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Designing with intent: in conversation with Jacu Strauss

Lore Group creative director, Jacu Strauss, discusses One Hundred Shoreditch and why his hotels will never be finished.

26/07/2022 7 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 220

Words: Harry McKinley

There’s a nod to grandeur at Jacu Strauss’ London home. Fragments of Greek and Roman statues are lined up along a side cabinet: an immense hand seems to gently grasp the air, a bust of Antinous stares stoically into space and the lower half of a torso is caught mid-motion. If someone’s decorative choices are a window into their mind, then Strauss is a man interested in legacy and narrative.

As creative director of Lore Group, the international hospitality company, he’s responsible for the design of an impressive hotel portfolio – one that includes Amsterdam’s Pulitzer, Washington DC’s Riggs and now London’s One Hundred Shoreditch. The latter is one of the capital’s most prominent openings in years, not just on its own fine merit, but because it fills the shoes of Ace Shoreditch, a property that shattered conventions and used clever design as a catalyst for a new type of hotel culture. It opened in 2013, shuttered in 2020 and now One Hundred Shoreditch is its replacement – building on some of the ideas Ace established but, a near-decade having passed, a place developed for today’s evolved guest.

“Ace was an institution,” says Strauss, “But then the pandemic happened and there was an opportunity to reflect. As the owners, we recognised that it was time for something that spoke to the neighbourhood as it is now. If you look out of the windows of the guestrooms today, it feels as though the hotel has been touched by what’s happening outside. Shoreditch has grown up and the property needed to shift away from the established Ace aesthetic and focus more on comfort, rather than just being a party hotel. We wanted to create a sanctuary.”

The result is a progression, not a total reinvention. With 258 rooms, a restaurant, three bars and a coffee shop, there’s still a sense of scale, but the design is more sensitive and mature. A re-envisioned lobby features sculptures designed by Strauss and crafted by Jan Hendzel Studio, while cork wall panelling and a new acoustically insulated ceiling have been added to soften the once cacophonous soundscape. The famed long table (oft credited with encouraging lobby laptop working) remains, but with softer sanded edges and dotted with ceramics. The basement nightclub is gone, replaced with a Stanley Kubrick-inspired cocktail bar. New restaurant, Goddard & Gibb takes the place of Hoi Polloi – a titanic rock sculpture in bright yellow now a theatrical focal point.

“As soon as we opened the doors, there were people with their computers waiting to go back to the big table in the foyer,” Strauss says, with a wide laugh. “So why would we change that just for the sake of it? It’s something that worked, something we liked and something that meant a lot to the neighbourhood. But I changed the things that needed to change, and it was quite a painful exercise actually, working out what to keep and what not to keep. It was a lot of experimenting and a lot of risk taking. In short, probably one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever completed.”

Strauss’ success as a designer is, perhaps, down to his ability to consider how large, elaborate projects will function at a fundamentally human scale; and in his knack for humanising the abrasively urban. The architecture at One Hundred Shoreditch is a case in point, transformed from a monumental grey brick stretch into a more considered façade that could almost be four separate buildings – with new oriel windows.

“The council loved us for that,” jokes Strauss, “and it felt so much better for the rhythm of the street and for how people appreciated the property from the outside in.”

Even now, no one would confuse the broad exterior of One Hundred Shoreditch with the seductively haphazard canal houses of Amsterdam, but in playing with scale to create something more visually and emotionally affecting, there is perhaps a nod to one of Strauss’ other landmark projects – and his favourite to design.

“I have a real soft spot for The Pulitzer,” he explains, discussing the 225-suite hotel he completed in 2016. Encompassing 25 historic houses, it spans two major canals and is widely thought of as one of the world’s great hotels. “It was a lesson in appreciating imperfections. The journey we built for guests there celebrated the fact that you go from one hundreds-of-years-old building to another. You have to go up and down steps and tiny corridors, and the walls in your guest room could be going in different directions. People really responded to it though, because it’s not about having perfection, it’s about having a bit of drama and bit of personality that you can buy into. I try and apply that sensibility to all of my projects now, but The Pulitzer was the one that I cut my teeth on, even if broke a few as well.”

Beyond the haywire walls and poky hallways, much of the Pulitzer’s charm is down to Strauss’ intervention: the dramatic headboards in guestrooms, the spruced up parquet and the ambient drama of the obsidian-walled bar. Much like One Hundred Shoreditch, he changed the things that needed to change but otherwise polished that which was already there and worked – be it architectural, conceptual, spatial or decorative.

“I love working with historic buildings, but they’re all divas, you know,” he quips. “They throw tantrums all the time, but when they sing, it’s gorgeous.”

The subject of divas strikes a chord, after all it’s a pejorative often attached to designers – the image of the cushion-fluffing, caustic-tongued starlet still inaccurately strong in the minds of many an owner and operator. Certainly, there’s little air of overbearing ego from the temperate, affable Strauss, who clearly relishes the work more than the control he wields over it. He describes his process and his approach as an ‘honest’ one.

“Some designers do very well by being complete dictators, but it doesn’t work for me. Plus, I like to do the right thing, instead of something just for narcissism or vanity. A truthful design will last, whereas I worry design broadly is becoming a lot like fast fashion. There’s a chipping away at the idea of what good quality design is, where it’s changed every few years. It’s not only wasteful but it represents a really short-term vision.”

Yet there’s little doubt the audience for Strauss’ products are changing. The average traveller is infinitely more aesthetically savvy than their counterparts of yesteryear, before the likes of Mama Shelter, Ace, EDITION and Hoxton ‘democratised’ design.

“But do we want democracy?” Strauss ponders, as we wade into the territory of guest expectations. “Perhaps we do if we’re talking about the greater good for the greater number, but the hotel market is so diverse now that, actually, we don’t have to be everything to everyone and I’m very comfortable with that. Today, everyone’s a designer and everyone’s a chef; everyone will have an opinion but not everyone needs to like what we do, and that freedom and diversity is fantastic. Sometimes people don’t appreciate those individual imperfections and those little wrinkles, for example. To me, though, they’re what make something special. One day my gravestone will read: ‘everything has a place’.”

So a vote of confidence in targeted, tribal hotel design, but what about the missteps? Not being everything to everyone is one thing, but surely there are common blunders that result in something that works for no one at all?

“Well, I’ve been to hotels where the lighting is so complicated it’s like learning how to fly a spaceship,” he says. “And it comes back to this idea of someone having done something for personal taste as opposed to thinking about the user. I don’t think there need to be strobe lights everywhere. The ones that change colour? No one is going to use them. And yet, sometimes the practical things go missing; the elements that will actually impact a guest’s experience: USB ports by the bed and a single switch to turn off all the lights in the same place. I appreciate with existing buildings you can’t do everything, but these things are important and we always try to find a way. Let’s be honest, if you have to move plugs, the budget’s blown; if you see someone picking up a hammer and screwdriver, you know money is bleeding from somewhere. So I use my skill set with designing furniture to incorporate all the power into the furniture – theatrical headboards, for example, but with a practical purpose.”

For Strauss, the solution to sidestepping mistakes comes down, simply, to storytelling: “You need to know what your hotel is about and who it’s for. It’s what I call the secret sauce and it’s difficult to teach. Develop a strong story and it will guide everything that comes afterwards. When you get into the weeds without having the bigger picture, you drown, but if you let your story drive your decision making, you end up with a better project. It even gives a hotel longevity, in my opinion, because it’s the story will probably outlive me, and therein lies the beauty. If the story is always growing, you might even say my hotels will never be finished. ” Legacy and narrative. Those Greco-Roman busts might be a window after all.

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