David Collins' out-of-this-world design on display in Kikenny's Langton hotel

The love affair started well over 20 years ago, when Eamonn Langton, owner of Langton’s Hotel in Kilkenny, was on one of his regular trips to the British capital.

David Collins' out-of-this-world design on display in Kikenny's Langton hotel

London, for him, was an infinite source of design inspiration and on every trip he brought with him a list of bars and hotels that he had to visit.

Then in his 40s, he would spend days dragging friends and family from hotel to hotel and bar to bar. To all intents and purposes he was the well- heeled tourist enjoying downtime, but really he was super-inhaling his surroundings: breathing in all around him, getting high on the creativity and brilliance of everything from light fittings to tap fittings, from bar tops to wallpaper detail. He was delirious.

“I’ve always loved design. I follow design. In the earlier days, I designed the bars here myself but you got to the stage where you wanted somebody else,” he says. Langton’s home garden, incidentally, was designed by a young Diarmuid Gavin.

A Dublin-born architect had just designed the interior of The Canteen at Chelsea Harbour, a restaurant described by the London Independent at the time as “outer-space Edwardian” with an opening courtyard where “you expect a green person with eyes on stalks to say: ‘Welcome, Earthling, to the Planet Tharg’ ”.

As soon as Langton saw that first David Collins project, he was smitten. “I wanted to know all about him,” he sys. “I was blown away. He was so unique in every little detail. There was nothing like it out there. And from then on, I would go visit wherever I heard he had been working. I always watched his next move.”

Langton talks about Collins’ projects the way an art student will get giddy about the great masters. If Langton was on Mastermind, Collins would certainly be his chosen subject.

Collins’ projects roll off Langton’s tongue in the way that obsessive sports fans will cite team sheets on match days. He salutes the brilliance of The Wolseley, lauds Collins’ capacity to work with the notoriously erratic Marco Pierre White on the “quite special” Criterion and shakes his head in respect as he speaks of how Collins “changed entirely the feeling” of that jewel in London’s crown, Claridges of Mayfair.

Langton admits that Collins was “the most expensive of all”, probably costing four times more than Dublin’s better interior designers. “But he inspired me so much that I felt I needed him. I tried for some time to find someone like him but I could not find an equal.”

And so it was only a matter of time before a phone call would be made to the Dublin designer. “I rang him to say: ‘I could do with meeting you.’ I was wondering if I could or not afford him and really it stemmed from there,” says Langton.

That was 18 years ago. Since then Collins has transformed Langton’s Hotel from a family-owned, provincial-city hotel to a mystery tour, where around ever corner lies another bar or tearoom that will blow you away. Bang in the middle of the complex, there is even a 240-seat theatre which screams the luxe and self-indulgence of New York in the 1920s.

When Langton took over Langton’s from his parents, Ned and Bridie, in 1975, the hotel was a fraction of the size it is now. As he acquired more property around the original hotel, he always saw Collins as an integral part of his vision.

“I remember when I was first talking to David’s accountant. I said to him: ‘I, being Irish, I’ll have to pay you in instalments. The accountant, Ian Watson, paused and said: ‘I’m not used to that terminology’,” laughs Langton.

“More like he didn’t want to know what it was. ‘What do you mean?’ I said back. ‘I need so much up front,’ he said. ‘I’m perspiring on the phone here Eamonn’.”

But Langton says Collins and his team were great to work with. “He seemed a caring kind of guy,” he says. “He was very one-to-one, believed in service. You wouldn’t get a lot of time with him directly but you’d get some time, more in the earlier days. However, there wasn’t a detail on a project that he wouldn’t personally sign off on. I think he was as enthusiastic as we were. He was delighted to be working in Ireland.”

It’s a question that a lot of people have been asking in recent days. Why didn’t we hear of this Collins before? This Dubliner who counts Madonna and Tom Forde among his close friends and who, on his death, received floral tributes from the likes of Donatella Versace?

And more to the point, how come Collins is only championed at Langton’s Hotel and the Marble City Bar in Kilkenny? How come his hometown didn’t acknowledge the achievements of its own son?

“It’s hard to believe that we were the only Irish, aside from FX Kelly on Grafton Street, that ever used him,” says Langton.

“It was strange. He was a true Dub. He wanted to make a stab at Dublin as he took a huge pride in any work he did and wanted to enhance the place. He’d have loved to have had that chance in Dublin.”

Hospitality sources say Collins was flown into the city at least once to offer ideas for a landmark bar at one of the Celtic Tiger’s most prestigious hotels. However, that was as far as it went.

Elsewhere, his reputation spread to New York, Los Angeles and South Africa, and he picked up the phone regularly to the likes of fashion heavy hitters Alexander McQueen and Jimmy Choo. Sadly, Collins was only 58 when he died of a virulent form of skin cancer diagnosed three weeks earlier.

We spent hours exploring Langton’s Hotel this week. It was meant to be less but it’s the kind of place where you tend to linger examining the fabrics, the furniture, the panelling and that’s if you don’t surrender to the opulence around you. My standout, favourite, Collins-designed space was the bar that suddenly appears from behind a saloon-style door at the back of Bridie’s General Store.

When Langton brought this property adjacent to the hotel, it was an old furniture shop. They set about getting planning permission for another bar which would form part of the hotel complex but the local church said: “Eamonn, please don’t put another bar on this street.”

Langton, who commands much respect and admiration around Kilkenny City, went back to Collins with the dilemma.

And so Bridie’s General Store, named after Eamonn’s mother, was born. There’s no way that anyone wandering into the funky lifestyle shop (with its Victorian ironwork and floor-to-ceiling shelving, laden with everything from jams to raincoats to vintage table tennis sets) would imagine that the saloon- style mahogany door opens back into a long bar with banks of battered turquoise leather seats made for evenings of decadent fun.

I prefer Collins at his more chilled minimalist than his more full-on, which can be a sensory overload.

But the beauty of Langton’s Hotel is its mystery. You never know what will come next, what lies behind the next door or up the next set of steps. To wander is to really explore.

Langton said he, like a great many others, was “totally shocked” to hear of Collins’ death.

“I got a phone call from a friend and could not believe it,” he says. “I never knew he was sick. He was such a talent, an absolute genius to be fair and one with so much more to offer.”

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