Before 2020, Jean-Michel Gathy, the go-to designer for many of the world’s most luxurious hotels, was almost permanently on a plane. He travelled 220 days a year. Whether he was off to discuss the next Aman or One&Only, a Mandarin Oriental, Rosewood or a Four Seasons, Gathy would hurtle through a dozen meetings in a few days before moving on to the next continent. “I’m someone who loves life,” he says. “I design the wow places.”
But this year has put a temporary stop to Gathy’s globetrotting – and he is absolutely loving that too. “I’ve discovered the beauty of Malaysia, where I’ve lived for so many years and now explore different places every weekend. I’ve rediscovered my wife. I’ve got healthier. The pandemic is an absolute catastrophe, but it’s changed my life for the better,” says the tanned, exuberant 65-year-old Belgian, speaking from the Kuala Lumpur HQ of his architecture and interior-design company Denniston.
“It’s the perfect size,” he explains. “I’m an absolute control freak, so with 150 people we can control the quality and standard of what we design.”
Gathy, a slim figure with a deep, silky voice and American-tinged Belgian accent, loves to talk – and fast, which makes sense for someone who usually lives at full speed. He doesn’t like to talk about his personal life, I’m warned.
But when we first met earlier this year, in the Hôtel du Crillon in Paris – where he was staying on the way back from his mother’s 90th birthday in Belgium – he immediately launched into a story about pitching up at the Park Hyatt in Shanghai to surprise his daughter [he has four children, the three eldest now living in France, Italy and Belgium, the youngest with him in Malaysia] on her 21st birthday. “But because she was doing her hotel training there, she could see photos of all the VIPs visiting that day, so she knew I was there,” he laughs.
Now such whimsical jaunts are off the agenda. But his new-found working-from-home lifestyle is a source of joy to Gathy. “It’s absolutely delightful,” he enthuses. “I have breakfast and dinner every day with my wife [Anita]. I’d forgotten what my son Keanu looked like. It’s amazingly good to be home with him. I’ll be more selective about travel from now on. I think the whole world will be.”
The latest of Gathy’s hotels to open is the Four Seasons Tokyo, an ultra-modern 39-storey tower in the ancient Otemachi district with views stretching to Mount Fuji. Unusually, given the difficulties this year has thrown at everyone, its September launch went to plan. “I couldn’t travel to this one,” says Gathy. “But it was a glamorous event and within days, the hotel had 40 per cent occupancy. Tokyo has a big domestic market.”
Many of Gathy’s other projects have been delayed. The unveiling of the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok has been pushed back till next February; the One&Only Montenegro is now set for a March 2021 opening; and the Jumeirah Bali remains under wraps. “No foreigners can enter the country,” he explains.
Another of his landmark new projects is the Aman New York, which will include the world’s first urban Aman residences. That’s also loosely slated for a 2021 opening, though its delay is as much down to the cumbersome bureaucracy involved in totally overhauling a historic building on Fifth Avenue as it is virus-related. “It’s in construction. It’s just taking time to pass various laws.”
A global pandemic has done little to interrupt Gathy’s workload, though. “There have been some hiccups and adjustments, but I have continued throughout,” says the architect, who still draws everything by hand. “You transfer the emotion through your hand. Something that is perfect is not sexy. I believe having a bit of a patina on an idea makes it more attractive and gives it more soul,” he says. And still he takes on new projects. “If you design a hotel today, it’ll open in five years when all these problems will be solved – and now is a good time to plan, as contractors are available and land is cheaper.”
In recent months, he has secured approval for the transformation of the art deco Versailles hotel on Miami Beach. He also got the green light for California’s biggest ever masterplan, the 38 square mile Langtry Farm in the Napa Valley, which will include homes, hotels, wineries, universities, museums and sporting facilities. “Un-be-liev-able,” he says, accentuating every syllable. “Major, major job. It’s very real, very environmentally conscious. You have to tread carefully.” He also has projects on the go in Saudi Arabia, Greece, Japan, Madagascar… “Many, many, many,” he says, struggling to reel them off fast enough.
He says several months of going nowhere has its upsides. “We can have 25 consultants on a call at the same time. You could never get them all in the same place at the same time before.”
But he misses the connection that comes with face-to-face meetings. “To explain a design, you go through an emotional layer. You live it with me.” And he’s missing all that time when he was off the radar on planes. “Now I work more intensely. There’s no day off, as everyone knows where you are. But I feel a million dollars. Someone just told me I look younger,” he laughs.
He likens design in a time of plague to 20 years ago, when ‘green’ architects such as Renzo Piano and Ken Yeang were hailed as visionary one-offs, “but being green is now the norm. It sharpened the profession.” He also draws comparisons to life after 9/11, “which refocused attention on security in hotels, on planes,” he says.
