M. Nuel is having a nice moment. As one of the leading hotel designers in France he's been commissioned to design the interiors of the
Compagnie du Ponant's
very swanky cruise ships. And right now he's standing, champagne glass in hand, on the after-deck of a ship he has helped to create, as it sets sail from Venice at sunset to cruise down the Adriatic coast.
He's looking slightly agonised at being applauded by all the assembled passengers and crew on this first-anniversary voyage of Le Soléal.
But it must be nice to know that all the people who've just unpacked their bags have been soothed by the calmly luxurious modernism of the cabins he's designed for them. They may have smiled at the drawer-pulls, evocative of suitcase handles. They will have been delighted by the sliding panels which give a view from their shower rooms straight out through their cabins to their balconies and the sparkling sea beyond.
His ship-owner clients are so pleased that they've given him their next multi-million-euro baby to look after as well.
From ship to shore
More of designing big boats later: this isn't Jean-Philippe Nuel's only maritime design success of the year. He is the man behind the much-vaunted re-creation of the Piscine Molitor in Paris, the treasured art deco swimming pool complex which, with its white railings and porthole windows, was originally known as "the white cruise liner."
It reopened a couple of months ago with lots of fanfare, and some controversy, as
MGallery's Molitor Hotel
, with Nuel's designs celebrating the building's rich heritage.
It was a project that needed to be approached with 'great humility', he says, taking into account the experiences and stories of the many people who have passed through this extraordinary building in its previous lives.
Reinventing the Molitor
This was a much-loved Parisien icon, opened in 1929 by Olympic swimmer and screen-Tarzan Johnny Weismuller. In summer Piscine Molitor was a chic lido, the location for fashion shows and galas. It launched the 'bikini,' and later the racy trend for topless sunbathing.
In winter the outdoor pool was a skating rink where rich kids from the 16th arrondissement got together for romantic assignations, the girls with their crew-neck cardigans buttoned at the back and their Hermes scarves crossed in front and tied behind.
And this was the piscine that the hero of The Life of Pi was named after, because his father wanted his soul to be as clean as the swimming pool's water. (In a curious coincidence, Jean-Philippe Nuel is also designing the eye-popping new Taj Pondicherry, due to open soon. Pondicherry is where the opening scenes of the book, and film, are set.)
Art deco and graffiti
When Piscine Molitor closed in 1989 and fell into disrepair, it became a centre of the Paris counter-culture, famous for its raves and the flambuoyant graffiti that covered every surface.
In Nuel's reincarnation, circular porthole windows from the guest rooms overlook the pool, art deco stained glass lights the spa, a graffiti'd Rolls Royce is parked in the foyer and, throughout, crisp grey and white furnishings are sharpened by dashes of yellow that echo the famous 'tango yellow' of the old facade.
There was little enough that could be preserved of the old concrete structure for this to be a faithful re-creation. Instead, Nuel hopes to have created a 'contemporary lively Parisian destination' to equal its lively past. (It will not quite be a People's Palace - not that it ever was. Use of the pool facilities for non hotel guests comes with a ?3,300 annual fee for the 1,000 selected Club Molitor members.)
The hotel's endless views across the Paris skyline, and the glittering reflections off the pools are all very oceanic. Nuel agrees that the Molitor and Le Soléal share Art Deco influences in their curved edges, the style of their furnishings, and luminous light. It was, after all, the golden age of the ocean liner.
The idea behind Nuel's work for Compagnie du Ponant has been, he says, to evoke the spirit of a private yacht. ('But more like a boat for Armani than for a Russian oligarch' he adds quickly.)
One imagines he wouldn't be as interested in designing for a 6,000-passenger mega-liner built like an apartment block. Le Soleal and her sister ships each carry a maximum 264 passengers.
And while in his dry-land work, Nuel has a name for translating historic buildings into big-ticket hotels (for the
, and the Intercontinental's flagship hotel in
), he does love designing smaller private hotels, such as the soon-to-open
Le Cinq Codet
- "because it's easier to understand the driving vision of the client," he says.
A Hermes handbag afloat
And what did the owners of the Compagnie du Ponant want? 'They were looking for a new style, I think.' And he certainly gave it to them. His first ship, Le Boréal, featured a sock-in-the-eye signature red throughout the furnishings ? hardly a conventional maritime theme.
For his second project, L'Austral, he pushed a little further away from conventional warmth and luxury. 'We used the colours of a Hermes handbag' (a truly delightful idea), with calm greys and whites accented with camel.
For this latest ship, the paler, even more restrained palette ("almost an absence of colour") is quite a bold move for the owners, he says. And he and the ship's exterior designer also persuaded the company to let them change the colour of the hull, from the previous livery of dark grey to a very pale grey, almost white. "It's more modern," he says.
Inspiration on the high seas
Of course, an ocean-going hotel robs a designer of that familiar source of inspiration: local cultural references and a sense of place. Where's "local" on the high seas, when your hotel might be in the tropics or Scandinavia one season, and Antarctica the next?
'We did consider changing some of the elements, such as the coloured pillows, according to the destination,' says Nuel, 'but that wasn't going to be possible.'
Instead, there are subtle sea-going allusions, like the narrow stripe of the carpets which evokes a ship's wooden decking. And the abstract sea-themed photographs by famous marine photographer Plisson, in place of the exotic-destination murals so often favoured on cruise ships.
Ironically, the amount of real wood used throughout the ship is severely constrained by fire safety regulations, so that many design elements that appear to be wooden, like the slatted screens in the public rooms, are actually the very latest powder-coated metal.
Impact and detail
He tells the designers in his company: 'Forget the carpet and the details, what is the first impression when you walk into the cabin? Imagine yourself in the space.
'Sometimes you want the big surprise. Other times it's a lot of different small details which will make the impact.'
He likes to design a lot of the details, he admits. He points out the leather handles on the back of the small tub armchairs, which are a pleasing feature but also make it easier for staff to move the chairs. (It comes as no surprises that some of his furniture designs are sold by
.) He's particularly pleased by the wave effect cut into the pile of the carpet in the entrance lobby of this ship. That's his.
Jennifer Stevenson 11/8/14