For a designer, bringing modern style into a historic building is a tightrope act: too much and you ruin the classic vibe, too little and it doesn’t feel modern enough.
So when he signed on to create the Executive Suites at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest in Hungary, Martin Goddard, director of Goddard Littlefair Interior Architectural Design, had to figure out how the new accommodations could bring the 19th-century hotel into the 21st century—and how they could attract VIP guests to book the suites in their own right, rather than to expect them as a complimentary upgrade.
“The first priority was to create a new product in the hotel to differentiate the suite product,” Goddard said. “We wanted to make them contemporary enough that they feel like a modern product and historic enough so that they still hold together with the rest of the hotel and the setting of the building. We were trying to create a new product, an unexpected product, so these rooms are not your traditional junior suite, they are very much their own sort of thing.”
Windows and Doors
The team was aided by the building’s bones, with “really good grand ceiling heights on most of the floors,” so Goddard could take advantage of the “verticality” of those spaces. The high ceilings not only allowed for tall windows to let in plenty of light, but gave the team a chance to emphasize the suite’s interior doors. “They’re full-height,” Goddard said. “In some rooms, these are 3.5-meter-high doors, which feel incredibly grand and very much part of the vernacular architecture of central Europe in Budapest,” he said.
“We were looking at how to lighten the impression of the room divider, the wall between the living room and the bedroom. Traditionally, it had been a wall with a door in it, and we said, ‘Why can’t it be a wall of joinery?’ So it’s bookcases that you pass through from room to room.
“And then, to soften the effect of that, we use a lot of mirrors to make the walls feel almost invisible—and it’s strange when you stand in the suite that you don’t really perceive the size of the room because you’re seeing the reflection behind you and then the view through to the bedroom. So it’s an optical trick, but it makes the rooms feel larger.”
Of course, no design project ever goes exactly according to plan, and Goddard Littlefair faced some unique hurdles when creating these suites. “The first challenge was working in a working hotel,” Goddard said, noting that because the suites are not grouped together, but spread out across the front of the building, the construction crews had to work next to guestrooms that were being used by guests, and had to wheel equipment down corridors alongside VIPs staying at the hotel.
But keeping a sense of place in the hotel was also challenging. “We’re working in a market where using original pieces of furniture is very expensive,” Goddard said, “so we designed all the pieces and then worked with local suppliers for most of it.” Making sure the fabrics were locally provided—“or at least within the region”—was another challenge.
And this led to the challenge of working with local consultants and getting them to understand what the team was trying to achieve. “I’ve worked in Budapest for years,” Goddard said, noting his recent work on the Hilton and the Gresham Palace years ago. “Everywhere you work, people come from a different experience, so consultants are used to doing things different ways. The challenge is to adapt how you work to local practices, but also, you have to be aware of cultural sensitivities. You have to tread a diplomatic line.”
Dollars and Sense
The budget for the renovation was “fairly tight,” Goddard said. “Like in many of these cities in the Eastern Bloc, the return is tight on these investments because of room rates and what you can get for them. And I think our trick was to try and adapt the design and adapt the finishes and the specifications and where things were made to meet that budget.”
To keep the project on target in terms of budget—“there or thereabouts,” Goddard said— the team worked “very closely” with the project manager from Corinthia to refine everything right down to the nearest euro, including the cost of fabrics and all materials. “We also did a lot of research on who was going to make the furniture, where we were going to get things from, to really get the best value. So, yes, it was a tight budget, but I don’t think I’ve ever worked on any project anywhere at the moment that has a flamboyant budget. The times have changed, so you have to be very savvy with the way you do things.”
And that savviness can have a solid return on investment. “Often, suites in these kinds of hotels, if they don’t look different, if they don’t feel luxurious, people don’t buy them,” Goddard said. VIP guests will be upgraded to the suites, but the hotel doesn’t make any extra money off of the rooms. To that end, Corinthia is marketing these rooms to a targeted upscale demographic to encourage specific bookings, which can bring in better revenue. “By creating a unique selling point, a unique product, it becomes more attractive to people because it feels very different from the rest of the room stock. It doesn’t just feel like you’re getting a larger room.”