In the London neighborhoods of Soho and the South Bank, two properties with serious design pedigrees bring new forms and new thinking to the hotel landscape.
In London’s ever-evolving Soho neighborhood, British designer Kit Kemp and her husband, Tim, have opened their most ambitious project to date: the Firmdale brand’s Ham Yard Hotel. On a bomb site abandoned since the World War II Blitz, the 91-room property and shopping area, with 13 one-off boutiques, spans the three-quarter-acre block between Great Windmill Street and Denman Street.
“Soho has always been edgy, but it’s also got a strong artistic history—Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud both lived here. We wanted to tap into that,” Kit says. In the center of the front garden stands a bronze sculpture by Tony Cragg. The hotel’s glass façade is a Modernist foil to Kit’s colorful interiors, which make the place feel more like a private home. There are contemporary artworks from marquee artists such as painter Sandra Blow, bespoke timber tables, and a delightful layering of boho-chic printed fabrics, wallpapers, and other textures—all to create, as Kit puts it, “a hotel where you don’t have to wear high heels.”
On the ground floor, a sophisticated crowd fills chef Robin Read’s airy restaurant. His Modern British menu uses vegetables and herbs from the hotel’s roof garden, served in a dining room with walls covered in Kit’s yellow-and-gray Willow cloth and a light installation by Martha Freud (the great-granddaughter of Lucian).
The Library, a signature room in all Firmdale hotels, comes equipped with an honesty bar discreetly hidden beside sky-high bookshelves filled with novels and design tomes. Upholstered chairs surround a cozy fireplace, and a landscape painting by English artist Joanna Carrington hangs above the mantelpiece. Here, it’s all about unwinding, but downstairs is designed for pure entertainment—there’s a triple-height lounge and bar, a 188-seat theater, and even a 1950’s four-lane bowling alley imported all the way from Texas. $$$$
Designer Kit Kemp's Favorite Stops in Soho
Rapha Cycle Club This industrial-style space specializes in chic cycling gear and doubles as a coffee shop.
Nordic Bakery Everything here is based on authentic Nordic recipes, from the gravlax sandwiches to the Karelian pie.
Bocca di Lupo I first visited this restaurant when I heard it was a favorite of Edmund de Waal, a British ceramic artist and author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes. Owned by London-born chef Jacob Kenedy, it’s a stripped-down place that serves regional Italian cuisine, including deep-fried calamari and soft-shell crab with lemon. $$$
Gelupo Also owned by Kenedy, Gelupo gelateria has delicious artisanal flavors: avocado; vanilla with honeycomb; watermelon with cinnamon and jasmine flower.
For centuries, the north side of the Thames was considered London’s epicenter, but all eyes have turned to the South Bank. With the Hayward Gallery, National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall, Tate Modern, Borough Market, and, most recently, the Shard—Western Europe’s tallest building—the area has cemented its place on the global cultural map. The latest addition? Morgans Hotel Group’s Mondrian London (its third property in the city after St. Martins Lane and the Sanderson), set in the iconic 1970’s Sea Containers House, former home to one of the world’s largest shipping companies. Conceived by British visionary Tom Dixon (and his Design Research Studio), the hotel, expected to open next month, occupies half the building and pays homage to the structure’s original American designer, Warren Platner, known as a champion of 1960’s Modernism. Dixon’s design riffs on the idea of an American hotel abroad, the building’s shipping heritage, and a cruise liner making its transatlantic crossing between the two great cities of New York and London.
“I wanted to mix the best of Americana with the best of Britishness, without losing a sense of place,” Dixon says. The hotel will be one of only two in London with direct access to the river. At the entrance, there’s a dramatic 223-foot-long patinated-copper “hull” inspired by the British clipper ship Cutty Sark. It slices into the building, connecting the lobby to the riverfront restaurant, peeling away to reveal an open kitchen, where chef Seamus Mullen, from New York City’s Tertulia, will oversee a standout seasonal menu. The property’s Dandelyan bar looks out onto the water and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In the 315 rooms and 44 suites, away from the buzz of the bar scene below, Dixon opts for streamlined furnishings and soothing, muted shades of gray with whimsical accents such as his own drip oil paintings and signature wing chairs—and, for a touch of British quirk, cupboards lined with pink paint to evoke the inside of a Savile Row suit. $$
Designer Tom Dixon's Top Picks on the South Bank
Hayward Gallery I love this contemporary art gallery, which hosts rotating exhibitions. The Brutalist building is incredible, and I think it’s a style of architecture that will soon be justly celebrated.
Design Museum Don’t miss this brilliant showcase for the best in design (from early Modernism to current-day works). It moves to a new location in Kensington soon.
Cave London A boutique chocolate, wine, and flower shop all in one, Cave London also hosts cool art events.
Wright Bros. Oyster & Porter House, Borough Market Come here for delicious oysters, sourced from producers in the British Isles and France. Tables spill out onto the sidewalk.
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Sarah Miller is Travel + Leisure's European Editor.