Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Hotel Lutetia – located midway between the Saint-Germain of existentialism and the Montparnasse of jazz and artist studios – has been the HQ of the literary and artistic crowds. A building brimming with stories, Jean Cocteau, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker, Serge Gainsbourg, Catherine Deneuve, David Lynch and Brad Pitt have all resided there.
With an aesthetic straddling the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, it was also a place where artists like Arman, Philippe Hiquily and Takis left their mark. The late French sculptor Cesar Baldaccini decorated his own suite while another eminent sculptor Leon Binet animated the iconic undulating stone facade with depictions of birds, angels, vines and bunches of grapes. By the time the hotel closed in 2014 for renovations, it owned nearly 280 listed artworks.
It’s no coincidence that the hotel overlooks Le Bon Marche, the world’s first modern department store created by French entrepreneur Aristide Boucicaut, as it was initially built in 1910 to house the shop’s clients and suppliers during their visits to Paris. Just as Le Bon Marche jostled the codes of the retail trade and introduced novel marketing concepts, the avant-garde Lutetia ushered in the era’s most innovative luxuries: hot water, telephones for calling reception, air conditioning and rolling shutters activated from inside the room.
Henri Tauzin and Louis-Hippolyte Boileau, whose father Louis-Charles Boileau was the architect of Le Bon Marche, constructed the hotel using pioneering processes and materials at the time: concrete, glass and hot-riveted steel pillar foundations developed by Gustave Eiffel (the engineering genius behind the Eiffel Tower completed in 1889).
Fast forward a century and French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte has masterminded the latest four-year, $310 million overhaul of the Lutetia owned by The Set Hotels, in association with Perrot & Richard, experts in the restoration and respect of heritage.
He reduced the total number of the rooms from 233 to 184 to carve out space for 47 exquisite suites, seven of which are signature suites, elevated the hotel to “palace” standards (an official French government rating for hotels that are considered better than five-star), ensured it met current regulations, and upgraded its energy efficiency and wastewater recycling measures.
Approximately 100 different crafts companies including specialists in the restoration of stained-glass elements, decorative paintings, mosaics and sculptures were involved in the refurbishment. The difficulty lay in striking a delicate balance between history and modernity.
“We were so fortunate to find ourselves before a true myth, and to renovate this decor from the past by projecting it into the 21st century,” Jean-Michel says. “In this particular case, two separate elements are at stake: designing a hotel and designing the Lutetia, which is undoubtedly one of the Paris Left Bank’s grandest hotels. Bringing it up to code and reviving it was vital. Our challenge was to rejuvenate a place while respecting its roots, its identity, its originality and its personality.”
Bringing the past back to life, a whole series of friezes and bas-reliefs in the lobby were unearthed and resurrected. Nearly 17,000 work hours were needed to restore Adrien Karbowsky’s emblematic fresco that was hidden beneath six coats of paint in Bar Josephine. Paying homage to the Abbaye-aux-Bois convent’s garden – on top of which the hotel had been built – it portrays wheat, grape clusters, fruit trees, animals, harvesting, and hunting.
A major facelift was also carried out at the heart of the Lutetia since it was the only Parisian grand hotel lacking a garden – a requirement for an establishment of that level of prominence. Therefore, an existing windowless grand salon was demolished and an internal courtyard patio created to permit daylight to flood the interiors.
Over at the once stuffy Brasserie Lutetia, where French chef Gerald Passedat – known for his three Michelin-star restaurant Le Petit Nice in Marseille – is reinventing the codes of Parisian brasserie cuisine with his take on the best of the Mediterranean, the original double-height ceiling of the 1910 building was rehabilitated. French artist Fabrice Hyber was enlisted to paint the Salon Saint-Germain’s newly-rediscovered 100-square-metre glass roof, imagining a fantastical watercolour populated by strange creatures like his signature green man, the Michelin Man, Pac-Man, astronaut and teddy bears.
The contemporary guestrooms feature Art Deco-style furniture pieces designed by Jean-Michel and manufactured exclusively by Poltrona Frau for the hotel while the 700-sqare-metre Akasha spa with six treatment cabins, gym and hair salon bathed in natural light showcases a 17-metre-long pool surrounded by marble walls and floors, porthole-shaped decorations, Lalique vases and works by haute couture textile artist duo, Celine Alexandre.
Jean-Michel comments: “Every element was custom-designed and produced exclusively for the Lutetia. We fought throughout the entire project to avoid ending up with standard furniture from a catalogue. The reinterpretation of the furniture was particularly exciting. We started off with the old furniture, but used different materials. For instance, wing chairs are back, but we replaced canework with leather straps.”
“We also used perforated metals. It feels like a dialogue is beginning between restored traces of the past, recreated new elements and these brand-new 1910-style- inspired pieces of furniture. We also carried through a strong wood theme to add warmth to the entire project,” he sats. “The year of 1910 was the time of the big transatlantic adventures. Our idea was to draw in some of the atmosphere from those big old yachts by using varnished wood in every circulation pathway. Hence, they are similar to passageways on a boat. The goal was to bring about a strong contrast with the very bright rooms.”
This article first appeared in Home & Decor.