Jean-Michel Gathy talks travel, inspiration, and luxury interiors

We speak to Jean-Michel Gathy, the founder of international design studio Denniston, and discuss his work, his inspiration, and what makes a good hotel.

Established by Jean-Michel Gathy in 1993, Denniston is an international hospitality and design consulting firm that offers a multitude of architecture and interior design services. Its founder, Gathy, was a platinum Circle Hospitality Design honoree in 2006, and the multi-award winning studio has worked with some of the world’s most prestigious hotels, including Aman Resorts, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel group, One & Only, and Banyan Tree.

From the Marina Bay Sands infinity pool in Singapore, to the One & Only Reethi Rah hammocks that lie over the sea in the Maldives, throughout his career Gathy has conceptualized some of the world’s most cutting-edge projects and internationally-recognised innovations. We speak to him to find out more about his incredible design career.

Were you always interested in pursuing design?

Yes. My fascination with design emerged at the formative, tender age of seven, when I would spend the money my parents gave me on maps, studying every intricate detail of the atlas. On weekends I’d put a pillow under the door frame so my parents wouldn’t see my light on. By the time I was nine years old I knew 160 countries by heart. My parents eventually discovered my little secret and assigned me with planning the family holidays. It was a task I willingly accepted, poring over guide books and maps and learning about architecture and the castles or gardens we would visit. In a sense, the aesthetics and creativity of those trips stuck with me and shaped me.

I studied architecture in Belgium and worked in the architecture office at the University of Liege before moving to Asia; I travelled around China, cycled across Japan, and fell for the charms of the continent. It was while living in Hong Kong and designing retail spaces and offices that I met Hans Jenni, a hotel general manager who went on to open GHM Hotels with Adrian Zecha. Jenni and Zecha are two people that I identify as my mentors, and who gave me some of my earliest hotel commissions. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

What inspires your designs?

Constant travel is a huge part of the job. It allows me to observe and to be constantly inquisitive about my surroundings. [Travelling] builds a subconscious library of ideas, which are expressed in my work and helps my ideas remain innovative and fresh. It’s not a matter of a specific place; it is the fact that when you travel your mind is continually challenged by the happenings around you.  It’s not about where you travel, either – what counts is that you travel. No matter where you are, every country has something new to offer in terms of inspiration.

How did you get into the luxury market?

I started off by designing a project in Maldives for some investors, but at the time, we didn’t have an operator. Nevertheless, we proceeded to complete the project and presented it to the owners, who started talking to an operator, a company called Swissotel. At the time, one of the members of Swissotel was going to join and set up a new company with Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman Resorts. He suggested that I have to show my project to Mr. Zecha.

I met Zecha, showed him the project that I had designed for, and he loved it. He said, “This is fantastic, I want to do this in Aman, I’m interested, let’s make this happen!” I think Zecha was attracted to our design because that I design – I still do and I always have done – I design in a very balanced and geometrical pattern. It’s never a funny looking shape; it’s always properly organized, structured, relatively symmetrical etc. The original didn’t go ahead for technical reasons, because of an agreement between the partners, but that’s how I started with Aman and how Zecha got to know me.

What is the most important thing to keep in mind, when designing luxury hotels/interiors?

If I have to qualify a good hotel, I would only use one word: comfort. If it’s not comfortable, it’s not a good hotel; it can be gorgeous but if it’s not comfortable, it’s not well-designed. When I’m in my bed, I want to sleep properly. I like to stay in hotels where I feel good. I want comfort. When you design a hotel, it’s a home away from home - you want to feel comfortable, but [at the same time] you never question why it’s nice. You like the place, but you don’t know why, and it’s because the architect has addressed all the components that fulfil your feelings and sensations. Noise, light control, spacing—everything is important.

What is your favourite part of the design process?

Creativity. I’m a creative, artistic person, but I’m also disciplined. Even though I’m an artist, I’m not just a dreamer – this field, especially hotel design, gives me room for that creativity and my technical knowledge.

The most challenging part?

Every day, I comment on drawings and redesign things. I work for 18 hours every day. I’m an absolute maniac—I never stop. I love what I do.

Is there anyone that inspires you?

I would say I’ve been most inspired by the architect from Sri Lanka, Geoffrey Bawa. He made known what we call tropical architecture; he created the style of architecture you see at Aman Resorts. I like that design philosophy, and the person who allowed me to do it myself was Zecha, who is an absolute fan of Bawa’s work. Zecha was my mentor professionally, but philosophically I was inspired by Bawa.

Tell us about one of your latest projects?

Aman New York is going to be a new hotel that will occupy the Crown building – one of New York City’s most architecturally significant structures. Originally built in 1921, the building will be transformed into a new destination for luxury in the heart of Manhattan. It will feature 83 guest rooms and suites, a spa, three dining venues, and the first collection of new urban Aman Residencies, which is made up of 20 private homes.

Each of the guest rooms will have a functioning fireplace – which is rare for New York – and we will use nuanced hues and innovative lighting to turn the rooms into a soothing and undisturbed sanctuary. At the centre of the building will be a dramatic double height Sky Lobby, which will be designed with subtle Asian influences in tribute to Aman’s Asian roots. 

Dramatic water features are evident in all of our designs, so the centrepiece of the exclusive spa will be a 25-metre indoor swimming pool. This will be bordered by alcoves of double daybeds and fire pits to provide hotel guests, residents and Aman Club Members a relaxing escape from fast paced city life. 

Within the public spaces, a wraparound Garden Terrace on the 10th floor acts as a crowning showpiece. It’s an unequivocally rare feature given the urban location, and it will feature a bar with sweeping views of Central Park.  Aman New York’s other pièce de résistance will be a five-story park view penthouse – the Crown Penthouse – which will be nestled into the iconic building’s ornamental gilded crown.

What makes Denniston stand out?

There are many good architects, but we have a specific niche. I’m going to compare us to branding: thousands of people buy Toyotas, but a few people buy Bentleys. I believe that we are more Bentley than Toyota. This doesn’t mean that a Toyota is not a good car. In terms of reliability, price strategy, and brand positioning, Toyota is a fantastic commercial car – but I prefer Bentley.

Designers are the same; many prefer commercial projects and properties, because their interest is financial. They just want to make money, which means they’re not romantic about their projects. Then you have other designers – which is where I belong – who are more interested in the success of the project, the excitement of the journey of designing a hotel, and having the pride of making something fantastic, even though you earn less money.

What’s next for you and Denniston?

I’m working on several hotels all over the world at the moment, and I love them all. Each of them is more challenging than the next, and that really excites me. I love what I do. I am totally addicted to my family, and to my work. I think that if you live life to the fullest you will be healthy and happy, and I believe in energy. I’m very positive, I love life – I am a life lover.

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