“Seventy five thousand. It was 75,000 gumballs.” You have to admire Jacu Strauss’s ambition. Not only has the multi-hyphenate architect-designer-hotelier worked on an international portfolio of hotels, from Sea Containers in London to Pulitzer Amsterdam, he also brought a gargantuan gumball machine to the capital of liberal democracy in Washington DC’s Lyle hotel.
“We take what we do very seriously,” says Strauss on a tour of his latest project, One Hundred Shoreditch, “but we never take ourselves too seriously.”
Whether you’re grabbing a drink at One Hundred Shoreditch’s subterranean Seed Library bar or garnering a panoramic view of London’s skyline from the rooftop restaurant, the scope of Strauss’s aesthetic vision is clear.
We spoke to the Lore Group’s creative director about his nomadic lifestyle, diva-ish buildings, and our enduring fascination with hotels.
Jacu, you’ve moved around the world with your projects. How do you get to know a city?
There’s the practical advantage of being able to work locally – being on site and really getting to learn a building, which was a requirement for all of the projects so far because they're all so difficult. They're all divas, our buildings. But the real benefit is that I get to live and breathe a city.
The most important thing is getting to know the people first. That’s always the first step. People get excited about a hotel. It sounds a bit cliche, but when you know how to capture that kind of energy, whatever you do in your hotel feels very natural, like you’re actually more of a local. It's not just for guests – neighbours and the community feel so proud of the building, like they have a little bit of ownership over it.
Divas? Tell us more!
So for all of our projects we’ve worked with existing buildings. They’re beautiful buildings, so when they sing, it's beautiful. But they can throw tantrums. You need to deal with the tantrums and the joy. You know, buildings are alive, they always need maintenance. It's about looking after something, cherishing something. That's also the beauty of it, because you only get this beautiful result if you’re actually putting that effort into it. Buildings are living things and we have to take care of them and love them.
Does One Hundred Shoreditch have a particular personality for you?
It has multiple personalities, this building, and they’re all tied together beautifully. There was a real opportunity here to embrace each energy and create this diversity. There’s this rawness that you’ve got in the public space, but once you go to the rooms, it feels really different. The energy softens and you're quite safe, there's a lot more emphasis on comfort.
Sometimes it was unpredictable, we really didn’t know how certain things were going to work out. Like the Seed Library in the basement: that used to be a nightclub so to get to it you have to go down these back-of-house staircases. We've converted the space into what feels like a warm, cosy lounge or living room, but it's subterranean. I was really crossing my fingers when we designed it because I didn't know how it was going to work out. That wasn't a tantrum, that was a kind of a beautiful little performance.
The rooftop as well, that's completely different energy. You have this enormous rooftop space that faces west, so even in winter, you get this amazing low sunlight. It feels like a different place altogether. We designed it to feel a bit Californian. You kind of just get transported a little bit into another place.
And Shoreditch itself? What kind of personality does the area have?
Shoreditch is probably one of the trickiest neighbourhoods I've ever had to embrace. I learnt so much: it's fascinating and it's so much richer than I assumed. Shoreditch has a particularly rich history and it's forever changing – that's the reason we decided to do this hotel when we did it. It was time for it to be elevated because Shoreditch had grown up in the last 10 years. It grows up every 10 years pretty much.
What do you think gets people excited about hotels?
People can experience something that they don't have to commit to long term, something they may not be comfortable with having at home, but for two nights or a night they think it's something fun to participate in. Actually, I think it inspires people to have a breakthrough in their own lives. Apart from the obvious – being spoiled and being delighted – you can be a bit braver, you could almost be someone different for a little while. It’s liberating.
As a designer, how do you balance that sense of adventure with people’s need for comfort?
I never want to dictate an experience. People find safety or comfort or delight in their own way, so you need to plant a story that people can relate to, but you need to leave some room so that they can add their own story to it. I really think about the journey through the building itself, going through the different spaces and really trying to capture what the space needs to feel like. The bedrooms here, it's less of a party place, the bedrooms need to be a lot more about being a sanctuary, somewhere you can really retreat to.
