He has designed decadent hotels on all four corners of the globe. We meet Jean-Michel Gathy, the visionary architect behind your next holiday headquarters.
The first time I try to speak to Jean-Michel Gathy, he’s on a plane at Singapore’s Changi Airport and I can hear the distressed flight attendants in the background begging him to turn off his phone. The next day, he’s supposed to call me from Geneva, but the high-speed train he’s on has no signal. Four days later, he emails me from Gabon in West Africa, where he’s about to embark on a 20-hour journey back to his home on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
Apparently this is an average week for Asia’s top hotel designer. Gathy’s impressively packed travel schedule is a mark of his incredible success—he is currently designing 35 hotels around the globe and turns down new commissions on a daily basis. Sleep is not high on his agenda. The eminent Belgian architect is famed for capturing the location of his hotels through the materials he uses and the decorative references he includes, which means he needs to visit every site in order to get a feel for the surrounding area.
“Luckily I’m talented at understanding the essence of a place, so I don’t need as much time on the ground as other designers would,” he says in his smooth French accent. “I have been creating hotels for more than 30 years and my mind is automatically attuned to certain messages, from the behaviour of the local population and the food they eat to the dominant colours and the general architectural style of a place. It’s like if you hear bagpipes, you immediately think of Scotland—it’s a reflex. Well, I have that reflex for everywhere I go. I’m sensitive to social messages and physical messages, and I’ve honed this skill with 45 years of travelling.”
Since the 1993 opening of his first hotel, Amanvana in Indonesia, Gathy has been highly sought after by the world’s top-tier hospitality brands; he now counts Aman Resorts, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and Park Hyatt Hotels among his many clients. His architectural firm, Denniston, is based in Kuala Lumpur; it employs 150 of the brightest and best designers in the world. “The united knowledge of my staff is incredible,” he says. “Everyone has a skill at something—one is good for renovations, one for technical details, and one for interiors.”
Part of Gathy’s success is due to his profound understanding of the luxury market—he knows exactly what the international elite are looking to get out of their holidays. “People want charm, people want soul. It’s about more than just luxury. It’s about feeling a connection with a place—which is why we’re more than just architects. We’re lifestyle product designers. Design is about being brave and breaking rules. I know what people like and I know what people like to talk about. I always say that it’s more important to please the heart than the eye.”
Read the full article in Indonesia Tatler January 2016 issue.
Text: Melissa Twigg