It was the first Art Deco hotel in Paris and favourite of Catherine Deneuve. Now VS steps back to the Jazz Age with a stay at this Left Bank landmark
By Estella Shardlow on Monday 17th October, 2011
It’s a thrill to sit back with a glass of champagne in the same ruby-red velvet booth that Picasso and Modigliani exchanged words on modern painting, or that Josephine Baker rested her weary limbs after one of her infamous, exotic dance performances. Indeed, at Hotel Lutetia, which was the city’s first Art Deco hotel, the ghosts of Paris’ Jazz Age glitterati are never far from your thoughts thanks to the faithfully maintained period interiors.
From Hector Guimard's sinuous, emerald Metro entrances to the pure, white pinnacles of the Grand Rex cinema, the iconic and influential decorative styles that flowered in Paris in the first three decades of the 20th century are never far from one’s eye line in the City of Lights. This design legacy is deeply impressed upon Hotel Lutetia – an original chequered black and white marble floor asserts this from the moment you step into the reception, then you pass through to the cocktail lounge where live Jazz plays four evenings a week (the venue has serious musical pedigree – Eddy Mitchell even dedicated a song to it) and the dramatic red and black décor evokes the 30s' stylized take on Orientalism, or the Brasserie Lutetia where vintage posters for Monte Carlo and Deauville hang on the mirrored walls. Sonia Rykiel stayed true to the hotel’s artistic heritage when she was commissioned to revamp its gourmet restaurant, ‘Le Paris’. Inspired by the dining rooms of 30s ocean liners, grid-like leading on the mirrors and the chairs’ geometric styling carries the glamour of this era across the rich cinnamon and gilt interior.
It’s no surprise, meanwhile, that the exterior is the work of two sculptors, Leon Binet and Paul Belmondo: carved vine leaves and grapes cascade across the undulating façade, which stands boldly at the crossroads of Boulevard Raspail and Rue de Babylone in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. This Left Bank district is quintessential Paris for me. Its elegant boulevards cradle scores of bijou art galleries and bookshops, quiet church squares and the all-important Pierre Hermé macaroonerie, while the silvery Seine puts some distance between this enclave and the heaving, souvenir-hawked stretches around the Louvre and Notre Dame. Facing the hotel across a leafy square is prestigious department store Le Bon Marché, which was the impetus, in fact, for the Lutetia being built – it was decided that all those affluent shoppers travelling up from the provinces to be fitted for the season’s wardrobe needed somewhere fittingly opulent in which to stay nearby. Work started in 1907 overseen by two great Parisian architects of the day, Louis-Hippolyte Boileau – who went on to create the Pomone Pavilion for Bon Marché at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, regarded as the birthplace of the Art Deco movement – and Henri Tauzin.
Nevertheless, Hotel Lutetia is no mausoleum to Art Deco design and efforts have been made to continue its reputation as a hub for creatives by commissioning contemporary artists to create one-off pieces or entire suites, such as sculptor Philippe Hiquily’s homage to the shoe in Suite 704. In the vast Arman Suite, metal furniture in the forms of cellos and violins is a surreal tribute to the installations of deconstructed musical instruments for which Arman was best known, and calligraphic prints by the artist are on display.
The integration of contemporary work is not always a success, the most discordant examples I encountered being an alarming razorblade theme running through one room and a similarly unsettling giant knife sculpture on the third floor landing.
Most inspired, however, are the four Rotunde suites created to mark the hotel’s centenary last year. In collaboration with the Maison Européenne de la Photographie a quartet of contemporary photographers who exemplified the key trends and techniques of our times were selected and a suite was assigned to each one to decorate in the spirit of the Continent from which they come. In ‘Europe’ Italian photographer Mimmo Jodice incorporates brooding shots of Vesuvius within muted slate-coloured walls, while Brazilian ‘illusionist’ master Vik Muniz captures the flamboyant South American spirit with bejeweled images of Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn alongside rich chocolate velvet furnishings.
This set of rooms is the apologia of how vintage can meet the future harmoniously, when contemporary elements are incorporated subtly and reverently. Purists will be pleased that the hotel is not very different to when General Charles de Gaulle spent his wedding night here, or when Catherine Deneuve used the lounge as her “second office”, but the additional spark of contemporary art shows that this illustrious Left Bank hotel hasn’t lost its touch.
Hotel Lutetia is at 45 Boulevard Raspail, 75006 Paris www.lutetia-paris.com