Starck Beauty

Michael James O'Brien

The story of how a design world iconoclast and his beautiful daughter transformed a hotel called Le Meurice.

The taxi pulls up to the imposing palace facing the Tuileries Gardens and I pause at the entrance to take in the gray winter sky. There in the distance is the Ferris wheel, a sight that still startles. The sidewalk is thronged with visitors; time for this jet-lagged guest to check in, to sleep perchance to dream, as Hamlet said. I step through the revolving door and spin out the other side into a glittering, shimmering, silvery world, the newest and most provocative hotel lobby in Paris—in the 173-year-old Le Meurice.

A dome of pale pink roses crowns the top of a white plaster vase, taller then the doorman standing by. An ancient-looking mirror framed in gold leans against the wall. I am drawn to it. What looks at first like a thick patina proves to be something mysterious yet vaguely familiar. I reach out to touch, noticing that a hand has left its print before me. The encrusted surface is frosty, and it gives way slightly under the pressure. I am charmed, puzzled, disoriented, and a bit shy—then I laugh in recognition. I am looking at ice crystals, like the ones that form around the coils of a freezer. I stand a moment longer, enjoying the sheer insanity of such a thing, and remember where I am. I have come through the looking glass of Philippe Starck to a world in which one wakes perchance to dream.

Silver Empire sofas and armchairs are covered in white leather, their arms carved to resemble swan’s heads. Lavish ball-gown curtains of heavy, cream duchesse satin, tied back in asymmetrical swags with tassels the size of cabbage heads, frame the soaring windows of the formal dining room. Last spring the design star was commissioned to renovate the public rooms of this grande dame of hotels. “I want to create surprise, to wake people up,” Starck says. And in the Meurice lobby, nothing is as it seems. Against the far wall glows the soft flame of the hearth; this proves to be a glass vitrine filled with dozens of flickering candles all different heights, some as thick as an elephant’s leg. Wax melts and pools on the mirrored shelf. “Dreams are more true than real life,” says Starck. “The Meurice is a fairy tale. All I had to do was clear away the dust of the years and spread the dust of the stars.”

Starck calls the hotel a Sleeping Beauty. Every fairy tale has a princess, and this is no exception. She is the most modern of characters to inhabit such an adventure. The presiding sprite of the whole enterprise turned out to be—much to his surprise—Starck’s daughter, Ara. But first we must set the stage for this tale.

Le Meurice is a legend housed in the oldest palace in France. It has entertained countless illustrious guests, among them Rudyard Kipling and Salvador Dalí. Dalí visited every year from 1956 to 1980, driving from Spain in a Cadillac with his wife, Gala, and taking up residence for weeks at a time. In 1997 the hotel was bought by the Sultan of Brunei for his Dorchester Collection. In 1998 it closed for a $90 million renovation. Marble columns were restored to chalky whiteness; soot was washed from painted murals made at the turn of the 19th century. In 2000 it reopened to great fanfare.

And then, quiet. The other great palace hotels of Paris, the Ritz, the Plaza Athénée, even the conservative Crillon, were drawing a new clientele with their vibrant bar scenes and gourmet kitchens. In the spring of 2006 Le Meurice lured the accomplished Franka Holtmann from Le Crillon and appointed her general manager. “People always said, ‘Ah, I love the Meurice. Where is it again?’ ” Holtmann says of her first days. “It had become a beloved memory.”

Holtmann decided the hotel needed to emphasize its cultural roots. It is, after all, flanked by the Louvre, L’Orangerie, and the Jeu de Paume. She understood the kind of visitor Le Meurice had always attracted, and she intended to preserve and build on that. “We host Nelson Mandela, not Bush or Clinton. Jodie Foster, not Sharon Stone. Barbra Streisand, not Madonna. You see?”

As she got to know the building, Holtmann grew troubled by the lobby. It was too masculine and institutional, a place through which visitors quickly passed rather than lingered. A glass dome spanned the entire width of the ceiling, a dramatic architectural feature that gave the room great character, but because of the mandatory fire-retardant glass used in the dome’s initial restoration, the light in the space was cold and gray. When it rained, people looked dismal. “I decided we had to do another renovation—without destroying all the work that had been done earlier,” says Holtmann. “And I had to take a gamble.”

