With my wife-to-be Deborah, I left behind the wintry maelstrom of the Hackney creative scene, feeling cold and dank. As we torpedoed along on the Eurostar, the first stage of the journey was poetically enchanting, with the golden sun setting on open bonfires and castles marooned in the flat industrial wastelands of Northern France.
As our train skated towards Paris through arctic fog and blizzards, it was as though we were being transported through the wardrobe into Narnia. Arriving at the Gare du Nord, we were whisked through the snowy streets of Paris to the grand avenues of the 8th arrondissement, pulling up in front of the glowing lights and smiling uniforms of our weekend retreat: Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris. Here, the Narnia metaphor morphed into Alice in Wonderland as we entered Philippe Starck’s fantasy-world interpretation of Paris' 1920s heyday.
I remember now that I was invited to a Demolition Party at this very hotel a few years ago. The renovation has been brutal and brave: the faded grandeur of this landmark palace (which, since 1928, has hosted characters from Walt Disney and Ernest Hemingway to Maurice Chevalier and Madonna), was ceremonially and joyously ripped apart, with Starck and his team moving in the very next day to perform his rabbit-hole transformation.
The ghosts of the great and the good occupy these hallways a Louboutin heel-click from the Champs Elysées, captured for posterity by the many, many mirrors. And, if the reflective surfaces of chrome, glass and stainless steel discombobulate you, the baroque armchairs and a wall of mussel shells bring you back to down to earth.
Art deco and postmodern references confirm Philippe Starck is a design aficionado on overdrive: here he takes Coco Chanel Through the Looking Glass to meet the surreal and trippy characters of the dream world. From the public parts to the private, this hypnotic journey through the imagination continues – the humour and playfulness of Starck's studio comes out in boldly striped corridors, eccentrically laid carpet in the lift and the odd moment of rustic charm cast in silicon and aluminium.
The artistry never abates, with enamel painted doodles like permanent marker on the staircase mirror panels, the tangled forest carpet and a life-size carved-wood moose herd in the basement. I confess my artist’s sensibility was at times perturbed by the ‘hang’ of the works in the hotel – crammed full of art as well as artifice – which has an effect of reducing art to decoration. The Simon Chaput waterfall images gracing our suite were over-large, barely framed, resting on the floor and nonchalantly tucked behind the armchairs, almost as if the cleaner had moved them out of the way.
The hotel suites are as gorgeously luxurious as we could have hoped for though, with endless digital lighting moods to play with. It was rather a challenge to one’s existential self: with Mrs Smith’s holiday reading (fittingly) being Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, it left us feeling slightly like paranoid goldfish. The bathrooms have a uniquely lavish hall-of-mirrors opulence that reflects guests in infinite dimensions; a giant mirror at the end of the deliciously comfortable bed-island slightly disturbingly reveals itself to be two-way glass with a huge TV screen hidden behind it.
Eccentric and interesting photographs are hung liberally throughout the hotel – we counted more than 120 in La Cuisine alone – apparently collected by the Starck team from auction houses and thrift shops. Reframing them in brushed steel and dotting them erratically in verticals across the walls, and some precariously behind chairs, didn’t seem to do them justice. The special commission by Stéphane Calais – Un Jardin à la Française – works more eloquently in the dining room, bringing a joyous energy to the roof.
Our dinner in La Cuisine exceeded expectations even for the fanciest French fine dining. A crab starter came served in a small glass spaceship with a miniature garden around it. The knife choice we were given before the main course was a whole new learning experience. The waiter helped us out: ‘The Porsche – that’s all about design,’ he told us. Deborah went for the Japanese ninja knife and I went for the classic French Perceval 9.47. This, along with five choices of salt, made being able to watch the millefeuille being made in real time merely icing on the cake. And we don’t even have time left to tell you about the thrills the cheese course brought with it…
After a day of gallery meetings, and visiting special exhibitions in Paris, this Mr and Mrs Smith felt properly cultured, and ready to be spoilt back in the Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris spa, which we had heard was unmissable. Sure enough, the attention to detail – from bronze cast twig handles on the sauna to the baroque mirrors that backdrop the 28-metre turquoise swimming pool – was mesmerising.
I recall a saying among graphic designers that a piece of text should never use more than two fonts. Pah. If Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris is a love letter penned by Philippe Starck, he’s masterfully used a dozen – and it was a wonderfully heady and quixotic experience for us both.