In a city with one foot in the past and the other firmly planted in the future, how does a luxury hotel reflect its context without falling foul of cliché?
For the David Collins Studio design team faced with the interior design of the Le Méridien Seoul in Gangnam, a thriving creative quarter of South Korea’s 2,000-year-old capital, the tension between heritage and evolving tastes has rarely proved as complex.
“The challenge is to design for everyone from the global well-travelled who have seen it all to the local Korean populace who expect a nuanced, thoughtful appreciation of their culture,” says Creative Director Simon Rawlings about the painstaking makeover and extension of an existing hotel to create the first Le Meridien property in Korea. “It takes more than just adding contemporary art by local artists or turning to well-worn design tropes,” he adds.
The creative design solution has been to forge their own path, combining two great cultural traditions in a nuanced blend of Parisian opulence – a nod to the Le Meridien roots - and strong mid-century references, taking inspiration from traditional Korean arts and crafts for decoration and materiality.
“We didn't want anything too obvious so looked more to the theory of mid-century architecture, using themes of pattern and symmetry interwoven with subtle hints of Korean arts and crafts,” Design Director Lewis Taylor says. “We wanted the different personalities of each space to work harmoniously so these design elements were incorporated in a subtle, almost sub-conscious way.”
Throughout, contemporary décor and furniture incorporate elements of local artisanship.
The entrance sets the tone with a classic porte-cochère and Korean artist Yang Min Ha’s "Gather + Build" light installation nearby. It leads onto the lobby, a simple, neutral palette of grey stone and dark wood, highlighting a pair of woven metal screens that were made at a workshop outside Seoul, and elegant timber fluted columns.
“We are very keen on keeping things as local as possible,” Taylor says. “Not just from a cost point of view, it is about supporting the local economy.”
The hotel, comprising old and new buildings linked by a 12th floor bridge, features a grand colonnade that runs its whole length and culminates in a new five-storey-high atrium with a distinctive grid-pattern fenestration inspired by Parisian department store Le Bon Marché’s signature 1950’s style.
The designers relocated the original escalators to the rear central section of the hotel, allowing the soaring light-filled atrium to act as a visual focus.
“It is a very refined space,” Taylor notes. “The colonnade also helps navigation between the two buildings.”
The colonnade also acts as an architectural device ensuring different functions like the reception, VIP check-in and lounge seating, a hotel concession and café-bar operate seamlessly side-by-side.
This last, Latitude 37, is an Instagram-worthy bolt hole complete with sleek Hans Wegner-inspired cabinets and furniture, a fluted antique brass bar and custom-design decorative lighting in opaque glass, with a wall lined with a patchwork of wooden screens and mirrors, and traditional Korean layered blinds. The space becomes a cocktail bar at night and also acts as a gallery for the hotel’s permanent collection of artworks.
“Hotel lobbies are no longer just places for guests to check in,” says Taylor. “What luxury travellers and local residents are looking for is a more modern look and approach with a flexible, fluid space that goes beyond simply making a design statement.”
The colonnade’s carefully balanced tones of warm materials, textures and soft lighting create a stylish yet inviting vibe that suits a mix of clientele. It also elegantly references Korea’s age-old artistry in a series of works including a striking 2-metre-wide statement piece ‘Bloom’ made by Kim Hee Kyung using traditional Korean Hanji paper.
Throughout, contemporary décor and furniture incorporate elements of local artisanship: decorative woven and knotted threads employing an ancient technique known as maedeup find new life as woven metal screens; hammered metal tableware called Bangjja becomes unusual metal door handles; and Korea’s signature fine hand-stitched and intricately patterned fabrics are reinterpreted as lavish window treatments and trims.
According to Taylor, “Timelessness is something we like to include in our work, adding our own contemporary twist. Investing your budget in touchpoints makes perfect sense. For example, door handles set the tone for the rest of the room; it will have already raised your expectation of something special or luxurious so this is where we chose to reference Korean arts and crafts.”