Holtmann invited Philippe Starck to visit. They walked through the lobby, the bar, the formal dining room—the three main spaces she wanted Starck to address. “Do you feel it, this project?” she asked him. He turned to her with such excitement in his face that she knew she had her answer. Holtmann is a stylish, polished, opinionated manager—and a force of nature. In choosing Starck, she was running against the trend in other top hotels to distance themselves from their histories, hoping to lure a younger, hipper clientele with renovations that featured modern furniture and monochromatic palettes. It is no small irony that as Starck was working on Le Meurice, his iconic 1988 design for Manhattan’s Royalton was being dismantled and the lobby and restaurant turned over to a neo–international style designer. The new international look, in most hands—and we are not talking about the style whose apogee is Mies van der Rohe—can be bland and uncomfortable; furthermore, it is the same whether in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, London, or Paris. Holtmann’s choice of Starck was risky; she knew some would not like his work, but that everyone would want to see it. Everyone would talk about it.

Surprisingly, Starck had never designed a hotel in Paris—though currently he is at work on three separate hotel projects in his native city. The first, opening later this year, will be called Mama Shelter and is located on the Rue de Charonne. But he had left his mark all over the world, most famously with the path-breaking Delano in Miami. There, in 1996, he reinvented the elemental chart governing the social chemistry of hotel living and changed the design world forever. He created a sense of drama that put guests on stage. By blowing up the scale of furniture to a degree never seen before, he made every sofa look like a place on which one could conduct a seduction. Who could resist? He brought clean lines to the furnishings in the private rooms and introduced the luxury of white, everywhere. It seemed the height of extravagance. Perhaps most important was that he broke the predictable regime of hotel decor with the force of his vivid personality. Still, the Meurice made Starck nervous at first. “I was burdened by a very heavy thought,” he says. “Paris is my home. I will be judged by my tribe. When you make something good in the States, people will say it is good. If it is bad, people will still say it is good. If you make something bad in Paris, bad is bad. But good is bad here, too. That’s what Parisians are like. I know, I’m like that, too.”

Starck is not one to be restrained by anxiety. He saw immediately that he wanted to open perspective, add transparency to some of the mirrored walls, move entrances, crack sly jokes. He understood what was successful about the original design: The bar remained cozy and dark, with only a few whimsical touches in the appointments. The formal dining room kept its echoes of Versailles. There Starck simply reorganized the seating plan and moved the entrance; the most startling addition is a centerpiece of jagged, crystalline blue “rocks” created by Baccarat. Starck located the genius of the place in Dalí; there are winks to the Surrealist spirit throughout every room. In the lobby bar another glass cabinet of burning candles looks like an altar, perhaps to Gala, the constant companion whom Dalí worshipped. After she died he never stepped foot in Le Meurice again.

In one of the lobby’s furniture groupings an Empire chair, its arms swan’s heads of gleaming gold, sits between a silver chair of scallop-shell shapes with dolphin arms and a golden Dalí-designed chair; all are pulled around a Starck martini table whose feet are, naturally, shod in oxfords. A Fornasetti chair is paired with a Louis XV desk. A muscular plaster hand sits on top of the dessert cabinet, caught in the act of reaching for sweets, recalling Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. “Humor is very important to my work. We need all the actors on stage—the stage of the human drama—to help create a beautiful story. We are a smart tribe, we humans. Humor, the fact that we are capable of it, shows how intelligent we really are.”

Starck’s vision was at once traditional and inventive, another act for l’ancienne comédie, set on a new stage. His biggest problem, as he came to see it, was the glass dome. It was the lobby’s most distinguishing feature and its most problematic. He asked his team for a dozen proposals; a week later they were submitted, anonymously, and arranged on his desk. One leaped out as the perfect solution. Elation was swiftly followed by shock and embarrassment when Starck was told that he had chosen the plan submitted by his 29-year-old daughter, Ara. While it may seem curious that a father would not recognize his child’s drawing, to Ara it is hardly surprising. “My father and I are very close,” she says, “but we never see each other.”

“I was a terrible parent,” says Starck. “I was never home. Even when I was, I wasn’t there. I was in my own cuckoo land.” Starck has been married four times and is the father of three other children, K, Oa, and Lago, all much younger than Ara. He did not take his daughter to art exhibits and museums, yet she grew up in a culture of creativity, surrounded by good design and conversations about what was possible. Her mother, Brigitte Laurent, was with Starck for 23 years and was his partner in building his business. She died of cancer when Ara was 12.

