Collaborate and captivate13 April 2019
A multimillion-dollar rebrand will see Millennium Hotel London Mayfair converted into The Biltmore this spring, the first European member of Hilton’s new luxury brand, LXR Hotels & Resorts. Greg Noone talks to Martin Goddard and Jo Littlefair, the husband and wife team behind the renovation, about the genesis of their design studio, the meaning behind modern luxury and how they have learned to collaborate with some of the biggest high-end operators on the hospitality scene.
The Americans can’t quite seem to quit Grosvenor Square. They first arrived in 1785, when John Adams moved into the three-storey townhouse at No 8 as the US’s first ambassador to the Court of St. James. For Nabby, John’s daughter, the new residence was a notable improvement upon its remote French equivalent at Auteuil. “We shall live more as if we were part of the world,” she wrote to her brother, future president John Quincy Adams.
That world, for the most part, encompassed five acres of impeccably manicured gardens flanked by the landed gentry’s grandest London boltholes. Access to Grosvenor Square proved inevitably attractive for a young country growing in selfconfidence with every passing year. As if yoked in elliptical orbit around some remote star, the legation would circle out towards Great Cumberland Place, Piccadilly and then Westminster, before tumbling back to Grosvenor Square in 1912, when it set up shop at No 4, then in 1938 at No 1, before settling at a newly built modernist embassy at No 24.
“It was like seeing a lady wearing slightly old, stained clothes and saying, ‘Actually, you could be gorgeous’.
Late last year, the mission was once more flung out into space, to a new site in Nine Elms. Even so, Grosvenor Square retains some measure of its former US commitment in its statues of Roosevelt and Reagan, and in its newest arrival, The Biltmore, Mayfair.
Named originally for the Vanderbilt family’s enormous, Châteauesque estate in South Carolina, the new hotel is the Hilton’s flagship European property for its new luxury brand, LXR Hotels & Resorts.
The refurbishment has been masterminded by the design firm Goddard Littlefair. Led by its eponymous husband and wife team, the studio has been responsible for the renovation of the Hilton Budapest in 2012, in addition to a host of similar projects for Starwood Capital, InterContinental and Ennismore. Today, we’re meeting at their Clerkenwell headquarters on a Friday afternoon.
“We’re delirious,” Jo Littlefair tells me. “We’ve just had two babies in the office to coo over.” Her husband, Martin, is a little less ebullient thanks to several days travel in service of a new project in the French Alps. His phone will ring intermittently throughout the interview, in addition to a single text alert sounding like an impatient Citroën driver’s horn.
Observing The Biltmore from afar might lead one to suspect the building was just another of Grosvenor Square’s many mock-Georgian manor houses. In fact, the property began life as the Britannia Hotel in 1969, designed by R Seifert and Partners to mirror the facades of the residences on either side. Less than 30 years later, the Britannia was sold to Millennium & Copthorne Hotels and rebranded the Millennium Britannia and then, finally, just the Millennium.
The property started life with an air of discreet sophistication, only to see its clientele deteriorate by the next century – it was at the Millennium’s Pine Bar, in 2006, that Russian FSB officer Andrey Lugovoy chose to drop a lethal dose of polonium-210 into dissident Alexander Litvinenko’s tea. The property, meanwhile, was slipping into decline.
“It was like seeing a lady wearing slightly old, stained clothes and saying, ‘Actually, you could be gorgeous,’” Littlefair laughs.
“The lady’s got bones,” adds Goddard, in a voice that doesn’t, sadly, resemble a Prohibitionera gangster.
Goddard Littlefair had been called in by Millennium & Copthorne in 2016, after originally just seeking to redesign the hotel’s restaurant and bar. “I think they’d had designs done previously, which they hadn’t ultimately loved,” says Goddard. Neither of the design duo were particularly surprised at the owner’s caution.
“It’s emotional to this client, because they’re extremely proud of it,” says Littlefair. “They wanted this property to be the jewel in their portfolio.”
The firm resolved to guide the owners through a full-scale example of an individual room, the better to convey the cost and ambition of any refurbishment. “We turned around a mock-up room in about six or seven weeks, which is ridiculously quick,” says Goddard, wincing. “Yes, it’s quite scary. The thing is, any designer wears their heart on their sleeve. As soon as you put a design on paper, or you put it on the screen, you really are baring your soul.”
It hasn’t always worked. Both designers have seen pitches fail before, or worse, succeed only to see the relevance of their initial proposal crumble as building projects drag on. These experiences, and observing other design firms make similar mistakes, has hardened them to pragmatism. “We’re not divas,” says Littlefair. The firm will always try to work with the client and consciously avoid anything close to a ‘my way or the highway’ approach to pitching.
Goddard Littlefair’s conceptual entry point to each project, though, remains the same. The pair start by “thinking about the history, the story, the architecture, the clients, and the people who’ve inhabited the building”, says Littlefair. This research is left to bubble and churn in the mind before something new jumps out of the pot. What emerges gives the project what Littlefair terms “the dreaded A-word” – authenticity – without leaning into pastiche.
“It makes everything that comes from it so much easier to design if you’ve done that. You can hang your hat on something for every CGI, every detail of furniture. There’s a reason why the chair has a turned leg or a little leather strap on the cushion,” she says.
What did this process entail, then, for The Biltmore? Goddard and Littlefair knew that they had a grand property on their hands, a lady with enviable bone structure who deserved to catch up with the rest of the neighbourhood – conform to the “Mayfair style”, as Goddard puts it. Even so, the duo wanted to avoid recreating another impersonal, manorial pile. Instead, the exclusivity of the site and brand would be enhanced by weaving intimacy throughout the overall design.
“We wanted it to feel like a boutique,” explains Goddard, starting with the exterior. “We decided not to light the entire facade, which is almost 100m long. We’re just lighting the 30m in the middle, which is the most decorative. That’s the whole focus; the rest of the facade just disappears.”
The pair also decided to make practical use of The Biltmore’s grand frontage by actually using it as the main entrance for guests arriving by car, instead of having them dropped off anonymously at the back of the property. Now, says Goddard, “You get the whole experience of sweeping around, arriving, getting out of the taxi into a Georgian bay square...instead of around the back into a 1970s courtyard.”
The reception, like the arrival sequence, has also been repositioned. The check-in process has been de-emphasised in favour of guests being greeted as soon as they enter the property. “It’s very much about being welcomed and then guided,” explains Goddard.
The duo have also made the rear courtyard a discreet, cosy extension of the hotel’s restaurant. This effect is carried over into the suites, which possess a decidedly residential feel with four-poster beds, painted timber panelling and bathrooms with basket-weave patterned floors. The guest rooms, meanwhile, incorporate Edwardian chinoiserie influences, with dark bass patterning and reeded, timber textures on the credenzas.
Looking at the scale of the transformation, one shouldn’t be surprised at Goddard Littlefair’s conclusion that The Biltmore was a landmark project for the firm. Its status as Hilton’s first European LXR hotel is doubly significant. The only other such property is in Dubai. “There’s a lot of excitement in the industry about what Hilton is going to do with this new luxury brand, and to be involved in that is fantastic,” says Goddard, a sentiment shared by his design partner.
Reported cost of The Biltmore’s renovation.
“We’ve been able to apply ourselves to the different disciplines within the hotel in different ways to make the best – the absolute best – of those spaces,” concludes Littlefair. One could imagine nothing else for the latest American arrival to Grosvenor Square.