2021 should also see Wunder Locke open in a 1960s Brutalist building originally created for Siemens in Munich.

Alex Holloway and Na Li - Cece Di Paolo/Cece Di Paolo
Alex Holloway and Na Li - Cece Di Paolo/Cece Di Paolo

“Hotels can offer a third space between home and work. Hotels will have to recalibrate in the short term but people will want to be away from home, it’s about getting an atmosphere and buzz. Hotels have to be agile.

“We like using materials in different ways and reusing what’s there rather than ripping out. Usually hotels do a full refurbishment after five to eight years but that’s wasteful; we like to reuse elements already on site; the Japanese term kintsugi meaning ‘golden repair’ is so much better than ripping everything up.

“A lot of our ideas are about space. We tend to have strict footprints and it’s about fitting things in and coming up with solutions; such as sofas that can be pushed up against a table.” hollowayli.com

bermonds locke lobby - Edmund Dabney/Edmund Dabney
bermonds locke lobby - Edmund Dabney/Edmund Dabney

The revisionist: Nicola Harding

Having dared to bring back chintz at Beaverbrook in Surrey in 2018, a Townhouse sibling hotel should open this summer. A 14-bedroom hotel just off Sloane Square, it will also look to the hedonism of the 1920s for inspiration.

“We’ve tried to tap into Lord Beaverbrook’s life in London and there’s a nod to the art deco period when he would have been [there]; the aim is that you’ve been given an invitation into someone’s private house.”

Nicola Harding
Nicola Harding

Harding is not tied to history though – it comes through a prism of modernity and with a judicious blend of fun. At The Mitre in Hampton Court, which opened last year, Harding mixed jukeboxes and hand-painted wallpaper in a 16th-century building on the River Thames.

So far, so grand. However, Harding’s work on The Rose in the Kent seaside town of Deal demonstrates that revisionism can also be fun with affordable properties; rooms start at £90 including breakfast. “We wanted to do justice to its history as a seaside boarding house and make it whimsical.

“People’s appetites have changed over the past year,” she adds. “Either they will want exuberance or something or something simpler, more honest.” This was her aim at The Royal Oak in Ramsden, Oxfordshire, close to where Harding moved after the second lockdown. “It’s a much simpler aesthetic”, she says, “it’s earthy and warm and cosy. That matters too.” nicolaharding.com

The Mitre bedroom
The Mitre bedroom

The transatlantic historian: Martin Brudnizki

Though Brudnizki is Swedish-born, he has been based in London since 1990 (and has since moved to West Sussex between lockdowns). His view is global: he also has a studio in Los Angeles.

He is responsible for the cool, collected University Arms in Cambridge and the oft-Instagrammed Annabel’s nightclub in London. His next hotel The Pendry will open in Los Angeles and is also working on new hotels in New York, plus two in Paris, a hotel in Miami and another in Copenhagen.

Martin Brudnizki
Martin Brudnizki

However, The Broadwick in London’s Soho will be Brudnizki’s first London hotel when it opens this autumn. “The idea behind The Broadwick is that it’s a wonderful New York townhouse in Soho starting from the entrance with its boudoir bar and the bedrooms to the bar on the roof. We want people to feel as if it’s their second home. It might not be what you want to live with in your home but it’s something that’s fun.”

Brudnizki has a formidable eye for detail. “Bathrooms should be machines. Even in your own home. The hooks in the right places, the heights of everything correct.” mbds.com

A William Morris for the 21st century: Ciaran O’Brien

Irish-born O’Brien of the Red Deer collective feels most aligned to the Victorian Arts and Craft movement. He was responsible for Birch, which opened last year just outside London. Once a DeVere conference hotel, last year Birch became a convention-breaking 140-bed hotel that everyone wanted to go to: it already has an enviable repeat guest level, despite only being open between August and early December.

