“We’re full steam ahead, remaining as efficient as ever,” Jean-Louis Deniot told me back in May when Paris was in the middle of its (what turned out to be) near 2 month lockdown, explaining that “everyone could just be fully distracted only by work.”
And they have to be. The designer is in the throes of a major commission first announced in 2017—the design of 375 residences for the luxury-defining, much-loved and storied Waldorf Astoria hotel in the heart of New York City.
LuxDeco Chief Creative Officer Jon Sharpe caught up with the LuxDeco 100 designer to discuss the enviable commission.
You're working on a highly coveted project right now—the residences at the iconic Waldorf Astoria. How do you feel to be tasked with such a prestigious project?
I remember heading to my first meeting for the re-development of the Waldorf Astoria. I recall standing out the front on Park Avenue staring at that amazing giant block and dreaming in front of it like a kid in front of a candy store. It is gigantic; it is so impressive, and it holds so much history, and here I was, little French me, having my hands on it. What could be better than having the opportunity to work on this incredible trophy that sits on the other side of the Atlantic, in America, the symbolic promised land.
You've said that “the interiors [of the residences] will reflect the magnificence of the past mixed with today’s great sense of energy”. How are you striking the balance between honouring the history of the building whilst making it an icon of the present?
When I imagined the life inside the Waldorf Astoria, I wanted each owner to have a perfect canvas to work with, I wanted the history of the Waldorf to continue, whilst enabling new histories to evolve and be created within its walls.
I never wanted to use any pastiche of the Art Deco era, I didn’t want a copy or pastiche; I wanted to assure a fresh historical take, I designed specific custom-made architectural profiles and silhouettes, mouldings, proportions that remind us [of], that tease, play and pay homage to Art Deco, but never mimic this style. The outcome is therefore something that fuses classical with contemporary, injected with a great dose of life and energy.
What have been some of the inspiration touch points for your designs? Any references to your favourite stories from the hotel's lavish history?
What is interesting about working on an iconic historical institution is that you need to become infused by its history, and yet come up with a completely different assemblage and form different possibilities for the institution as time has evolved.
We cannot simply recreate the past, but we can envision how we will enjoy the Waldorf Astoria in the future. What I have conveyed is a sense of theatricality, fantasy, and surrealism, because these elements are what the Waldorf, for me, is about.
These residences will be the epitome of luxury living. What does luxury living mean to you?
It means having maximum options, depending on the mood and the moment of the day so that you can literally get to the corresponding space depending on your mood to have a very specific time. Luxury is about appreciating it on your own or/and enjoying it, so each of the spaces needed to accommodate a grand sense of individuality and privacy whilst also being able to share it with family, friends, and many guests. Luxury living is about dreaming—almost as though travelling between realms—and so the amenities were developed in a lyrical exotic manner in order to enjoy life full-blast.
You often talk about pushing the design evolution forward with your work. What are you working on right now that is helping you do that?
I’m selecting projects depending on the challenge; when I am finished with one design, I have no interest in repeating it, and I always look forward to the next unknown design opportunities. I tend to select projects based on exercises that I have never done before.
In order to come up with fresh design you need to put yourself in design danger. I don’t trust design built on over-confidence, I trust good design based on curiosity, exploration of the unknown, and adventure.
You're arguably one of the world's most sought-after and influential designers. How do you continue to be inspired and motivated to create great work?
What’s interesting is that people often base creation on what has been done, whereas I tend to base it on what has never been done. My work is extremely lifestyle-related; it’s about how to be super low-key and have a fun time in grand poetic spaces. It is the contrast between these two ideas; it is the opposite of restriction. For me the boundary between dream and reality is a fine one, so I try to transfer the dream elements into reality and that is what keeps it creatively captivating.
And you're a furniture designer as well as an architect and interior designer. Are your end goals for your furniture pieces different to that of your interiors?
What is different with furniture design is that one piece is expected to fit most and, therefore, there is little context in terms of how the piece will be installed. The design therefore needs to be hybrid enough in order to accept and beautify any associations made.
On the other hand, when it is my own interior design pieced together as an ensemble, I play one with the other and I create reactions by associations; these assemblages create a unique and specific atmosphere.
The atmosphere, the ambience, is the secret source that is between you and the suggested interior design. One is completely in tune with the decor when one is in tune with the atmosphere, as though magic.
You've achieved an awful lot since you founded your studio 20 years ago. How are you feeling about that milestone?
I consider these last 20 years were the foundation, like a laboratory, many different testing grounds, many different design experiences, that now show me what I want and what I don’t want for my design future.
So 20 years later I am starting to finally see clearer what I am moving towards, and I am extremely thankful and excited about it. I have so many things in mind to develop [and] experience from. It is really the beginning of the whole next new chapter… It could not be in a more exciting and captivating time where everything now feels possible!
What has been your most pleasurable career moment?
I always compare career moments to bricks; each career moment is one more brick that builds one step at a time, creating a set of stairs. The stairs can be limitless! For the moment, the idea is to match the opportunity with my vision, so that it can become concrete.
It doesn't seem like there's anything you haven't done yet. Are there any special projects or collaborations still on your wish list?
A large criterion of projects to come will be determined by the level of creative freedom in order to really fully express non-static statements. Design really needs to show excitement and motion. There are so many vocabularies and almost surreal ideas that have the potential to be realised.
Header Image: Noe & Associates/The Boundary