He has designed decadent hotels on all four corners of the globe. Melissa Twigg meets Jean-michel Gathy, the visionary architect behind your next holiday headquarters
The first time i try to speak to Jean-michel Gathy, he’s on a plane at Singapore’s Changi Airport and I can hear the distressed flight attendants in the background begging him to turn off his phone. The next day, he’s supposed to call me from Geneva, but the high-speed train he’s on has no signal. Four days later, he emails me from Gabon in West Africa, where he’s about to embark on a 20-hour journey back to his home on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
Apparently this is an average week for Asia’s top hotel designer. Gathy’s impressively packed travel schedule is a mark of his incredible success—he is currently designing 35 hotels around the globe and turns down new commissions on a daily basis. Sleep is not high on his agenda. The eminent Belgian architect is famed for capturing the location of his hotels through the materials he uses and the decorative references he includes, which means he needs to visit every site in order to get a feel for the surrounding area.
“Luckily I’m talented at understanding the essence of a place, so I don’t need as much time on the ground as other designers would,” he says in his smooth French accent. “I have been creating hotels for more than 30 years and my mind is automatically attuned
to certain messages, from the behaviour of the local population and the food they eat to the dominant colours and the general architectural style of a place. It’s like if you hear bagpipes, you immediately think of Scotland—it’s a reflex. Well, I have that reflex for everywhere I go. I’m sensitive to social messages and physical messages, and I’ve honed this skill with 45 years of travelling.”
Since the 1993 opening of his first hotel, Amanvana in Indonesia, Gathy has been highly sought after by the world’s top-tier hospitality brands; he now counts Aman Resorts, Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and Park Hyatt Hotels among his many clients. His architectural firm, Denniston, is based in Kuala Lumpur; it employs 150 of the brightest and best designers in the world. “The united knowledge of my staff is incredible,” he says. “Everyone has a skill at something—one is good for renovations, one for technical details, one for interiors.”
His team may be talented, but Gathy is savvy enough to know that when hotels hire Denniston, they want the star of the show on-site. “Of course, I’ll always go to every location—it’s one of my favourite parts of the entire process,” he says. “I’m like a kid in a candy store when I walk around the site. I get up at dawn and analyse the light and the winds, and how they change throughout the day. I look at the view, I look at the vegetation—everything. I’m extremely thorough in my investigation and this is good, because by the second day, I already know what the hotel will look like.”
Part of Gathy’s success is due to his profound understanding of the luxury market—he knows exactly what the international elite are looking to get out of their holidays. “People want charm, people want soul. It’s about more than just luxury. It’s about feeling a connection with a place—which is why we’re more than just architects. We’re lifestyle product designers. Design is about being brave and breaking rules. I know what people like and I know what people like to talk about. I always say that it’s more important to please the heart than the eye.”
Gathy’s heart-pleasing designs ensure his hotels have an unusually high number of repeat visitors. “It’s true that once people stay in one of my hotels, they usually want to come back. I know I do,” he adds with a laugh. And who could resist some of his more romantic concepts? After all, he’s the man who invented basking nets—double-person hammocks that hang over the tropical seas in hotels such as the One&only Reethi Rah in the Maldives. He’s also a great believer in “naughty bathrooms” and every year dreams up bigger, better bathrooms with vast free-standing tubs, outdoor showers and indoor steam rooms. His bathrooms at the Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives are around 700sqft—bigger than most apartments in his childhood home of Brussels. However, Gathy’s most famous (and most imitated) design feature must be his showstopping pools. He was one of the pioneers of private plunge pools and the reflective pools at his Aman properties have become some of the hotel group’s most iconic designs. Some of his creations are almost too beautiful to swim in—the pool in St Regis Lhasa in Tibet is lined in glazed gold plate and shimmers in the light; the Amanyara pool in Turks and Caicos is
“PEOPLE WANT CHARM, PEOPLE WANT SOUL. IT’S ABOUT MORE THAN JUST LUXURY. IT’S ABOUT FEELING A CONNECTION WITH A PLACE”
made from black volcanic rock; The Setai in Miami Beach has three parallel 30-metre lakes; and everybody knows Singapore’s Instagram favourite—the rooftop pool of the Marina Bay Sands.
“I’m obsessed with water,” he says. “The reason I like water in hotel designs is that it’s so peaceful and relaxing. Think how you feel when you’re by a lake or river—calmer, right? Well, that’s why I try to incorporate water into all my designs. It soothes the mind. For me, a hotel without water is boring. Of course, I’m talking about resort hotels—but if I can put water in a business hotel, I do. It’s the most powerful element in a hotel.”
Gathy moved from Belgium to Hong Kong in 1982 and then to Malaysia in 1992, where he now lives with his wife and son in a leafy suburb nine kilometres from the centre of Kuala Lumpur. Surprisingly, he didn’t design the 12,000sqft house he lives in. “I fell in love with the space and the garden, and of course I added an infinity pool—but I ended up doing so many renovations my wife said it would have been easier to start from scratch,” he says with a chuckle.
The three decades Gathy has spent in Asia are reflected in many of his hotel designs. He was one of the first modern designers to use Buddha sculptures as decoration, and he has incorporated Balinese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese architecture and design concepts into most of his international hotels. “From Asia, I learned peacefulness. In the room, people want to relax, so I make it as soothing as possible. You want to step into the hotel and feel the pressures of your life fall away.”
So where does the man behind the most glamorous hotels on earth go on holiday? “I like to travel to the hotels I have designed— I’m not saying they’re always superior, but if I want to go to the Maldives, I have designed the two best hotels there, so where else should I stay? Of my hotels, I particularly love the Aman in Venice. But my greatest pleasure is going on safari in Africa. Botswana is the best country in the world, and I go there or to Zambia or South Africa at least once a year— I must have been to about 50 camps in total. There’s nothing on earth like being out in the wilderness, surrounded by wildlife.”
Gathy is currently working in Africa for the first time, designing three Aman Resorts in Gabon. He is also about to launch two new Aman Resorts in Rio de Janeiro and Vietnam; a One&only Hotel and a Park Hyatt in Sanya; a new Mandarin Oriental in Bali; and revamps of the Metropol in Moscow and the Four Seasons in Bangkok.
“Yes, I’m very busy—but it’s a beautiful process,” he says. “Making a beautiful hotel is about orchestrating a dance between the landscape, the architecture and the interiors. There’s this wonderful chemistry when it finally works.”
watch this space Clockwise from far left: The lobby of the Park Hyatt Sanya; Jean-michel Gathy; a bathroom at Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives; the breakfast room of the Aman Venice
the net set Gathy designed the basking nets at the One&only Reethi Rah in the Maldives
golden touch From left: The pool at the St Regis Lhasa in Tibet is lined in glazed gold plate; a bedroom at the Four Seasons in Bangkok