Nearly four decades ago, celebrated designer Anouska Hempel changed the way hipsters (of that era) travelled.
When the Blakes Hotel opened in London in 1978, it was the start of a whole new way to stay, apart from conventional big chain hotels or small bed-and-breakfasts (B&B). They didn’t know it then, but these jetsetter were staying in the first designer boutique hotel.
Now, they’re a dime a dozen, but Hempel, who heads her eponymous firm, is still proud of her invention because there was nothing like it then. Each of the 42 rooms was individually created. The colour themes of black and mustard, rich cardinal reds, lavender, and washes of tea rose, and a daring all-white room are stunning and dramatic.
Now she is bringing her touch to Singapore, with The Duxton Club, set to open in early 2018. It is her first hotel project in the Republic, which she is designing for boutique hotel developers Harpreet Bedi and Satinder Garcha. The couple also owns The Vagabond Club at Syed Alwi Road.
The Antipodean-born, London-based designer jokes that the wackiest thing she has ever done was “coming to Singapore”. The story goes of how the Garchas stayed at the Blakes many times and loved it so much that they invited Hempel to design The Duxton Club and also their home.
“We got on so well, we have become friends and we like the same things,” says Hempel, who adds that it has been fun working in Singapore.
She doesn’t dictate what needs to be done, but does the job herself, from sticking up wallpaper, putting names on the room doors to fitting light bulbs. “You have to be hands-on to show how things should be done,” she says. “Everything has to be done in the same way from the beginning.” She even creates a visual guide for everyone in the hotel to follow.
Without giving too much away, Hempel has created a story for the hotel, one which involves “a Chinese girl who thinks she is an empress and ends up at 83 Duxton Road”, where The Duxton Club is.
The colour theme here will be yellow and black, with lots of Chinese influence in the details. The rooms will have calligraphy hanging on them. One room will have a Chinese bed, that requires the guest to sleep on his side. “I don’t care. If he doesn’t like that, he can get another room,” quips Hempel.
In the restaurant, diners will not use chopsticks. Instead they will use what Hempel calls “wok sticks”, or longer-than-usual chopsticks. “This is me, being fun, being nonsensical.”
From the sounds of it, The Duxton Club is not quite your usual boutique hotel, but then again, Ms Hempel isn’t your typical designer.
Ms Hempel designs not only hotels, but also homes, landscapes, products and retail space, and even her own yacht. She describes her style as “eclectic, capricious, collectively disciplined and also whimsical, and fun”.
You know the space has been designed by her, when “you can feel it is a settled space. Things have not just been sporadically thrown together, but there is discipline in it.”
A well-designed space for her is one that is “comfortable, with warmth and light”.
She counts the La Mamounia in Marrakech as her favourite hotel, because she has fond memories staying there. She has had her share of poorly designed hotels but says that because she travels with her own pillows and cashmere throws, “I can make the duvet look good, make my own tent and sleep in it.”
As a person, she describes herself as “irrational, dogmatic, difficult, and quixotic, depending on the time of the day”. Her assistant, and Bedi, think otherwise, pointing out that she is magnanimous and very inspirational. Hempel waves it off.
Architectural Digest named Hempel as one of its Top 100 Designers and Architects in the World in 1990 and again in 2002. And yet, she has no formal training in design.
Just where does this talent for design come from? “From being very bossy and opinionated about the juxtaposition of things, since I was very young. I always had a strong sense of what was right and wrong,” she explains.
She elaborates: “I was always confident in the area of interior design. After all, a sideboard doesn’t argue back regardless of where you place it.”
Hempel’s ideas come from her imagination. She claims there is pepper in her brain, which is how she comes up with “the most quixotic things”. She doesn’t rest, relying on the people around her, to keep her going. “And also, coconut water,” she adds.
She rattles off a list of cities that she has projects in – Paris, Florence, New York and London. “What I do is not called work,” she says.
She is married to financier Sir Mark Weinberg, and also goes by the name Lady Weinberg. The mother of a large family is a noted social figure and has also made a name for herself as a couturier, designing dresses for clients such as the late Princess Diana and Princess Margaret.
But before she became a designer, Hempel, with her voluptuous figure and Brigitte Bardot-like tresses, was an actress – a Bond girl no less, who was one of the “Angels of Death” in the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Through acting, she “got to see the world”. She doesn’t miss acting and declares that she has been acting her whole life. In reality, she says she hated acting. “I hated being given lines. I wanted to be the director and producer.”
The movie world’s loss is the design world’s gain. As head of Anouska Hempel Design, Hempel is now truly both director and producer.
This story first appeared in The Business Times.
HEADER PHOTO The Duxton Club