This thoughtful approach to creating an aesthetic that is faithful to its context without being defined by it extends to the 336 guest rooms. The 122 two-bay residential-style rooms are double the size of standard rooms and have large bathrooms, a separate seating area and a small terrace. All feature deluxe finishes such as modernist paneling, oak floors and plush velvet upholstery. Lavender and cream leather screens in a pojagi pattern add a subtle hint of Korean heritage.
“It is less about look-at-me-interiors and more about relaxed luxury that rests on its own credentials rather than fanfare,” Taylor explains.
For the sybaritically inclined, the perfectly proportioned six-room Presidential Suite has a dramatic double-height living room, achieved by the bold removal of one floor.
Guests enter via a grand circular foyer. There is a separate entrance to the show kitchen in the living and dining spaces and a terrace with an outdoor dining area. A spiral staircase leads to the suite’s upper terrace, where there is a jacuzzi and cabanas.
The Presidential Suite amps up the hotel’s distinctive blend of French elegance and glamour and Korean aesthetics with serene green, lavender and blues teamed with dark parquet flooring, plump velvet upholstery and sumptuous fabrics, silks and leathers.
The study is lined with navy-stained joinery and shagreen details with a textured paper behind it in navy and gold. Walls in the bedroom are ivory and lime green cracked gesso, while furniture throughout includes custom designed pieces inspired by French designers of the 1950's. A dressing room swathed in grey rippled sycamore leads out onto a private terrace.
The hotel’s five restaurants and bar are equally glamorous.
On the ground floor at the far end of the lobby colonnade, the all-day-dining Chef’s Palette stands out with grid-like detailing and an ornate ceiling that reflects Korean arts and crafts.
Intimate dining spaces are dressed in timber, crackle-glazed white tiles and glass block screens with blue and pink leathers and fabrics that offset brass accents. There are also a buffet area, an all-day dining menu and a private dining room serving seasonal fare and original dishes.
Acclaimed Korean chef Edward Kwon is at the helm of two further dining destinations: Elements, serving modern Korean dishes and LAB XXIV for classical French cuisine.
Driven by the classical Korean philosophy of four elements: geon, ri, gam and gon, both feature clearly defined, pitch-perfect zones linked by the central colonnade.
There is also a café within the M Contemporary art gallery on the hotel’s ground floor.
On the fourth floor, the hotel’s wellness area is an impeccable blend of teal-coloured lacquered panels and leather trims, with white stone and glazed green tile flooring and walls.
The fitness centre features a stepped reception desk that echoes those in the hotel’s main lobby and has walls of the same teal-colour screens contrasting with ivory panels, while the locker room has dark joinery and leather double-door lockers with mirrors.
Thoroughly Korean authenticity comes in the form of the hotel’s own traditional hot spring bath.
When privacy, space and luxury are essential, an exclusive private members’ club on the 12th floor accessed by a spectacular bridge offers panoramic city views from double-height widows and two outdoor terraces. Finished in dark timber and dark green and navy velvet, with woven leather and warm red accents, its walls are also glazed and there are traditional Korean overlapping linen blinds.
“We wanted the hotel to reflect the alchemy of Seoul, bringing together the best of contemporary design, Korean arts and crafts, but with a fresh urban twist,” Taylor says. Mission accomplished.
A beautiful hotel in Seoul, Le Méridien, speaks Korean with a delightful French accent.
The result, when imagined through the mind of a London-based design studio, is subtly intriguing, one where inspiration and influence cross and reflect. It instinctively swerves the parody or pastiche. Odd, some would say, to look to luxury hotel culture to find integrity and cultural respect. Here, though, in the South Korean capital we find a charming, contemporary and flawlessly appointed hotel with discreet French heritage that feels perfectly at home.
Catherine Shaw is an independent architecture, design and art critic based in Hong Kong.
Edmon Leong is an interior design and architecture photographer living in Hong Kong.