When to renovate a modern design icon

When to renovate a modern design icon

I’ve worked in the past with Andrée Putman (known as an originator of “boutique” style as first seen in Morgans Hotels) and am currently in discussion to collaborate on the refurbishment of a celebrated modern icon previously designed by her practice, the Ritz-Carlton in Wolfsburg, Germany. As the last renovation took place eight years ago, the former head of Putman’s agency is now freshening up its décor to be “à la Putman” … yet the design also will have its own distinct personality.
Ritz-Carlton in Wolfsburg

On the other end of the modern design spectrum is the Parco dei Principi Hotel in Sorrento, Italy, which I visited on an architecturally focused group trip. In the 1970s architect/designer Gio Ponti created this space which, since that time, has been kept as a working “museum.” Reception was simply a window in the wall adjacent to the concierge desk, and while, yes, the bathrooms did have hot water and a bidet, the design intent still greatly followed the guiding principles of the era — the primary concern was their ability to be easily cleaned.

Parco dei Principi reception

When I arrived I found the style of the hotel to be very interesting, but as we had to stay in this design icon for three days, by the end my craving to be immersed in 70s “luxury” design was utterly satisfied!

Parco dei Principi restaurant

Overall, it was inspiring to travel back in time and sip an espresso in the restaurant while being surrounded by strange furniture upholstered with monochromatic fabrics and cubic style wall lamps. But as a guest, I must say that the luxury “comforts” of 40 years ago do not match the expectations of travelers nowadays.

And from an operational perspective, it must be a nightmare: no keycards — just big old-fashioned keys — stairs all over the place, solid color fabrics …

So the questions for the hotel are as follows: In the coming years, how many architects and designers will still adore Gio Ponti enough to want to stay in a design “museum” that does not have modern comforts? How long will the owner and operator be happy to substitute and restore FF&E while also having to deal with all the functional restrictions that come with this trip to the past?  

As long as the hotel is successful business-wise, there is no reason to change anything. If the owner is a fan of Gio Ponti and is happy to sponsor a museum, nothing needs to be changed. But if the hotel is just hanging on for survival, then the design has to be adapted to modern times to attract additional guests and solve its functional problems.

And there are many ways to do this.

The hotel could be adapted so that the atmosphere is kept, but everything else is elevated to current standards (as done with The Savoy in London, as discussed in my last blog). Or a rising design star could be introduced to create a new design icon relevant for today.

Historically, architects, designers and artists work with the language of their times, even when it involves existing buildings. A very obvious example can be seen with the Gothic cathedrals that have been designed with Baroque additions.

I don’t know whether this is right or wrong, but from a very personal point of view (and experience), I don’t think that a hotel should be a “museum” where time stands still. Even a design icon needs to be refreshed from time to time in order to avoid its death.

But when the moment does come, I would certainly agree that the decision to change a great design monument would be a difficult one.