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Kelly Hoppen CBE on timeless and timely design

Kelly Hoppen CBE discusses her signature aesthetic, creating without labels and bringing Miami to Mauritius at LUX* Grand Baie.

03/05/2022 6 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 219

Words: Harry McKinley


We’re a world creaking back into motion. Virtual site visits are being replaced by physical ones; client catch-ups over Teams by those over coffee. That our conversation with Kelly Hoppen happens in a car – weaving through London traffic in the window between one in-person meeting and the next – is testament to the changing conditions of the design industry and the re-acquired freedoms of those leading it.

“Without technology I couldn’t have done it,” Hoppen says, of helming an international practice in the midst of a pandemic. “We were running 48 projects and signing on new ones in Australia, but for two years we never shut down, despite the challenges. I was on a call this morning to Beijing. Pre-pandemic I would have flown over for two days, now I don’t have to.”

With offices in Portugal and several in Asia, Hoppen’s interiors business has a global footprint. She’s also parlayed a soaring public profile into various consumer product collections, a series of books and a podcast centred on entrepreneurialism and life lessons. As a hospitality designer then, she is that rare thing: a household name.

Her latest commercial project is a hefty 116 suite, villa and residence resort in Mauritius – the LUX* Grand Baie. Set snug against the Indian Ocean it is, as you might expect, awash with creams and greys; melding Eastern restraint with an element of easy Western comfort. It’s an aesthetic and approach synonymous with Hoppen, so much so that she’s developed the affectionate moniker ‘The Queen of Taupe’ – a title she’s proud to own.

“It’s something that has been with me since I was 16, when I first started designing,” she says. “It’s lasted the test of time, of course. I was very enamoured with the East when I was a teenager, but I love the West and, in those days, you didn’t have Instagram or Google, so those parts that I’m known for – all the borders and the symmetry – just came from things that I saw. It was a very organic process. Over the years, writing 12 books, it’s evolved a lot, but it always comes back to the same philosophy. My design has the same DNA now as it did then.”

She doesn’t have a traditional design education, either. Unlike many of her peers in hospitality design, she hasn’t filtered through the classrooms of a lofty creative college. In fact, she’s often discussed her dyslexia as an early struggle, although it’s something that helped her hone her ability to visualise. Her process then, is grounded in intuition and transforming a sensibility, mood or feeling into something physical; taking a certain energy and allowing it to coalesce into colours, fabrics and furnishings.

“I can’t explain it,” she says, with a wide laugh. “I’m very instinctive. Sometimes I’ll ask a client what song they want a space to feel like and I’ll design around that – the texture of the layers, the balance of a room. My goodness, it’s not just about choosing a sofa. And I’ve talked about this for 40-odd years and it’s only now that people are asking me about it. Maybe it was too ‘out there’, but it’s probably why I still love doing what I do, because it’s at a very different level and not just making throwaway choices about how something looks.”

 

It’s not lost on Hoppen either, that her East meets West manifesto is just as relevant today as ever – even after a 90s and noughties period of mainstream adoption, that saw feng shui and Buddha heads slide from height of fashion to passé.

“What’s interesting about designing for post-COVID, is that the East has been designing a certain way for ages,” she explains. “As a studio, we’ve been designing in China and the rest of Asia a particular way for 15 years, since the SARS epidemic; even considering how certain surface choices can be cleaned or having separate rooms for shoes worn outside. So there’s a sense that the East has been ahead of us in many ways, in ways that we wouldn’t have recognised two years ago.”

It’s not the only shift in thinking, of course. Endless column inches have been dedicated to the changing face of luxury, to our reoriented values and to our evolved tastes, now that society has been picked up by the scruff of the neck and given a shake. What was once predictable now isn’t and designers are having to design for a people changed and for a global order that has shifted on its axis.

“There’s no doubt that hospitality is going to have to relook at how design works for the public and what our needs are going forward,” Hoppen says. “Go to any Soho House and everyone’s sat on laptops working and that’s cool. As how people work changes, it’s great they can go there instead of working on their ironing boards or in small spaces at home, as some people had to. Then again, I think that hospitality will adapt itself depending on if it’s a city or, you know, by a beach or whatever it is. Because we shouldn’t forget that it’s about creating a fantasy for people as well.”

The LUX* Grand Baie is very much at the fantasy end of the spectrum, not only a world away from ironing board Zoom calls but, “a serenity away from schools and dogs and washing up,” as Hoppen jokes. “We absolutely took for granted the simple excitement of a hotel. Ultimately, I think luxury has always been about the experience and design is part of that.”

The property is one in a series that she’s partnered with LUX* on, but here there was greater creative freedom. Unlike the others, all renovation projects, LUX* Grand Baie was a new-build, with the Mauritian Jean-François Adam heading up architecture – modelling the building on the curves of the country’s old sail boats.

But if the architecture is a story of place, the interiors take guests on a different journey. Hoppen wanted to create something ambiguously intercontinental, with a lobby, for example, that would be just as at home in ‘Miami as Mauritius.’

“I didn’t want to put a label on it,” says Hoppen, on the interiors inspiration. “It’s very pared back and I wanted to create something very international. The restaurant is very much Eastern influenced, but I wanted to create a certain vibrancy that is more Miami-like also – such as with the rooftop pool. But then across the street there are local shops and so it’s a very different kind of area. People are coming from all over Mauritius and the world to the town, so that’s why I wanted to make it more neutral and more of a global meeting destination, rather than it being another beach hotel.”

Hoppen describes the project as the ‘perfect child’ – something she created, nurtured and which has gone on to flourish independently since opening, resonating with travellers.

“With a hotel, you’re relying very much on your own feelings and what you would want as a guest,” she says. “Each project is different but it’s particularly different from, say, the couple of 80,000 sq ft homes in Hong Kong we’re working on. They’re massive, but you’re dealing with a family and that family’s brief. What I would say, though, is that I’m not intimidated by scale because, at the end of the day, you design one space at a time. I suppose it’s like a chef: when they know they’ve got to cook 100 meals, they just cook one, then the next and then the next. If anything, scale is more exciting because you have more of an opportunity to tell a story. It’s also a bit like creating music as well then, I suppose. You start with a beat and it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, until you get to the chorus and then it starts all over again.”

It’s a majestic spring day when we speak: blindingly bright with clear blue skies. And just as it feels that the seasons have resolutely tipped, that air of positive change lingers. So what is Kelly Hoppen – a designer known for consistency and, in turn, stability – taking forward as we gradually emerge into an arguably altered world?

“I think people are learning to live in the moment,” she offers. “You know, we’re thinking differently and people are much more humble in their way of thinking. People are very clear about what they want now, also. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think generally, as a designer, hoteliers and restaurateurs can’t just do the same things they always have done. Great creations come out of change and I think, out of COVID, a lot of positive things will emerge. Five years from now, we may go back to how it was, and that’s fine. Everything’s full circle to an extent. But for now, I think it’s a time to put everything in a jar, shake it up, put your hand in and pull something new out.”

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