La Belle Juliette – a conversation with Anne Gelbard

Interviewed recently by Interiors Magazine, Anne gave some very interesting replies to the journalist’s questions that may help you understand how she approached the interior design of the hotel and how the project evolved…

Anne Gelbard and La Belle Juliette in 7 questions
(to leaf through the illustrated article from the magazine, click here).

1 – Can you tell me how you came to be involved in the project?

I met Alain Bisotti of the Hôtel Paris Rive Gauche label at the Maison & Objet trade fair in Paris. That’s where I show my home decoration collection based on my haute couture work. He then introduced my to Corinne and Pascal Moncelli, the owners of La Belle Juliette, and after a series of discussions and conversations we decided to collaborate on the birth (or rather, rebirth) of their new hotel. It was a very down-to-earth meeting, with a great feeling of complicity, shared ideas and trust.

2 – Did you have your own personal feelings or connection with Juliette Recamier Did that change in any way over the course of creating the interiors?

It was Corinne who had an attachment for this 19th century heroine and introduced me to her. Juliette Récamier has a certain renown of course, but she’s not really known for what she did. I really got to know her while designing the hotel. I had to steep myself in her era, her life, like an actress researching her character. My feelings about her evolved over time, as there’s an iconic image of her (as the most beautiful woman of her era), but she was also a real businesswoman, kind of a forerunner of what is now known as marketing or PR.

3 – Some of the designs you’ve chosen are far more contemporary than Récamier’s life. How do you see these reflecting her style or the legends that surround her?

It was an era with a lot happening. Society was going through radical change, new values were being formed. It was just after the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. Philosophy, design, the way of dressing, the whole way of life were perpetually changing. Greek references, the republic and democracy were the basis for constructing a new lifestyle, a new aesthetic. Society’s values were very free. You have to remember that death and violence were both very close. What now seems old to us – the Directoire style – was new and innovative at the time, and both Juliette Récamier and Joséphine de Beauharnais were considered trendsetters. So it seem logical to me – obvious even – not to betray Juliette, to introduce key pieces of contemporary design like the Risom chair or the Saarinen table, or excellent new pieces of current design like Arik Levy and Sam Baron. I’m not here to copy the style of an era, but to understand a character. It also allowed me to bring in young creators and photographers like Elene Usdin, Valentine Fournier and Marie Maurel du Maillé who will be giving us their vision of Juliette.

croquis d'Anne Gelbard

4 – Can you describe what your main inspiration and desires were in creating these interiors?

Each floor marks a strong element from Juliette’s life, either key people – like Madame de Staël, her best friend and mentor, or Chateaubriand, the great love of her life – or snapshots from her life, like Italy, her refuge and venue for the cultural and political gatherings for those exiled by Napoleon Bonaparte, or the literary salons, the ’causeries’ (where people met to talk) that were very much in vogue at the time. Juliette’s was the most frequented and lively of the time.
These themes are spread over the four floors where the rooms are.

You’ll start on the second floor up by getting to know Juliette Récamier. I wanted very sobre, monochrome tones here (Juliette wore all white, right up to the end of her days) and Madame de Staël, a very strong influence who will be represented by bold, contrasting colours.

The third floor is inspired by Italy and evokes movement, long voyages by coach and horse. This explains the simplicity of the materials and styles used. The accent is on the walls, the colour of the sky, with large frescoes that suggest imaginary landscapes lost in the mist.

The fourth floor, dedicated to Chateaubriand, is laid out like his memoirs from beyond the grave. It’s the the most masculine of all the floors.

The fifth floor, called ‘Les Causeries’, represents socialising and tells of certain characters of the time; scientists, philosophers, actors or women of loose values. It’s the most classic of the levels, with heavy curtains, plaster mouldings and antique furniture (taken from the previous hotel and completely transformed by Ludovic Avenel).

croquis d'Anne Gelbard

The ground floor is also designed like a home with the antechamber or ‘salon des voyageurs’ which will be a space for photo exhibitions (the HPRG label is a sponsor of photography), the reception area, round, which will be like a cocoon that welcomes guests, the Talma bar, a homage to a famous actor of the time and friend of Juliette, who often entertained her salon, the music room, and the library. Each space is designed like a living space. The idea is to give the impression of walking into Juliette’s townhouse and feeling at home, not just in a hotel.

The spa is a poetic stroll, like a secret garden or the Grecian baths and reproductions of caves that were popular at the time. With a fresco called “The extraordinary garden” by Jean Boggio for Frantz, you’ll discover a laid-back, calm space magnified by this ceramic landscape.

Even if each floor has been designed to represent the fundamental symbols of Juliette’s life, I wanted each detail to be “like at home”; reassuring, comfortable. I want to intrigue and surprise guests and make them feel at ease. For me, we are in Juliette’s home, or at least my vision of it.

5 – What was the building like when you began?

A superb, impressive façade, a faded interior and a strange floorplan all stretched out that makes the building so particular, like a picture book.

6 – Were there any specific challenges you faced? Special moments?

Specific challenges, yes!!! It’s the first time that I have been asked to design a space that must stand the test of time, an interior to be lived in. You have to be sure that your designs on paper and your dollhouse model really represent what you have in mind. There have been many special moments too, one in particular: a weekend in Brussels with lots of laughing, snowball fights, and lovely meals, when we went round the antique stores like curious children, looking for objects and furniture with 20cms of snow outside. We all went: Vincent Bastie, the architect on the projects, Corinne and Pascal Moncelli, Alain Bisotti, and Emilie Corre who has helped me to transform my ideas into reality, doing a great ‘translation’ job. I only had a fashion vocabulary at the beginning, and it wasn’t easy to turn that into architectural language. I definitely needed an interpreter who could understand my way of explaining things from a fashion background. Each profession has its own language, each idea has a huge number of ramifications when it comes to technical details, finishing touches and lots of other elements…

Throughout the conception of the project, the atmosphere was excellent, full of exchanges, thoughts about the essence of the project, its form, and the solutions to each question.

7 – I’d love to talk about your general style and approach in decorating and working with clients. How would you describe this? Do you have a particular “signature” in your work?

My approach for this hotel was to make a place, a reassuring house, not a ‘concept’. Juliette was an excellent host, so I wanted to make the hotel a warm cocoon for voyagers discovering Paris.

As a place of luxury too, I wanted to avoid the simple solutions, anything too showy, and get back to chic, quality materials, use hand-crafted wallpapers, specially-created paint colours – the real luxury of the era – painted frescoes, fabrics woven to order. The time needed to design and build the space was also a luxury that we gave ourselves.

Coming from the world of fashion and haute couture, a special harmony, a resonance of colours and materials, is especially important to me. The sculpting of spaces, complementing elements, the surprise given by the subtle mix of contemporary and antique are also very important to me. Is that my “signature”? Humorous touches – like bubbles of oxygen – without which life would be completely dull. In fact, I hate anything serious, boring, pedantic or fake… I like poetry, the imaginary. With Corinne et Pascal Moncelli, we got on absolutely perfectly. They are ‘concrete’ people, open, frank, with the right words to help things advance. Together with Alain Bisotti, everyone gave their time and energy to the project. It’s a hotel that comes from the heart.

The numerous restrictions and obligations dictated by the workings of a hotel were just bumps along the way. I adopted a phrase said to me by one of my teachers: “Going beyond restrictions is the greatest of liberties”.

I really feel like this first experience will be remembered as my best: a fascinating theme, a huge amount of freedom and trust, amazing, funny, adorable bosses… and feet on the ground. I hope that the guests will feel this ambiance when they stay at La Belle Juliette.