The 2000s. La Defense, Paris. An elegant French businesswoman rushes to make the deadline for her meeting. Crossing the street in her pin-striped power suit and court shoes, her sleek form recalls the precision and purity of lines of a modern business district. The scene is playing out in Jean-Philippe Nuel’s head. As her image flashes in his mind, the luxury hotel designer finds the inspiration to visualise the iconic steel and glass architecture of the Sofitel Paris La Defense Centre. Bingo!
Eureka moments abound in Jean-Philippe Nuel’s inspired world. The Sofitel Budapest, with its lobby in colourful geometric forms, is designed like a Sonia Delaunay painting. And the Mediterranean colour palette of the newly renovated family village of Club Med, Gregolimano, the venue of our current rendezvous, are a tribute to the blue sea and the traditional orange and black pottery of Greece. Indeed, epiphany can strike anytime, anywhere for the man who, years ago, recalls arriving in Bali at dusk and experiencing sheer magic at the sight of a little temple softly aglow in candle light.
The alumnus of Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris comes from a family of architects with a passion for design and contemporary creation. “Everything that has today become a great design classic was present in my home in the midst of piles of interior design magazines — tables and chairs by Saarinen, the Arco lamp by Castiglioni or the Pipistrella lamp by Aulenti and many others. It’s fascinating that I could use them today and they would still be considered very contemporary,” he says in his raspy French accent.
The soft-spoken Frenchman, who admires Gaudi and Le Corbusier for their mastery over space as well as decor, began his career designing boutique hotels like The Regent Petite France in Strasbourg and the Jiva Hill Park Hotel, Geneva. Today, he designs for major hotel chains like the Sofitel, Budapest and Paris La Defense, Hilton, Evian and Malta, and Club Med Peisey Vallandry. But his philosophy remains consistent. “Working with a major brand or a boutique hotel is not fundamentally different to working for an independent hotel. For me, in every case, it’s the beginning of the story I’m going to construct around the project.”
Luxury is enhanced by the use of materials, believes the design wiz who has a distinct take on modernity. “I believe you can create a very warm atmosphere with a modern style. It’s not necessary to see them as opposites, as many designers do. I like to work with warm textures. That’s an aspect of my style.” The strong Japanese influence in his work is evident in his emphasis on natural materials and simple lines. A case in point is the Jiva Hill Park Hotel, Geneva, which stands out for contemporary and uncluttered décor orchestrated with warm natural materials such as slate, wood and leather. In Gregolimano, Greece, where he has redesigned 70 rooms, the use of pebbled panels in the bathrooms adds a nice touch to the sea-inspired décor.
Projects realised by him — hotels, restaurants, spas, concept stores and private houses — have a common elegance and asserted modernity but also a touch of impertinence and glamour. An element of surprise runs through all his work. Witness the Sofitel Budapest where the severe exterior architectural design stands in stark contrast to the imposing and luxurious internal atrium. Or the Sofitel Paris, where the natural sobriety of brown and grey tones are enlivened by touches of brighter colours in the striped carpets and coverings reminiscent of the creative yet cheeky style of Paul Smith. Or the Studio Equip’ Hotel, Paris, where the bathroom has been reworked as a concept — the basins are fitted in the bedroom area and the bathtub is designed like a pool.
The Buddha Bar Spa, Evian-Les-Bains, France, which he designed last year, creates a special atmosphere, a break from the surrounding world, leading into the mysteries and sensuality of Asia. Reminiscent of a museum or art gallery, the décor brings out the darkness of the original works of art. Interestringly, traditional Chinese red is replaced by turquoise in contrast with the black of the surroundings.
Nuel, who is working on Le Meridien (Paris Etoile, Brussels and Dubai), Radisson (Nantes) and Westin (Aqaba in Jordan) in the coming days, is excited about working on the design of an upcoming five-star hotel in Pondicherry. “I’m happy to work in India, particularly Pondicherry, which has a charming fusion of Indian and French culture. India’s modernity and the collision of past and present is fascinating. It’s a very spiritual country. I like watching the people, the way they dress and eat. They don’t seem to be in such a hurry — except on the road! ”
He expects to finish work on the upcoming Indian resort by the sea in three years. “I want to create a hotel that’s modern yet Indian in essence,” he muses. Then chuckles softly, “With a little touch of French!” Mais, bien sur.