T+L special correspondent Christopher Petkanas goes off the beaten path in Paris to check out a pint-size hotel with outsize design—and aspirations to match.

Martin Morrell The exterior of Hôtel Particulier Montmartre, in Paris's 18th Arrondissement.
| Credit: Martin Morrell

Hôtel Particulier Montmartre sits on a cobblestoned passageway—leafy, romantic, and graffitied—that the plan de Paris does not even acknowledge with a name. This is rare for the city, where even the narrowest allées and most insignificant ruelles have designations. But the map isn’t totally disinterested in the passageway, which people who live in the northern 18th Arrondissement have used as a secret shortcut to get from Avenue Junot to Rue Lepic, and vice versa, since forever: three infinitesimal parallel lines sketched in by the cartographer signify a (steep) staircase. Of course, one look up at Sacré Coeur and you know that topography is destiny in Montmartre. Terrain trumps everything.

On the face of it, Amélie country—Place du Tertre and its ghastly daubers, Marché St.-Pierre and its divine fabric shops—is a brave and unlikely location for a hotel charging, deep breath, $600 a night. No one thinks of Montmartre in terms of spending the night, not unless you like Mercures and Holiday Inns. At dinner down the street from Hôtel Particulier at Aux Négociants, an old Doisneau favorite and the kind of “four-table family restaurant” beloved by Julian Barnes, Parisian friends who’d never heard of the hotel were unbelieving. Marie Bailhache, a design journalist, and her husband, Philippe Gronon, a noted art photographer, said only a pigeon (French for sucker) would pay that all the way up here.

But if, like me, you really have no better reason for staying in the First or Seventh than that it’s where you have always stayed since your first trip to Paris in 1972; if you have been looking for a way out of those bourgeois ghettos, prosperous and reassuring as they are; if their street sweepers and barmen, toddler-wear boutiques and butchers’ vitrines don’t quite do it for you anymore, $600 can seem like a bargain. I don’t think you can put a price on learning a new Paris neighborhood, not one with bistros this real and vest-pocket markets like Rue Duhesme’s. You cannot ignore a place with a monument to Dalida.

With only five rooms, Hôtel Particulier doesn’t have to convince the world that Montmartre is the new Marais. While the urban fashion for so-called “microhotels” has been around a while—the category was born in 2003, when Carla Sozzani launched 3Rooms in Milan—Hôtel Particulier proves their growing viability. And by applying the concept to a nearly freestanding Directoire house with a luxuriant private garden in the French capital—and by then adding a gripping contemporary-art–and-design subplot—it is changing the game and pointing the way.

Though there’s no official or even unofficial definition of a microhotel, most hospitality pundits cap the number of rooms at five. Microhotels came just in time for travelers in search of apartment-style accommodations that would help them to live like locals. Fashion designers are a big part of the picture, and not only in the way you might think: Azzedine Alaïa is a partner in the Paris outpost of 3Rooms, and Holland’s Analik is behind Miauw Suites in Antwerp and Amsterdam. Scratch a destination these days and you’ll find a microhotel: the Residenza Napoleone III in Rome, the One Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Obviously, small on its own guarantees nothing. Hôtel Particulier isn’t perfect. Service is a pipe dream. At any given time, the number of personnel working in the hotel may not even be one. Among the 111 things it must do before accepting another reservation is bag the lanterns lining the entrance walk. They create a terrible first impression. Marie and Philippe were scandalized, their national pride wounded. Did management think no one would recognize the lanterns from the wide aisles of Ikea Marseille and Paramus?

Until you breach the threshold, Hôtel Particulier looks like the home of a well-fed provincial notary, which is to say like the dignified foursquare house I think of when I think of my French dream house. A child could draw it: all the windows in the three-story façade line up with pleasing geometry; lead urns march up the steps to the front door, which is centered and framed by iron lanterns on brackets; a chimney puffs ribbons of smoke. In recent years, the building belonged to the Hermès family. The Louis Benech garden was not a deal-maker for Morgane Rousseau and Frédéric Comtet, Hôtel Particulier’s owners, though they realized it would be a big selling point with guests. Benech, who, with Pascal Cribier, renovated the Tuileries in 1997, is to garden design in France what Jacques Grange is to decorating. At the hotel, Benech says he sought the feel of a wild, impromptu garden, but one that has been brought to heel. He went out of his way to choose mostly evergreen shrubs and trees, so that all the intimate little corners and pockets he introduced—for reading, for cocktails, for listening to the owlsong—are plush even in winter. La vie en vert.

