With their intimate, unconventional properties around the globe, these six trailblazers are transforming the boutique hotel.
May 14, 2010
1 of 20Catherine Ledner
In his 18 years as a highflier in the energy and commodities business, Kirk Lazarus stayed in countless luxury hotels. “But I was always looking for more,” says the South Africa native. So he took matters into his own hands and in 2002 built a lodge in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve, an hour by plane from Johannesburg. Friends were impressed by the five ultra-private suites and plunge pools and persuaded him to open his property to the public as Molori Safari Lodge six years later. Since then, Lazarus has launched Molori Mirage, a villa on the Great Barrier Reef. Upcoming projects include Molori Clifton, an oceanside house in Cape Town (this winter), and Molori Beach House, in Santa Monica, California (next spring). The rates are steep—starting at $2,700 a night for a suite at the lodge—but Lazarus insists the experience is worth it and that his VIP clients (including Kate Moss and Mischa Barton) happily pay the price.
What’s the trick? Trusting your own instincts and preferences. A fearless adventurer (he recently toured Iceland and Greenland by foot, boat, horseback, and quad bike), Lazarus devises once-in-a-lifetime experiences for guests, such as a helicopter ride to a picnic spot on the edge of a cliff in Queensland, Australia.
You’ve got to be fearless to take on street criminals in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. To turn a run-down motor court in Austin, Texas, into a boutique hotel—spearheading an entire neighborhood’s renaissance—you’ve got to be both fearless and visionary. That’s Liz Lambert, who ditched her career as prosecutor to create the Hotel San José, which opened a decade ago. The 1936 motel in the South Congress area of Austin “happened to be across the street from my favorite pub,” Lambert recalls. “When I was in town, I would think, Someone really ought to redo that place.” She spent three years transforming it into what it is today—a wildly popular retreat. Last year, Lambert opened the Hotel Saint Cecilia, a Victorian manse nearby, with an eclectic look based on two imaginary muses: a decadent, velvet-draped glam rocker in the Mick Jagger vein and a globe-trotting gay uncle whose house is stuffed with artifacts from his travels. The result: everything from chesterfield sofas and old photographs to handmade Swedish mattresses. Even more eccentric is El Cosmico, in Marfa, Texas, made up of vintage trailers, yurts, and a tepee. This past April, she finished her latest project: restoring the historic Hotel Havana, in San Antonio, Texas. “We reused all the original furniture, and it was the world’s quickest turnaround—one hundred and twenty days.”
During the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990’s, Peng Loh Lik was working as a bankruptcy lawyer. “I came across a property in Singapore’s Chinatown that the bank was trying to sell, but nobody would touch.” He took a chance, bought it “for a song,” and redid it from head to toe in 2003. The result: Hotel 1929, the city’s first boutique property. He’s since opened the nearby New Majestic, and a third Singapore property, Wanderlust (wanderlusthotel.com), is on the way next month. Loh treats each building as an uncommon treasure, using local architects to keep the space true to its past. At the New Majestic, for instance, he hired emerging Singaporean artists to create the fanciful suites, with larger-than-life murals and beds suspended from the ceiling. And in Shanghai, Loh turned a derelict factory into the Waterhouse at South Bund with polished concrete, steel, and patinated wood to reflect its industrial roots. His latest project is a renovated Edwardian structure in London’s Bethnal Green, the Town Hall Hotel & Apartments. Loh is drawn to these historic spaces: “People always ask why I choose a certain area, but for me, it’s always about the buildings.”
“Fashion is a fast-paced business,” says Wilbert Das, the former creative director of Diesel. “Once one collection is out, you need to have done the next one. I wanted to make something that was long-lasting and sort of slow-feeling.” Das is referring to Uxua, the unconventional hotel that he opened in June 2009 in the Brazilian town of Trancoso. Uxua—nine detached casas spread around the Bahian town’s village green—was never meant to be a hotel. The Dutch-born designer bought the first structure, an old fisherman’s house, to use as a second residence, then ended up acquiring two more buildings and constructing six others. The result is a hybrid of hotel and private villa: “The feeling we wanted to create was that of visiting friends. You never pass a reception area and there are no signs, no logos on the towels. You’re given a key and shown around your house.” The common areas include a pool lined with shimmering green quartz and an open kitchen where guests can cook; there’s also a beach club and spa. In a deliberate departure from the urban style of his work at Diesel, Uxua’s interiors are organic, rustic, and sensual; Das used native materials—reclaimed wood, canvas from old trucks, and ceramics by the local Pataxó Indians—to decorate each house. Service, too, is designed to be casual rather than fawning. “The typical if-I-drop-something-somebody-comes-to-pick-it-up type of service—that’s too much,” he says. “Everything here is done with a smile. And I make sure that people are happy to work here.”
Rabih Hage wants to turn the definition of luxury on its head. The Lebanon-born, London-based architect and interior designer thinks the concept has become homogenized: “It’s now a word just used to sell more of something, with a higher premium.” Rough Luxe, the London hotel Hage created in 2008, operates by a different principle. “Luxury can be sitting in a small, well-lit room with a book and beautiful artwork on the walls.” At the nine-room Rough Luxe, in a Georgian building in the King’s Cross neighborhood, Hage left historical details as they were: some chipped paint here, a bare floorboard there. It’s an exercise in urban archaeology, and Hage cites wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic that values impermanence over perfection, as an influence. “I was searching for beauty in imperfection,” he says. With its shared baths and lack of telephones, the hotel certainly isn’t for everyone. But its success among a discerning group of travelers has convinced Hage to establish the Rough Luxe Collection, a worldwide network of hotels, restaurants, and shops—from Paris’s Shakespeare & Co. bookstore to the Cape Heritage Hotel, in South Africa—all stamped with the brand’s name. “It’s about an authentic experience. I hate it when I walk into a hotel and the concierge looks at his computer screen and calls me by name. That is fake. That’s not authentic,” Hage says.
Although he studied economics at Rutgers and worked for two years as an investment banker, Istanbul native Tuncel Toprak approaches hotels with more art than science. “I wanted everything to be natural,” he says of his two-year-old Witt Istanbul Suites. “If the staff members are happy and love the place, they’ll treat guests nicely. And we’ll get good word of mouth.” Despite having no marketing budget or sales team, Toprak has managed to keep his 17 rooms in Istanbul’s up-and-coming neighborhood of Cihangir booked. What’s his secret? Besides that friendly staff, it’s the refreshing design by Istanbul firm Autobahn. The look avoids Orientalist clichés and stays simple, almost Scandinavian, but with a futurist twist: curved wooden headboards; mirrored subway tiles; Hans Wegner–meets–Mark Newsom chairs. The overall idea is to be the type of place where locals themselves would stay, and to help visitors, in turn, feel like locals. “The same comfortable bed I have at home, we put in the hotel,” he says. “We use the same satellite TV provider, because it has the channels I like to watch.” Though the Witt epitomizes the city’s forward-looking creative class, Toprak is an old-fashioned innkeeper at heart, with no plans to expand. “I want the Witt to be artisanship in a hotel.”