The high art of Anouska Hempel

Rose Martin looks at a new book on the life’s work of the self-taught and New Zealand-born creator of the boutique hotel concept.

BROWSING through Dunne’s new ‘Considered’ collection, you might come across some framed, architectural prints — old drawings of old buildings that might cast the right sort of atmosphere in a study, library or even, guest loo.

And you might also be surprised to learn that this ‘look’ was used by designer Anouska Hempel way back in 1974 when she opened her first hotel in London – she’s since become famous for her stacked frames of prints. Those familiar with the leading lights of the design world will instantly recognise the name — it almost conjures up an immediate image too — but for those not acquainted with the name you’ve probably run into her design more often than not.

Anouska Hempel created the boutique hotel look and she’s has played a background role in many of the staples of residential and corporate design – her’s is the diluted look you might encounter today, in say, a Jury’s or Premier Inn, the product of a trickle-down effect by a woman who is a leading creative in the design business.

Coming from New Zealand to London in the late sixties, the part-Russian/part-Swiss Anne Geissler was in the vanguard of a movement of Antipodeans seeking the sophistication of the motherland, an early group that included the likes of Clive James and Germaine Greer as its leading lights, not to mention Rolf Harris.

Hempel worked as a model and actress — she had a few Hammer Horror roles, a James Bond stint and other film work, including two she is less than pleased to be associated with, which is why she purchased the UK rights to two of her films – and they can no longer be shown. Clever lady.

The move away from film to a life as an uber-landlady occurred against the background of the rise of a sort of youth movement across continents – from Australia and back and with an increased demand for hotel accommodation in the capital.

Buying up a former boarding house in South Kensington and transforming it with some hippy flair and eastern staples, Hempel created a tidal wave in the formerly staid, hotel business. Opening Blake’s in 1974 — with it’s mix of lush, Italian baroque and Asian-influenced public areas, the hotel became a destination for media types, the cognoscenti and a tonier sort of cinq-a-sept customer.

Basically, it took off like a rocket and confirmed Hempel’s golden touch for creating not just design, but a luxurious and inviting mix that hadn’t been around before. Opening Blake’s (and extending it within two years), Hempel not only created a new sort of hotel, she created the phenomenon of the hotel as a destination in itself — and that’s no mean feat — being a key influencer in the 20th century. No OBE or CBE though, curiously.

And now there’s a new monograph of her life’s work produced by Marcus Binney, an architectural commentator and columnist who covers 13 of Hempel’s projects in a beautifully presented, coffee table book.

At around €56 it’s not cheap (but does come handily within the 50 bucks present level), but is a great buy. And that’s not saying this lightly — lot of the stuff is completely over the top, but anyone with any interest in design will love this book because it covers so much ground, Hempel can go from a Medici Cardinal’s boudoir to ice-cold minimalism in a thrice and each look is immaculately conceived and finished — to an OCD level.

As an aside — that odd number framing thing does not work with Anouska; it’s symmetry all the way and she is the queen of stacking —from pillows to suitcase, (which is another of her ideas that’s become a design cliche)And there are some innovations here too for gardeners — from the pleached Plane trees grown to create a canopy over an outdoor eating area, (a look which could be copied in the average home as much as a grand hotel), to the use of mirrors and low lights, (she keeps the blinds down during winter to filter, depressing grey light) and uses only evergreen trees in her gardens — with much use of clipped box balls — again a signature look that’s utterly mainstream now.

And along with building an international business, marrying three husbands, (widowed, divorced and married for the last 30 years to Sir Mark Weinberg, making her Lady Weinberg), and with a lifetime’s achievement behind her, Ancohuma Hempel is still working and creating hotels and private houses all over the world — all the whiledividing her time between her country seat, Cole Park, (which features heavily in this book), and her house in Holland Park, London, (ditto).

And for someone so private, she’s opened the doors of her own home freely to Binney, who repays the compliment by writing more of a hagiography than a monograph on his subject — to say he’s a fan is to put it blandly. But then, when you consider the entirety of her oeuvre — from the highly lacquered China rooms of the 80s to the whole, French shabby chic thing, (which was started in one of her bedrooms in Blake’s in the seventies), to the minimalist, stark hotel — the Hempel, you get how ahead of the curve she was then and even now — she’s still designing private houses and gardens, and there’s one fine example here, in Lichtenstein, of course.

In terms of her past work, Blake’s Amsterdam, now renamed, elevated the elements of the London hotel and played on its connections to the Dutch East India company, while Hempel’s designs for the Grosvenor House apartments in London display her high art — in shades of black, white and grey — and also shows how much money washes around that small international world of the mega rich. But there’s something here for everyman too; the high art can and does trickle down to the quotidian level and there’s the opportunity to borrow ideas aplenty. One I particularly like (and which will suit those with a bit of ground) is a rectangular room created out of hedging, called the Cathedral. Lighting is wired into the hedge and for big occasions, a tent placed overhead creates a magical marquee roomNext decade’s wedding venue anyone?

n Anouska Hempel by Marcus Binney;

288 pp; Hardback;

Thames and Hudson £45


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