Ahead of Dutch Design Week (21st-29th October), The London Journalist's Guy Faulkner visited Conservatorium in Amsterdam, a unique hotel at the forefront of the new-wave of design-led hotels.
During my trip to Amsterdam I had a realization. Having visited this historic city a multitude of times over the years, it struck me how much had changed, not only in the shops and restaurants around me but also in my attitude and appraisal of its real beauty. I gradually veered towards more esoteric pursuits, absorbing the art, culture and the sheer abundance of aesthetically surprising hidden treasures.
Long gone are the days I first strolled the leafy canals, giggling uncontrollably through a smoky haze at the cornucopia of exotic videos and 'intimate' gadgets on display, the sleazy neon of the red light district casting it’s sinful glow across all and sundry. All this is still there of course but Amsterdam has certainly cleaned up its act, less stag do, much more cosmopolitan, with world-class hotels, restaurants and boutiques taking over from dingy hostels and backstreet coffeeshops. The Netherlands has always nurtured a love of craft, particularly when it came to producing fine furniture and art, boasting an impressive list of master painters and architects, both classical and modern. Once a thriving port running a brisk trade in gold coins and high quality fabrics, (Dutch lace collars attaining fashion ubiquity amongst European nobility) Amsterdam has undergone something of a design renaissance over the last decade, with studios blending old techniques and natural materials with new ways of thinking and manufacturing. It’s no surprise that the Dutch Design Week, which runs 21st – 29th of October in Eindhoven is currently in its 16th year and has grown exponentially, now showcasing some 2500 designers and playing host to over a quarter of a million attendees.
The new wave of Dutch craftsmen are using a different, more considered and pure approach, with a real focus on artisan quality, as well as trying to address how design affects us emotionally and sensually. Dutch designer pieces have become staples in homes, clubs, restaurants and hotels and they are in abundance at the Conservatorium hotel, currently voted one of the top spots to stay in the city and where I was fortunate enough to meet a few genuine design aficionados.
Conservatorium has design heritage running through it’s brickwork, with an expansive iron and glass atrium designed by Piero Lissoni, seemingly growing into the old Reijkspostpaarbank building, its giant burnished metal beams and stairways snaking their tendrils through the antique exterior walls of the original Neo Gothic façade.
The hotel works closely with Dutch and international artists, exhibiting their work throughout the hotel during their ‘Art Months’, There is a wonderfully creative main display cabinet in the lobby area, which creates a shimmering, almost ethereal wall along one side of the Brasserie. This dazzling glass construction now houses an exquisite collection of ceramics, a collaboration between the design studio Scholten & Baijings and master craftsmen from Arita in Japan. Other celebrated artists and designers like Jasper Krabbé, Schelten & Abbenes and Studio Drift have all contributed to this space and the tradition is set to continue as thankfully the owners have a keen interest in art and patronage. Attention to detail is a mainstay of this hotel, everything is considered and everything is beautiful, but it manages to achieve this while still feeling totally relaxed, as if you’re lounging in your own living room.
Conservatorium caters for the gourmand too, the Brasserie menu is a great mix of updated Asian inspired French classics, although I did feel slightly overwhelmed by the steak selection so defaulted to a glass of jammy red and a medium rare ribeye (with fries and béarnaise sauce naturally, all excellent I’m glad to report). Deeper into the hotel you come across the old bank records room, now with a modern facelift, glass and dark embossed tiles juxtaposed with the bare brick walls, subtly picked out by intimate low lighting. This space is home to Taiko, a high quality Japanese fusion restaurant with some intriguing touches, the Lobster cappuccino was heart stoppingly rich, velvety and delicious and the wine pairing was spot on throughout the 10 course tasting menu. Oh, and there’s even a fine cigar shop and indoor smoking area, so civilized!
I was lucky enough to get chatting to Beatrijs Aghina in the hotel bar one evening (in which Katy Perry threw an after party for the VMAs a couple of years back) and we chatted about our love of all things design and how Amsterdam is full of little secrets. Eventually she let slip that she is actually the curator and artistic director for the hotel. The next day Beatrijs took me on a private tour of some of the superior suites at Conservatorium. The top 3 mezzanine rooms are quite simply beautiful, luxurious spaces. One of these, the ‘Concerto’ room, is a nod to the hotels previous incarnation as a music academy and has a pair of limited edition €10000 Sennheiser headphones, in case you fancied an aurally soothing break from all the visual stimulation. I wonder if Beibs used these when he stayed in this room…
Taking a short stroll towards the centre from the Old Town environs of the hotel, a rather beautiful rainbow crystal ashtray caught my eye. It twinkled at me from the window of Matter of Material, a fantastic little design shop, run by Arne, a knowledgeable and welcoming character who has a unique design philosophy, selecting pieces that use common materials like glass, wood and paper in surprising and beautifully functional ways. It was here I first met Monica Melkert-León, a fiery Venezuelan who relocated to Amsterdam driven by her love of the Rijksmuseum, of which she is a lifelong patron and now tour guide, (she was instrumental in securing the funds to have the original interior architecture revealed and restored to its former glory after years of being covered up with white paint). Her frenetic energy and encyclopedic knowledge make her by far the best tour guide for design lovers, especially those who want to know some fascinating hidden details and hear a few amusing, expletive laden anecdotes. She arranged for us to visit a couple of rather unique places, like S&B’s workshop, Pols Potten and Drift studio, that all have a design heritage Conservatorium supports. I felt honoured to have met some of the creative minds behind pieces such as Drifts Shylight and the Zig-Zag chair. I feel this tradition is fundamental to growing and nurturing talent, as well as bringing it to a more accessible stage. Some things should be seen in living spaces, not just galleries, although it would be remiss not to mention the fact that three of the best museums in town are within a stones throw of the hotel.
Conservatorium is part of the Set group and is the jewel in the crown of a growing number of beautifully curated designer hotels in Amsterdam, (they count Martin Baas among their yearly crop of celebrated artistic ambassadors). Other notable places to rest ones weary head include the Hotel V Nesplein, Art’Otel and the Kimpton De Witt, each having their own individual detailing and considerable sense of style. The new designer Dutch hotels have undergone thoughtful revamps by highly respected architects and are filled with fantastic art and beautiful modern classic pieces of furniture. Sip gin and tonics in sleek bars, dine in top quality restaurants and sleep in slickly executed rooms that feel as if you've stepped into someplace altogether more futuristic and refined than previous chintzy offerings. This new breed of hotel is like an art piece in itself, stylish, minimal, yet incredibly sumptuous and comfortable, often fitted with clever gadgetry to keep even the most tech hungry clientele happy. Passion for design and all things aesthetic is thriving here in Amsterdam. Seek and ye shall find it.