Hotels are a safety net, it’s always been that way. If there's trouble that breaks out in a city and you’re a foreigner, you either run to your embassy or you run to the nearest hotel. Hotels tend to be a cornerstone of a community – certainly this hotel here in Shoreditch. Especially with COVID, hotels really went that extra mile to make sure that people would be safe and comfortable at a time when they were really afraid. No one does it better. Hotels are really good at that.
And what about you? How do you relax when your job is to help others unwind?
I don't relax very often. But I don't mind that, because what I do is so much a part of my life. It's almost like asking me what my hobbies are … I wish I had more hobbies! But my work is really my hobby. There’s another cheesy line. I look at things all the time. As tired and as knackered as I get, I always find inspiration in something. Just sitting down and observing – that, to me, is how I unwind. I make the most of it, even in banal situations like sitting at the airport.
There’s creativity in everything. Design isn’t really about things, design is about people. Just observing people and behaviour is what gives you the inspiration for how to deal with design. Maybe that’s how I relax.
You’ve said you want your buildings to be future-proof – what do you think hotels will look like in 100 years?
Well, I didn’t do my crystal ball today, but this is a particularly fun question, because we don’t know where the world itself is going. There's so many factors that have changed, whether it's environmental or political. But I think some things will stay constant, however the world changes: people's need for pleasure and to be delighted. Hotels are the place to do all of that.
I think future-proofing is very difficult. Technology is impossible to future-proof because it changes by the hour. What gives the project longevity, timelessness, is being able to review it, seeing what you need to change. But also for us it’s very important to put a story at the beginning. Because the story will outlive everything.
I was talking the other day about AI art. You'll never connect with an artwork designed by a robot. Our nature is we will always relate to something that another person has done. But it's a great tool. I mean, it'll be great to have a body double one day that could do all the things that I hate doing, but I don't think I'll live long enough to see that.
Is there a design trend that you hate?
I wouldn’t say hate, I tend to say my least favourite. But my least favourite? Meaningless art. Something that's eating at me is when artists use art as too much of a prop. I've seen places where it's just like a hunter's trophy – just whack it on the wall and call it art. Art is the most precious thing. I do a lot of my own artworks, so maybe that's also a way of relaxing, it’s therapeutic. It's just something that really ties a project together, instead of just going through a catalogue, picking something and just whacking it on the wall.
How could a person design their house like a Jacu Strauss hotel?
Just put personality into your home. People are so afraid to put their own personalities into their homes and I think it’s a real, real shame. Even if it’s a rental, you can collect furniture, or plants, just something you should be connected to. It’s an anti fast fashion approach to design. That’s why I love vintage pieces, you know that there’s probably an army of people behind it who have made it, who have bought it, who have transported it. It’s that human connection with something.
Be brave. There’s no right or wrong way of doing something. People think interior design has all these rules, but I can tell you: there are zero rules. Zero. None at all. It's not about having a lot of things, and things don’t have to cost a lot of money. Although … rugs are expensive. That’s one of the boring things about being an adult, learning how expensive rugs and curtains are. You can make a house your home really quickly. For me, it’s glassware and cutlery. Just knowing that’s there, that you can have a glass of wine – even if it’s in the dark!
Do you have a dream project?
I have this crazy dream. I’d love to do a one-bedroom hotel in a Palladian villa or something, but it’s purely just for one single guest, all of this effort, all of the staff. That would be quite theatrical, I think that would be fun. But maybe that’s wishful thinking.
I’d love to design a ship. I’ve never been seasick, so I’ve taken the first few steps. Would I be able to steer a ship, though? I don’t think so. That was kind of the story behind Sea Containers, this transatlantic voyage that you go on. It was owned by a shipping company. When it’s high tide and you’re on the balcony at the front you almost get sea legs. You’re right on the water. That building is quite spectacular.
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