“We all get used to change. We absorb it. The virus will do the same thing to hotel design. We’ll adjust our lives to social distancing. The industry will develop products – sensor controls instead of push buttons, more materials that are resistant to viruses, more housekeepers to sanitise rooms. Those are all management issues. They don’t change the door I design. Nothing will change.”
Gathy has been honing his craft for three decades, ever since he got his first big break in luxury resorts when Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman Resorts, asked him to design Amanwana in Indonesia. Gathy brought true glamour to glamping – before such a concept even existed – with 20 luxury tents set between jungle and white sands.
‘My personality – my passion for luxury, art, beautiful things – matched his type of work well, and he brought me into the world of “lifestyle design”, says Gathy of this career-defining partnership. “Then, because I was known as the Aman architect – and Aman was basically the best boutique hotel company in the world at that time – brands such as One&Only and Four Seasons approached me to work with them. That exposure to different brands is the reason I have become the go-to architect. I became the specialist.”
Many of Gathy’s ideas are now widely copied in luxury hotel resorts around the world. He’s famous for his centrepiece swimming pools, including the rooftop pool at the Marina Sands hotel in Singapore, and the 24-carat-gold-tiled pool at the St Regis Lhasa in Tibet. “I love pools. When you go on holiday, the first thing you ask is ‘where’s the pool?’ You sit there, eat there, look at it. It’s décor and relaxation,” he says, promising that his dramatic, cliff-edge pool for the forthcoming W hotel in Bali will become “very famous”. It’s Gathy, too, who came up with the idea of suspending netted hammocks over water in the Maldives. “Now it’s been copied everywhere. Everyone talks about my hammocks,” he says.
Every project, he says, is guided by its location. “You don’t impose on a site. Its geology, topography, access, guide you. You don’t dress the same when you go to a black-tie dinner as you dress when you go horse-riding, but you are the same person. It’s exactly the same with hotel design,” he says. If he has a signature style, however, it’s his intrinsic appreciation of Asian design – and how to infuse it subtly in contrasting settings.
That understanding comes from growing up in Belgium – with four siblings and two ‘very prim and proper’ academic parents. ‘We weren’t rich people, but I had a good education. That’s what counts,’ he says. And it also comes from spending most of his adult life in Asia. He remembers the precise day he landed in Bangkok ‘aged 25 and a half. It was 11th June 1981. I’ve never left Asia.
“I remain a European in my genetics, but I’ve been totally tinted by Asian values. Unconsciously I adopt and integrate Asian values in my life and work. Even my wife [Anita, his second wife, is half Chinese, half Portuguese] is Eurasian. My design is also tinted by Asian values.”
He gives the example of using “Asian quirks” in his work, such as using layers of design, rather than doors, to separate two rooms, and indirect mood lighting instead of chandeliers. “My 40 years in Asia have taught me to soften my design,” he says.
Gathy’s design is often lauded for its romance and playfulness. Take a spa such as that at the Rosewood Hoi An in Vietnam (set to open in 2022), he suggests. “There’s a transition between your actual world and the spa world. That’s where you can play as a designer. You don’t just open a door, wearing your shoes and jacket, and – boof – straight into your robe. That’s uncomfortable. You need to progressively enter a different state of mind.”
Gathy routinely inhabits the worlds of the super-rich and he understands how they live and travel. “They have everything. If you have a 400ft yacht, your Aman residence is nothing, so we need to design projects that get that guy off his yacht.’ You don’t do that with gold taps, he says. You do it with ‘comfort, the environment that changes every day, the activities, the fantastic chef”. He should know: he lives like the people he designs for. “I fly private, I travel in private yachts – and I don’t pay. I’m lucky. My clients treat me very well. We’re comfortable, like lawyers, and I live like a billionaire, but I can never be one. Isn’t that the best of both worlds, to live like them, but not have the stress of it?”
He’s actually a “very simple guy,” he thinks. “The first thing I do on holiday is take my shoes off and go barefoot. A lot of designers are prima donnas. I’m not. I can laugh at myself. I apologise when I make mistakes, but I tell everybody when I do something good. I can be very loud and very low profile.”
So where next for Gathy? His travels have yet to take him to Iceland, Antarctica or the Galápagos, so those are top of the list when flying becomes feasible again. His dream, he says, is to build the first hotel on the Moon. “I wouldn’t design the capsule, but I want to design the interiors.” He mentions that Aman once asked him to build an igloo, “but it wasn’t allowed. Ultimately, a project isn’t a trophy, it has to make business sense – and that goes against dreamy solutions.”
A designer igloo may have been a step too far, but Gathy isn’t letting budgets or pandemics curb his design ambitions. It’s all there, ready to be experienced and enjoyed, when the world opens up again.
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