If you’ve ever stayed at a five-star hotel, you’ll be familiar with the work of Jean-Michel Gathy. The ebullient Frenchman has been designing top-tier resorts for more than 30 years and has spent his working life shaping our idea of what a luxury property should be. Why do so many new hotels have breathtaking, Instagram-worthy infinity pools? Thanks to Gathy’s love of water. Why do almost all Asian hotels feature decorative Buddhas? Because Gathy fell for them after buying one for his home in 1983. Who started the trend for sprawling, spa-like, marble-clad bathrooms? You guessed it – Gathy.
The architect and designer got his big break when Adrian Zecha, the brains behind Aman Resorts, asked him to design Amanwana on the Indonesian island of Moyo in the early ’90s. After visiting the tropical paradise, Gathy dreamed up a luxurious camp, where each of the 20 rooms would be a stand-alone tent. He hoped that guests would wake up beneath the soaring canvas ceilings and be able to step straight on to the beach, or turn and go exploring in the jungle, perhaps startling the local wildlife on the way. Afterwards, they could retreat into their air-conditioned residence, relax on their private terrace or nap in their sprawling bed. And so it came to be. That resort opened in 1993 to immediate acclaim and kicked off a long collaboration between Gathy and Aman, which continues to this day.
But Gathy and his firm, Denniston International Architects, also work for plenty of other hospitality brands. He’s designed everything from the Viceroy Snowmass, which sits in the middle of a ski resort in Colorado, to the Chedi Muscat, a desert retreat on the shores of the Gulf of Oman. He’s currently working on a new Four Seasons hotel in the bustling centre of Bangkok and is also designing a 25-hectare One&Only resort in Portonovi in Montenegro (both set to open in 2018).
That One & Only will be the group’s first property in Europe, so will no doubt look a little different to the brand’s beachside hideaways in Asia and sprawling complexes in the Middle East. “If you look at Montenegro, it’s interesting because you’ll see that it’s a country basically on the sea but on a very major former trade passage, which was the passage from the Ottoman empire to Venice,” Gathy explains. “So the local people have been substantially influenced in their architecture and in their habits by the Turkish and the Italians. So there’ll be Turkish touches, Italian touches and local touches – it’ll be very layered.”
Although that resort is being built on a beach, the climate does pose some unique problems. “The particularity of that location is the fact that it has sensational summers but winter is a bit more challenging,” Gathy says. “We have to design the whole property with that in consideration, so fireplaces are important. A spa and wellness centre is fundamental because if you want people to come in the low season, when it could be cold, you want them to stay for a week, so you must have a fabulous spa facility. Hence we’ve designed a spa and wellness facility that is substantial – and I’m talking really substantial. I mean there’s like 60,000 square feet of wellness centre plus an internal pool.”
Alongside this property, Gathy is also busy refurbishing the One&Only Reethi Rah, a property in the Maldives that opened in 2005. “You know in 2005 there were no iPhones?” Gathy reminisces, aghast. “Can you imagine how the world has changed? And that was only 12 years ago! When we designed a resort 12 years ago, many of the options we designed – even though they were at the fore of that time – have become not necessarily obsolete, but they now have to be questioned. For example, at that time everyone would’ve used solid wood – nowadays, nobody uses solid wood anymore, you use engineered wood, which substantially improves the respect to the environment. And because materials have changed so substantially, the use of these materials has changed. You can carry longer spans than before; you have fewer problems with maintenance. It’s like cars – every car in the world, whether it’s Aston Martin or Jaguar or Porsche, they redesign a new car every few years. It doesn’t mean what they designed in 2005 was not good. But things have changed.”
Gathy is something of a workaholic and is constantly on the move – he even talks quickly. But the actual process of designing requires a few moments of stillness. “First and foremost, when I get a project I go on site,” he explains. “I will not even submit a proposal before I’ve been on site. The site tells you everything. Because I’ve been doing this for 30 years, when I walk on site it only takes me half an hour and I know what I’m going to design. I’m not talking just aesthetics – I’m talking planning, volume, I know what I’m going to put there.”
After that, he heads back to his studio in Kuala Lumpur with ideas buzzing around his head. “When I have reached an agreement with the client, I – and I say I because it’s me, Jean-Michel – I am the one who actually starts every single project. I sit down at my desk with a sheet of white paper in front of me, I look at the pictures I’ve taken on site, I study the brief and I plan the project according to the site.
“All of that is designed by me, by hand – I do not use a computer. I know people think I’m a dinosaur, call me whatever you want, but that’s what makes us special. When you design by hand, you enter in faith with your product. There is emotion in your hands; your hands translate your emotion. When you design on a computer, your computer translates nothing … it translates words. And design – especially hotel design, we’re not talking about office buildings here – it’s all about sensitivity and about emotion. If you design by hand, I believe these emotions are more in tune with what is required from a hotel.”
But once he’s got the ball rolling on one project, Gathy is back on the move and searching for his next challenge. “I just came back from Hong Kong this morning,” he says. “I was in Dubai last week, then I’m going to India this weekend. I’m around the world all the time. Whether it’s Europe, America, Asia – I’m everywhere.”