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London Makeover for Brown's

Ditte Isager A Brown's doorman

Photo: Ditte Isager

Fast-forward to 2004, when Brown's, after being acquired (or, more correctly, reacquired) by the Rocco Forte Hotels group, was closed for a complete overhaul, to the tune of $33 million. Talk about the shock of the new! One can only imagine the collective shudder that must have gone through the faithful—the aging matrons and eminent gentlemen who lunched at 1837 (renamed the Grill) and brought their grandchildren to savor the crustless sandwiches and strawberries with clotted cream that were offered up for delectation in what is now called the English Tea Room—at the rumblings of change over on peaceful Albemarle Street. Although Brown's had been freshened up more than once since I'd stayed there, it had never been seriously deconstructed and put back together again, in that full-bodied, gutting-the-apartment sort of way so beloved of contemporary hoteliers. Never, that is, until now.

Enter Olga Polizzi, interior designer extraordinaire. If there was anyone in the business who had the chops—the mixture of aesthetic élan and historically cadenced sensibility—to take on the daunting project of coaxing Brown's into the broadbanded, flat-screen-LCD-televisions-in-the-bathroom mode that is the current 21st-century standard without sacrificing the hotel's high-ceilinged style and intimate quality, it was Polizzi. For one thing, as the daughter of Lord Forte, the eponymous founder of the original chain, and the sister of Sir Rocco Forte, who responded to the takeover of the family business by Granada in 1996 by forging ahead and—with his sister as a co-investor—strategically building up a dazzling collection of top-rated hotels, Polizzi has taste bred into her bones. She has always lived a full private life—she is married to the writer William Shawcross and has two daughters—and, as I discover when we meet late one morning in the suavely updated Grill, she has a charming, very female tendency to act as though she ambled into her executive design role (one she has inhabited for almost two decades) as a hobby.

Under the attentive eyes of the dining-room staff—who take small irons to the tablecloths, painstakingly fold napkins, and run vacuum cleaners over the carpet as the place empties out, before the lunch crowd tumbles in—Polizzi and I talk about books (she's been reading Vikram Seth's memoir, Two Lives) and trade gossip. She's eager to hear about the internationally celebrated skin doctor on Wimpole Street I have seen and we share a laugh about an unbearably pompous agent I avoided at lunch the day before at the Wolseley, a buzzed-about restaurant a stone's throw from the hotel. But underneath her unassuming presentation and casually elegant manner, Polizzi has a formidable expertise and a steeliness of purpose. These have helped establish her as something of a design visionary, one who imbues the interiors she oversees with a whimsical and personalized ambience that paradoxically succeeds in soothing travel-worn nerves rather than jangling them.

A case in point is the Grill, which is presided over by two prize catches, nabbed from other posh London outfits—maître d' Angelo Maresca, formerly and famously of the Savoy Grill, and executive chef Laurence Glayzer, whose sterling culinary résumé includes London's Harry's Bar and the Ritz. The restaurant's unfussy approach is reflected in both the menu and design. Classic fare such as oatmeal, grilled kippers, and poached finnan haddock is available for breakfast, along with more au courant offerings like muesli and fresh yogurt and something billed as an "energy/tonic breakfast," replete with herbal infusions. For dinner, there is perfectly rendered Dover sole meunière, roast saddle of English lamb, and a daily special from the gleaming carving trolley—as well as a selection of international dishes. The room itself has a soigné, yet welcoming, feel, done up in the muted seashell colors Polizzi is fond of using as a background canvas, with some vivid, eclectic touches thrown in for surprise. The original wood paneling is still intact, but the banquettes are new and upholstered in moss-green leather; the windows are shaded by Roman blinds in cream linen; cut-crystal vases with fashionably tight floral arrangements in deep shades of red and purple adorn the tables; and the tasseled FontanaArte lighting fixtures from the thirties are to die for.

Over a bowl of strawberries and a cup of tea in a corner of the Grill, Polizzi describes her intentions with quiet conviction: "I don't want people to feel they have to do their hair before they see the porter. And I want to push the boundaries slightly, so people think, 'That's a good idea—where'd you get that?' We take calls every day from people asking where can they get this or that." I can well imagine. Polizzi has the sort of instinctive eye that makes you want to revamp your own surroundings as styled by her. The visual effect she achieves—from a small slope-ceilinged retreat tucked away on the fifth floor to the grand (and grandly expensive) Kipling and Hellenic suites—is undoubtedly harder to emulate than it looks. The rooms provide an environment that is complex and multilayered, partly a cocoon and partly a reflection of a cultured sensibility.

Polizzi clearly shops for Brown's as if she were buying for her own house, acquiring pieces in locales as various as Pimlico and Brussels. She has a particular affinity for craftlike fixtures that began as something else: lamp stands that are pieces of old railings; wooden boxes with silver clasps that might have once been filled with snuff or oversize bills; old hat stands that stand around, looking memorable. Suffice it to say that I would have been more than happy to ship everything from my room home with me, of humble or grand provenance: the piles of Knopf Everyman's Library books; the colorful fabric pillows and woven throws; the art by Bridget Riley, Peter Blake, and Barbara Hepworth; the blood-red Murano glass bowl; and the William Yeoward vase that still had an indelicate price tag on the bottom.

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