Ciaran O'Brien (central) of Red Deer 
Ciaran O'Brien (central) of Red Deer

“It was an opportunity to look at the idea of value and what it means for our generation. Being not wasteful was a key tenet,” he says. As a result, they kept the old bathrooms but gave the tiles a new lease of life with car-style paint spray. In too came ‘usable art’, including clothes stands made in collaboration with ceramicist Emma Louise Payne and carpenter Jan Hendzel.

“The value of getting away is about space and quiet,” he says. “Most hotel rooms have really large wardrobes but people tend only to stay for two nights.” Rooms at Birch don’t have televisions or phones either; instead guests can do pottery, glass-blowing and woodwork, alongside Robin Gill’s food, rescue chickens and firepits with pre-prepared barbeques.

Birch stairwell
Birch stairwell

Next up is a London restaurant and a hotel project in Manchester, all with a strong sense of local crafts. At the heart of his ethos, he says, “is a new English ruralism, where we bring materials and makers together, similar to how an English country estate would have traditionally run but also new and refreshing.” (reddeer.co.uk)

The proteges: Fettle

Tom Parker and Andy Goodwin of Fettle, who both worked for Brudnizki, also have a dual practice between Los Angeles and London. They are responsible for The Hoxton in Portland, Oregon and The Marylebone Hotel in London. “Since lockdown, we’re seeing clients ask for naturalistic finishes,” they say.

Tom Parker and Andy Goodwin
Tom Parker and Andy Goodwin

With the forthcoming Hoxton in Rome, they aim to celebrate the building’s 1970s roots, bringing back traditional terrazzo flooring. The Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica, due to reopen in the autumn, is an exuberant art deco beach playground where Fettle is installing a speakeasy. “We want our hotels to feel homely and comfortable while transporting people to a different realm.”

Parker feels lighting is one of the ways home owners can learn from the hospitality industry. “Hotels use lighting to create different moods in a space throughout the day. Taking the same approach in your own home makes a lot of sense.” fettle-design.co.uk

The traditionalist: Hannah Lohan

“We’re definitely not a good fit for clients who want something contemporary and minimalist,” says Hannah Lohan. Projects include The Fish Hotel and its treehouses at the Farncombe estate in the Cotswolds, as well as The Dunstane Houses in Edinburgh.

farmer's arms dining room
farmer's arms dining room

Logan’s biggest canvas is the Woolsery, Michael and Xochi Birch’s planned regeneration of a village in North Devon. She started with The Farmers Arms, the village pub and cottages on the estate. She’s now working on Woolsery Manor, the boutique hotel that will be at the heart of it when it opens in 2022. “We’ve been looking back at old archives, wallpapers and fabrics; we’re going to be really celebrating the Georgian era, and how hedonistic and fun and playful that was.

“Don’t shy away from dark colours,” she advises, and explore online antique shops and sales. “Bringing in unique pieces of history adds character to any scheme.” hannahlohaninteriors.com

The doyenne: Olga Polizzi

“I thought I’d never use wallpaper again. It scuffs and paint is much easier but wallpaper really dresses a room and I’ve come back to it.” The daughter of Charles Forte, sister of sir Rocco Forte, Olga is self-effacing hotel royalty and, after opening the Tresanton in 1998 and the Endsleigh in 2005, has had a pivotal role in the reinvention of British rural hotels.

A bedroom at the Star Inn at Alfriston
A bedroom at the Star Inn at Alfriston

In May, in partnership with her daughter Alex Polizzi of The Hotel Inspector fame, her third hotel will open in the Sussex village of Alfriston. The timber-framed Star was once a Trusthouse Forte hotel. Originating in the 13th century with 1930s and 1960s extensions, there will be 30 rooms, a restaurant and bar.

“We’ve gone a bit mad with blues and oranges in the 1960s block,” she says from her home in Sussex. “But one has to be quite brave; even in your own home, overscale rather than underscale. I might use somebody’s wallpaper but I’ll get them to scale it up. And you can have patterned wallpaper and a different coloured chair with bright velvet and use it with checks and stripes. Kit Kemp of the Firmdale Hotel group does it really well.” thepolizzicollection.com