I’m lying on my bed in my hotel room and there is a giant fish on the wall. I say fish, but in place of its tail it has the stem of a Champagne flute. These two seemingly mutually exclusive objects, printed onto the wallpaper, are joined together with three red crosses – a symbol of Amsterdam. “Amsterdam distinguishes itself by its versatile and free culture that stimulates its inhabitants to have an open mind” read the hotel’s design notes. “As a result, ‘Amsterdammers’ like to combine things that are not usually mixed. Therefore, connecting polarities fuel a major design theme of the hotel: two individual non-related elements that are stitched together to form a new logical whole.”
I will admit that this reasoning does sound a little like that of somebody who has been indulging in the wacky baccy for which Amsterdam is infamous, but since entering the Andaz Amsterdam – an experience not unlike walking onto the set of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – I have decided to roll with it. This newly-opened hotel housed in an old library building in central Amsterdam is full of unexpected plays on scale and familiar objects given an unusual twist. Patterns clash with patterns and every possible surface is decorated to the max. It is a bit flashy, a bit crazy and a bit pretentious. It is unmistakably the work of Marcel Wanders, its designer. And it is more or less what I expected before I arrived. What I didn’t expect, however, of either the man or of his work, is how much I would like it.
Rewind three months and I am sat in the Andaz hotel in London’s Liverpool Street. Next to me is Marcel Wanders – the stalwart of contemporary Dutch design. Having been warned by a Dutch journalist friend of mine that Marcel can talk for Holland, I have come prepared with only six questions. It turns out, however, that I am the last interviewer of the day and he is no longer in the mood to wax lyrical on his latest project, the Andaz Amsterdam. When asked what to expect, he shrugs and says that he is not going to tell me anything. “Where does he find his design inspiration?” – He’s not really inclined to share this information either. Standard questions aren’t going to work here.
Sitting back in his seat with the look of Vincent Cassel in a gangster movie, Wanders isn’t interested in small talk. He wants to be challenged. He wants to be prodded. So, knowing full-well that his designs are the polar-opposite, I ask him his thoughts on minimalism: “We’ve been educated with a type of minimalism which goes back to a political situation where the industry wanted to realise objects which it could make very simply,” he laments. “We had to sell simple objects instead of elaborate hand-crafted objects. The only way to do it was to say that they were better, but they were not. Today we have all the capacity in the world, more than ever, to create things beyond anything we have before – but instead we make simple things.”
At this point in his rant, Wanders picks up an unassuming highball from the table and, holding it between finger and thumb like a soiled tissue, pronounces “Who’s going to cry if this one falls on the floor? No one’s gonna cry – why do we drink from things which are so uninteresting that if they fall on the floor no one would even care?”
I suggest to Wanders that there may be financial reasons why people choose simpler designs, sparking further outrage: “The cutlery we designed for KLM costs 12 cents for a fork, or spoon or knife – they’re fabulous pieces. It has nothing to do with money. We have too much money and we buy too many things. Let’s buy less and let’s buy better.”
At this point I raise a red flag to a bull and offer Wanders my own personal expletive – Ikea.
“It’s a horrible brand. It feels like I’m stepping into the dustbin! Why would you be a sane person and care about our world and buy a sofa that’s not gonna last more than two and a half, maybe three years? People will tell you ‘well yes, I can afford this one’ – it’s bullshit – go to any second hand store, there will be fabulous sofas from the best designers in the world for the same price that you buy a crappy one at Ikea.” This hatred of mass-production and minimalism certainly carries into Wanders’ work. The interiors in the Andaz Amsterdam are no exception. In each of the bedrooms, for example, is a one-minute sink – emblazoned with a dash of blue paint. Each one of the 150 sinks in the hotel was decorated by Wanders’ own fair hand in the space of a minute. In some ways, this method of creation seems much closer to the mass production that he despises than the craftsmanship and care that he lays claim to. Except that the sinks look beautiful, and the very personal image they conjure, of Wanders wildly throwing paint about, brings a smile to my face and makes them unique.
The paint used on the white sinks is inky blue – the decorative colour found in Delft Blue pottery. This colour is found throughout the hotel, from the carpets and the bedroom doors to the bathroom wallpaper designs, a mish mash of articles, facts and figures taken from books about Amsterdam , referencing the building’s past life as a library and making any trip to the loo at least five minutes longer than it needs to be. In fact the hotel is full of local narratives and motifs – some explicit, others less so.
Amsterdam’s maritime past is referenced in the old-fashioned maps woven into the carpets and again in The Observatory – a dramatic atrium space which spans from the ground floor to the very top of the hotel. Viewed from the lobby, from the lift and also through one way glass from the bedrooms which face into it, it is home to a group of chandeliers which create a sort of night sky. The backdrop to these is a mural, echoing the bathroom wallpaper, which describes Amsterdam in facts, figures and symbols. While taking all of this in from the lift, I amuse myself by imagining the meeting in which Wanders proposed these ideas to the powers that be at Hyatt Hotels. In my head it involved much dramatic hand-gesturing received with enthusiastic nods. And quite right too. It’s fabulous.
In contrast to The Observatory, the bedrooms are fairly simple, using a fresh palette of colours, including more Delft blue and white. A bright yellow oversized Tulip Chair which dwarfs its occupant again recalls Wonderland. The standard bedrooms have luxurious walk-in rain showers, while guests in the penthouse can enjoy a soak in Wanders’ Bisazza bath – a bath in the form of a bar of soap. There is also a sofa upholstered in a fabric featuring the recurring motif of Marcel Wanders’ face, prompting many inappropriate jokes from me which, luckily, my delightful Dutch Andaz hostess didn’t understand.
Wacky design aside, the hospitality in this place is top notch. I was the recipient of one of the best massages I’ve ever had in the hotel’s spa. Meanwhile, its restaurant, The Blue Spoon, sated my hunger for about three days after having dined there. The completely open kitchen allowed my partner and I to listen as our food was called and watch in awe as it was prepared. This was quite fun, although I did find myself waving at him to prise his attention away from the theatre and back to his glamorous date for the evening. After a delicious steak tartare, and clearly in the mood for meat, we ordered The Tomahawk, a hefty cut of meat which was initially presented to us still on the bone … an impressive foot long cow’s rib. Wanders couldn’t have designed it better himself.
It was with reluctance that we took ourselves away from the drama and luxury of the Andaz. With his “never too much” attitude Wanders’ fantastic and fun designs are wonderful to indulge in for a weekend. When, however, my partner pointed at a gigantic lampshade in the shape of a bell with a bow on it and suggested he’d quite like one of those for the house, it was definitely time to leave. Perhaps it’s my rigorous minimalist education, but I’m still a firm believer in less is more. And so we hopped on the Eurostar in the centre of Amsterdam and, just over four hours later, were back in the quiet elegance of London, dreaming of Champagne fish.
by Emilie Lemons
Amsterdam Prinsengracht Andaz Hyatt
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