Rousseau and Comtet’s hideaway is both brilliant and flawed for the same reason: they never ran a hotel before. (Neither had Rousseau, the property’s designer, done any professional decorating.) Answering to no one, unhardened by the business, and having never had a flop, the pair turned their lack of experience to creative advantage. On the other hand, the basics elude them: the phone system doesn’t allow you to call outside the hotel from your room, and if anyone thought of turndown the idea was rejected. The list of things missing is fairly endless.

Having marketed movies, Comtet now markets the hotel. In the nineties, he and Rousseau operated an artists’ residence at Château de Bionnay in the Beaujolais, where, in exchange for being lodged and fed, wards left behind a work. Many of the beautiful velvet curtains at Hôtel Particulier were recycled from Bionnay and pool extravagantly on the floor because Rousseau couldn’t bear to cut them down. During her patroness period, one French magazine wrote that she “is not satisfied with being beautiful, charming, and rich,” and a privileged, slightly spoiled air still clings to her. Rousseau’s disco-y vision of herself in her new role as hotelkeeper involves stomping around in extremely high heels, leggings, and peekaboo tops, her hair a tangle of choucroute. It’s an impressive show.

Unlike at other art-driven hotels, she did not simply enlist artists with instructions to let themselves go. “I think that’s an inherently false idea and one doomed to fail,” says Rousseau. “It vulgarizes and trivializes their work, and besides, you can’t necessarily expect them to design spaces that work for a hotel.”

Instead, the rooms are collaborations. Artists furnished the provocation, Rousseau the creature comforts. The Arbre à Oreilles suite features a poetic if maddeningly enigmatic wallpaper commissioned from Pierre Fichefeux, an indie illustrator known to readers of WAD. The paper depicts a tree and storks with their beaks tied or handcuffed. I don’t know how anyone could be expected to figure this out without a user’s guide, but Fichefeux intends guests to record a secret using a microphone set in the wall along the tree’s trunk. The birds are unable to repeat the secret, but a speaker on the other side of the room can—not just yours, but the secrets of everyone who has slept in the Tree with Ears and confessed.

Across the hall in Vitrine, Philippe Mayaux explores the same notion—that of travelers leaving something behind—with a wall-hung glass cabinet guests have begun to fill with doll’s shoes, a figurine of a mermaid with butterfly wings, and a palm-size Eiffel Tower. A second cabinet contains Mayaux’s kinky, precisely composed still-lifes of pink, rubbery objects, suggestive of sex toys and dental appliances. If this was the only room available, I think I might go for the Mercure.

Rideau de Cheveux showcases two giant photographs by Natacha Lesueur of young women looking fixedly from behind curtains of their own hair. Lesueur can’t make up her mind whether they’re “guardian angels” watching out for you, or “silent witnesses” registering your indiscretions. Végétale is wrapped in a photomural of dense branches in full leaf by Martine Aballéa. Olivier Saillard, a curator at ’s Les Arts Décoratifs-Musée de la Mode et du Textile, dressed Poèmes et Chapeaux entirely in gray and black men’s suiting fabrics—pinstriped flannel for a buttoned slipper chair, drap de laine edged in tuxedo satin for the bedcover.

Marie and Philippe were least kind about the common salons. Working with a merchandiser whose clients include Chanel, Rousseau stuffed them with so much Saarinen and Jacobsen furniture they look like Knoll showrooms. She has a lot of plans for the hotel—a restaurant, a bar, even, imagine, someone on duty nonstop from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. That all sounds promising. In the meantime, Rousseau shouldn’t insist too much on the hotel being “just like home,” which it is in that you have to do most things yourself. The very least you can say about Hôtel Particulier now is that it’s a great place waiting to happen. The location doesn’t hurt.