When I asked Starck if he named the iconic Ara lamp after his daughter he said that she designed it—at age four. They were on a plane, Starck says, when Ara doodled the now signature shape. There is a shadow of her father’s face hovering about Ara’s wide brown eyes and chiseled features. Her smile reveals strikingly long, pointed incisors that give her an otherworldly look. The day I meet her she is dressed in a black sweater, its sleeves stretched down to her fingertips, thick black tights, heavy black motorcycle boots, and a stiff flounce of a crimson silk skirt. Her well-worn black Kelly bag is covered front, back, and inside with white doodles—a pierced heart, a running figure, arrows pointing here and there. “My boyfriend did it,” she says. She wears a heavy silver ring that spells out his name, David, in script. We are touring the art studio she shares with him.

Ara always knew she wanted to paint. She took her baccalaureate in record time and enrolled in L’École des Beaux Arts at 17 but quit in dismay at the program’s “lazy arrogance.” She went to St. Martins School in London, which was then in the throes of Galliano worship, oriented toward the fashionable and trendy. She finally found the rigorous training she craved at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and got her B.A. in 2002. She’s in the middle of preparations for her first show in Paris. Seven large portraits lean against the wall. The figures are unnerving, their expressions bold and the colors rich, dark. As I walk by them, I catch a Starckian gimmick: Things are not as they appear. The painted figures seem to be moving in the jerky fashion of holograms—heads turn, eyes follow, hands gesticulate. “I wanted to explore the interaction of subject and object,” she says, “and push the limit of dimension. But I wanted to paint in oils.” She paints three or four versions of the same figure, shifting the lines subtly; these are then painstakingly layered in the lenticular plastic that gives them their movement. The figures are members of a circus, Ara explains, “the aristocracy of families.” She points out the ringmaster and the clowns. She thinks of her family as gypsies and, like her father, talks often of tribes. Her family is a tribe; her friends another tribe, drawn to one another in recognition of a spiritual kinship. Her boyfriend of three years, David Jarre, is a musician and a magician. He is also the child of strong, accomplished parents—actress Charlotte Rampling and composer Jean-Michel Jarre. Jarre tours Europe performing magic for small, elite gatherings. Ara often accompanies him, carrying a rolled canvas under her arm and paint and brushes in her bag.

Her response to the vexing problem of the Le Meurice dome was simple, but it’s the piece of this renovation that will prove most controversial—one critic referred to it in conversation as “criminal.” Rather than remove the dome or paint over it, she proposed building a gently coved structure beneath it and stretching a painted canvas across that. With this tented effect, Philippe Starck would be able to control the light, shifting the ambience of the room throughout the day, a critical consideration in a large space in which people are meant to gather. Ara’s ceiling is a vibrant study in gold, white, and sienna. She painted heavy folds of red curtains drawn back on a celestial scene of mysterious golden figures dancing and leaping through the air. The figures are reminiscent of the paintings of Marc Chagall or Sandro Chia, but they have their own weightless, spirited audacity. “There will be times when the visitor enters tired, ready to collapse in a chair and look at the figures play across the ceiling,” she says. “But there will be times when the guest will be the center of the drama. The woman in sequins, maybe, falling in love. People will propose under this painting, celebrate birthdays. And the figures will watch it all.”

In five days and five nights last December, Starck re-created the world of Le Meurice—after a gestation of ten months. On the first day, Ara installed her monumental painting. Was the father pleased with his daughter’s work? “Our duty is to upgrade the human tribe, generation by generation,” he says. “An artist is much higher than a designer. The upgrade has happened.”

On the evening before the grand opening, Ara was present to help the crew as they worked into the small hours of the morning. If you have ever wondered what Eloise all grown up might be like, well, here she is, living in Paris and still a lively and endearing character. One moment Ara is in the bar reaching across the mahogany counter to plug in her cell phone, asking the maître d’ when he is going to create the cocktail he has promised to name after her. Then she has zipped off to the lobby, asking for cookies.

She is always wearing a bright, short ruffle of a skirt. She is obsessed with what she calls her tutus and adds to her collection wherever she is; the hunt led her most recently to sharing a dressing room with a transvestite in a San Francisco costume shop. The last time I see her, she’s racing out to Miu Miu. Her father is getting married the next day. She has spotted a white chiffon confection in the window that will be perfect.

Within days of reopening, Le Meurice’s lobby is jammed with visitors talking, laughing, drinking, eating, and flirting. While the Sleeping Beauty has been roused, another sort of enchantment has been cast. It strikes me that Philippe Starck must have seen the old hotel as a castle in a fairy tale from the moment he entered. He has simply made it possible for the rest of us to see it, too.

Le Meurice is located at 228 Rue de Rivoli (33-1/44-58-10-10; lemeurice.com).