Geoffrey Gelardi remembers his first meeting with the late designer Alberto Pinto, in 2011, like it was yesterday. As the managing director of the Lanesborough hotel since its inception, in 1991, he knew it was one of those make-or-break meetings. He had initially planned for a partial renovation of the hotel—after all, the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Apsleys, had already been redesigned by Adam Tihany in 2011—covering mainly the guest rooms and upper hallways.
“I took him on a tour, showed him all the rooms,” says Gelardi, a third-generation hotelier who spent the formative part of his career in the States working for Rosewood Hotels, the Lanesborough’s original operator, “and then we went and sat in the bar and had a cup of coffee. He said, ‘Geoffrey, you already have a beautiful hotel. What do you want me to do?’ I said, ‘We want it lifted. We want it lighter and brighter. Maybe a bit more feminine.’ ” It needed it. After years of constant maintenance, the hotel’s polished-mahogany hallways had darkened with age and, combined with the ultratraditional English decor, had transformed the Lanesborough into something akin to a gentlemen’s club.
“You know, I don’t do hotels,” Pinto replied. (He was being modest. While the majority of his work was residential, the French designer had dabbled in a few throughout his career.) “Mr. Pinto, that’s why we would like you to do it, because we don’t want this to look like a hotel. We want it to look like a residence,” Gelardi told Pinto. “I think that sold him. He then told me what he was going to charge me—and I almost fell over,” Gelardi says with a chuckle. “But that’s okay.”
Luckily for him, Pinto, who, in the end, renovated the entire hotel, was worth every pound sterling. A towering figure in decoration for decades, Pinto passed away in 2012. His Paris-based firm continued the work on the Lanesborough, led by his sister Linda Pinto. As one of his last commissions, the £80 million 18-month renovation stands as a tribute to his masterful command of materials, color, and sheer luxuriousness. Pinto, for the uninitiated, was primarily renowned for the classical interiors of high society’s private homes across the globe.
“He was amazing, really,” says Paris-based author Anne Bony, whose new book, Alberto Pinto: Signature Interiors (Flammarion), is out in November and comprises some of the designer’s greatest accomplishments, including a neoclassical mansion in Mayfair that has upholstered walls and original paintings by the likes of Holbein. Bony had the chance to work with Pinto various times over her publishing career. “He was dedicated to his clients. While he listened to their wishes, he had such a personality he could impose his own style. It was quite clever,” she says.
We wanted to give the English an English hotel,” says Linda, explaining how the firm enlisted as many made-in-Britain brands as possible in the design, including fabrics, custom furniture, and craftsmen for the 2,000 hours of stenciling. “We were used to doing English houses, so we knew the style well.” Even the bathroom hardware is from Lefroy Brooks, an English company known for its historical reproductions.
The Lanesborough owns one of the most enviable locations on Earth—the intersection of Hyde Park and the western edge of the Buckingham Palace gardens, in Mayfair. And yet there are no gift shops or vitrines hawking goods. Aside from the hushed Library Bar, its adjacent salon the Withdrawing Room, and the newly christened French restaurant Céleste, with its gleaming blue-and-white decor, there are no public spaces to draw in tourists. Should one wander in, it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve accidentally stepped behind the velvet rope at a historic-house museum. Anyone not dressed to the nines can appear distinctly out of place.
And no two spaces appear alike. From intricate hand-painted walls in some of the suites and gold-covered Empire-style desks in most, to a wall-to-wall leopard-print carpet in one of the private dining rooms—a detail only a master like Pinto could pull off—paired with intricate, floor-to-ceiling parquetry on the walls, the opulence is ceaseless. The staggeringly regal Presidential Suite makes the White House look shoddy.
Did we mention the 24-hour butlers? Each room—there are 93 total, 43 of which are suites—is assigned one, and they are responsible for guests’ personal needs well beyond what a typical concierge would cover. Walk your dog? Check. Press your clothes after a long journey? Check. Unpack, repack, shine your shoes, pick up a teddy bear at Harrods for your kids? Check, check, check, and check. They’re the closest thing to your own Mr. Carson, Downton-style. “We were the first hotel to have them,” says Gelardi, “and now they’re a dime a dozen. But no one does them quite like we do, certainly not in the U.K., and mostly not in Europe, because our butlers are not part of room service.”
In the Withdrawing Room, each table is outfitted with a discreet wooden box with a silver-toned button marked SERVICE BELL. Push it, even at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, and a waitress will arrive within seconds from behind a mammoth pair of automatic double doors.
Up-to-date technology is one of the significant upgrades outside of the design. Regency desks have hidden compartments for power plugs and computer ports, and all the WiFi, lighting, and temperature controls are up to snuff with any contemporary hotel, tablets included. Air vents are cleverly disguised behind wood trim, with nary a ventilation shaft in sight. It’s one of the subtle accomplishments of Pinto’s design; everything is so well integrated, you have to constantly remind yourself that it’s all completely new. In another improvement, most rooms have lighting that complements ornately decorated, frequently gold-embossed ceilings that appear to be original—but aren’t. “Pinto told me that I had ugly ceilings,” recalls Gelardi.
Regal as the Lanesborough may appear on the outside, the hotel was built as a hospital in 1827 on the site of the former home of the second Viscount Lanesborough. Its architecture included low, formerly plain ceilings—“In some places it feels like the ceiling is on your shoulder!” says Linda—and small windows that result in a lack of natural light. Gelardi’s request to make the hotel “lighter” was literal. The Greek Regency-style building can, at times, feel like a fortress. As you climb each of the five floors, the ceilings get lower and lower. The first-floor suites have the highest, and by the time you reach the top floor they can feel distinctly intimate. To balance the effect, Pinto implemented a series of color schemes that brighten as you ascend: blue on the second, green on the third, and yellow on the fourth. In turn, the decor relaxes.
“It feels like a home I can settle into,” says Frank Marrenbach. He’s the CEO of the Germany-based Oetker Collection, which manages the property. (The Lanesborough is owned by a state-run firm from Abu Dhabi.) It’s the first U.K. property in the group’s collection, which includes Le Bristol, in Paris; Eden Rock, in St. Barths; Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa, in Baden-Baden, Germany; and, most importantly, Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, near Cannes. “It’s partly because it isn’t about bling,” he says. “It’s about elegance.”
Marrenbach admits the aesthetic isn’t for everyone. “The hotel has always had an identity, and, in a way, a lot of it is quintessentially British. The textures, the colors, the fabrics—that was very important for us. We wanted to make sure that our guests know where they are.” Everyone involved in the Lanesborough consistently raises the notion of Britishness, or Englishness. It’s a curious thing, considering that it’s owned by a Middle Eastern company, managed by a German one, designed by a French one, and has a managing director who worked extensively in the States. Even the restaurant, Céleste, has a new French chef imported from Le Bristol.
But is all the fuss—from the intricate decor to the butlers at beck and call—inherently out of place in 2015? Is there even such a thing as too...traditional? “No, no, no,” Linda says emphatically. “To tell you the truth, I find it more comfortable. When a hotel is too contemporary—the bedside tables are too small,” she says, referencing a recent struggle to find any space in a modernistic, monastic hotel to put down a cup of tea for her daughter, who was in bed with a cold. “It’s about life, about having a place to put your things. The most important thing for the client is comfort.” To her—and, one assumes, to her late brother—contemporary interiors rarely fulfill this most basic of duties. “The look is not enough,” she says.
Rooms from $1,100; Hyde Park Corner; 44-20/7259-5599; lanesborough.com.
Photo Credits: Karen Knorr