TAKE A SEAT WITH CHRISTIAN MEINERT
If you ask Christian Meinert what gets him dreaming, then it takes a moment for him to answer, but when he does answer, he sounds convinced: “Good stories!” The interior architect behind the new Hamburg hotel, Fontenay, doesn’t just like to watch stories, either (although he is a big movie buff), but also likes to write his own – in his very own way and using a variety of methods. It was Michael Kühne who commissioned him for the new build on the exclusive banks of Hamburg’s Alster. The Zürich-based son of the city had in fact planned to save the InterContinental hotel, but ended up having it demolished instead for this new project. The waterside hotel is set in a park filled with mature trees; the architectural form given to it by Jan Störmer is organic and flowing, with not one single wall of the building drawn straight. It’s an impressive but demanding canvas for the Aukett + Heese bureau from Berlin. The interior reflects the light, airy freedom of the surroundings, while a gentle maritime touch recalls the city’s tradition and the man after whom the hotel is named: John Fontenay came to Hamburg in 1800 from America, buying up all the land between Dammtor (then a gate into the walled city) and the northern reaches of the lake. The land has never been sold since, and so the plot on which the Fontenay is built still, to this day, belongs to the Fontenay family trust.
Freifrau: The Fontenay is considered the new prestige hotel in Hamburg and was immediately listed as a five-star superior establishment on opening. What were you asked to take account of when planning the interior design?
Meinert: We took on the project after the first show-room had been completed: there was far too much dark wood and some geometric inconsistencies. As such, we were asked to rethink the planning for the hotel interior. We worked closely with the Kühne family to develop the design approach you can now see in the hotel; it became a very personal project, and the classification was not decisive in how we developed the design. From the start, the hotel was too self-confident to allow itself to be influenced by categories like stars.
Freifrau: That sounds like quite a task. After all, hotel designs have to take account of tastes and requirements from across the world while remaining individual, unique. How did you go about developing the design?
Meinert: Throughout the project, what I wanted to do was to offer guests the feeling that, when entering the Fontenay, they are embarking on a journey of discovery - with all the new impressions and feelings that go with that. I also wanted it to be a place you want to return to, a place that is extraordinary, contemporary, and yet will not date too quickly. Above all, though, the hotel is a very personal Kühne family project. We had to really think from their perspective to understand what they wanted, to get inside their wishes – both the ones they expressed and the ones that were implicit, more of a gut feeling. Then there was the unique location and the extraordinary architecture of the building, which called for a light, bright, open design. Overall, the idea is of a park hotel, an oasis right in the centre of town, and the traffic calming on Harvestehuder Weg, which runs between the parkland and the Alster, was an important part of the concept.
Freifrau: So it was more a question of getting to know the client and developing emotion than of following specific requirements. Working like that probably takes a high degree of empathy and passion. What is, in your view, the most exciting thing about starting this kind of major project?
Meinert: There is always something special about stepping into a room the first time which has come from my mind, from my imagination. When all manner of components fuse together into something whole, it’s like finishing a novel in which all the characters and the plot have come together to produce a really good story with a good ending. With bigger projects, this feeling is more nuanced than with smaller ones – and is ample reward for all of the time and work which you put into it.
„There is always something special about stepping into a room the first time which has come from my mind, from my imagination.“
Freifrau: That sounds very much as if your projects mean a lot to you personally, too. In general, are you always creating something that you yourself want to see, or are you able to completely suppress your preferences if necessary?
Meinert: I think one of the strengths of our bureau is that we don’t have to put our stamp on everything we do. Clients don’t get an obvious “Aukett + Heese” number in which our signature is screaming from every design element and every shape and line. Rather, we produce highly individual, highly personal concepts. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be able to design a space which I really don’t like and that I myself wouldn’t want to live or work in. There’s a distinction there, albeit it a very fine one. If I ever got asked to design a prison, of course, then that would all go out the window… (laughs)
Freifrau: You’ve been working for the Aukett + Heese since it was founded. Especially in its interior design projects, this architects’ bureau has specialised in exclusive furniture and materials. Does premium get to be routine at some point, or is there anything that still gets you excited? What is true luxury?
Meinert: In my mind, you can’t measure luxury with money. My personal definition of luxury is something new which has been created specifically: a unique place or one-off impression; something unusual, extraordinary. It can also be something we all know and love, like the Saarinen Conference Chair, for instance, which I can always get myself enthusiastic about. What I prefer, though, are contemporary pieces or new interpretations of classic shapes. For each and every project, I go off searching for something new – on the internet, but offline, too. Sometimes, we just design a new piece ourselves: that, too, might be a definition of luxury.
Freifrau: Our Leya Wingback has found a place at the Fontenay’s reception. The lobby space and hotel reception are the first places a guest sees when they enter a hotel, and in the Fontenay, guests sit down to check in. Why? And why did you chose the Leya Wingback for them to sit in?
Meinert: It’s certainly a slightly unorthodox approach, but having the guest sit down fits the overall concept of the hotel: offering someone a seat in an armchair at the end of what is often a long journey instead of having them stand at a counter like they would to check in for a flight or fill out a form in an official context allows them to take a moment of time for themselves and to really arrive, mentally and emotionally. We chose the Leya Wingback for this moment because its shape protects guests from the hustle and bustle of the lobby space. It also reflects our design goals inasmuch as the exterior shell is as smooth as a shield while the interior upholstery is abundantly luxurious and beautifully comfortable.
Thank you so much for the inspiring chat about your passion and the new house by the Alster lake!