19 minute read

Making of Hôtel Les Roches Rouges

Every great hotel is experienced as a totality, an immersive environment that functions seamlessly, organically — a unified vision. Yet a hotel is also a collaboration, honed by many hands and diverse sensibilities. It’s an ever-shifting, living thing, born from an idea and a place in time. And it’s a story, the kind best told by a multitude of voices. What follows is one such story, depicting the creation from conception to completion of a great hotel — Hôtel Les Roches Rouges, a sanctuary of barefoot Riviera luxury housed in a renovated late-1950s structure within a natural reserve in the coastal commune of Saint- Raphaël between Saint-Tropez and Cannes. We spoke at length to the core team behind the property, opening in May 2017, including Valéry Grégo, the visionary hotelier who masterminded the project and founder of the Perseus hotel group; Perseus brand manager Vanina Kovarski, who was instrumental in shaping the guest experience; architect Hugo Sauzay of renowned Parisian design firm Festen, who led the renovation with his partner, Charlotte de Tonnac; art director Antoine Ricardou, responsible for the hotel’s visual identity and arts programming; and gardener Stan Alaguillaume, who worked in conjunction with Paris-based landscape architect Gwenaelle Grandjean to develop the property’s four distinct garden plots. The result is a behind-thescenes account of how this singular destination set among the rocky coast of the Côte d’Azur came to be.

Grégo chose his team from a group of people he has worked with for a long time.
The view of the Mediterranean from Hôtel Les Roches Rouges.
Color swatches and materials.

Chapter I DISCOVERY

Valéry Grégo Within my network in France, there was a group of sellers running small three-star hotels in fantastic locations, and they were looking for someone to buy. A friend of mine knew them and got in touch with me very early in the process. We drove there from Nice, and I was taken by the scenery. It’s all blue, on the water, not too many houses … And then comes the hotel, which you can’t really see at first. Because the road is on a small cliff, which is almost the height of the hotel, all you can see is the top floor. He said, here we are, and I was like, ‘What?!’ It looks like a one-story building, five bedrooms, a bit too small. But then you go down into the building …

Vanina Kovarski You enter and straightaway, through the big windows, you see the sea. It’s really on the rocks. I first went there in the summer of 2015 when Valéry was in the process of buying it. It’s a bit like being on a big boat. There are very few properties on the French Riviera that are like les pieds dans l'eau, which means feet in the water.

VG I realized the location was phenomenal, as opposed to most of the locales in Saint-Tropez and Cannes, which are very built up. This hotel is in a natural reserve, called Massif de l’Esterel. For a very long time you couldn’t build there. In French Riviera terms you could say it’s secluded — very limited construction around. When you’re at the hotel all you can see is green and blue.

Hugo Sauzay After seeing the view you forget everything you’ve seen one minute before. And you understand the area when you are inside.

VG There was this guy, the seller, about 65 years old. We had a quick chat, we got along, and he explained what he wanted to do. I told him what I wanted to do. And that’s it. There was not really any long negotiation with a lawyer. We just sat down for 15 minutes and the rest is history. It doesn’t always go this smoothly but the way we do business, it’s really built on what I feel when I discover the site for the first time and relationships with people. Then it took a long time to get things done but we would always come back to that day when we shook hands — the framework of the deal was set.

Chapter II THE TEAM

VISIONVG I choose people based on the small group I’ve been working with for a long time because we trust each other. It’s a journey, you know, and half the fun is in the journey. So within this group of people, I will select them according to their strengths for a given project.

VK I’ve known Valéry for years, and when he created his hotel group, Perseus, he asked if I wanted to be part of it. I’m in charge of branding and product development. I’m from Belgium and my stepfather was a travel agent, so I grew up visiting hotels and I’ve always been passionate about hotels.

Antoine Ricardou I met Valéry when we worked on Le Pigalle in Paris, and I am in charge of the visual identity of all the Perseus hotels. We work on the brand statement, we decide the artists we are going to use, and then we work on the identity.

HS We work very often with Valéry. We worked on the Pigalle project in Paris. For Hôtel Les Roches Rouges, we created all the interiors and exteriors and we created a new swimming pool and all the terraces. We are also part of the discussions on identity and the art program.

Stan Alaguillaume I am a landscape architect working on different Mediterranean gardens. I worked with Valéry on another garden in Nice. I am from Paris, and I went to the National School of Landscape Architecture in Versailles, and later I was chief gardener at the Domaine du Rayol. I design the garden, then afterwards I do consultation and tendering with companies that plant it. But if I am a landscape architect, I am also a gardener. I love gardening and I love plants.

VG My education is in literature. I started in finance, then moved into hotel development 15 years ago and that’s all I’ve done since. But to me, it’s not just about background. It’s about what you have to say. I always tell my team, all I have to offer is a vision. I do it with hotels. I could be a butcher or a baker, I would do it the same way, with my own eyes. I think a lot of the success of the project lies not so much in whom you choose but in the amount of effort you put into the relationship that you have with these people. I spend a lot of time with them, fine-tuning, discussing. That’s why we can’t do multiple projects at once.

Chapter III VISION

VG I knew on that first visit exactly what the project would look like. To me, it’s a calling. I don’t even choose. It just comes to me. The building, the blue, the green … everything that unfolds comes very, very naturally. Feeling far away from everything, that’s really the core of the kind of experience we want people to have.

AR My work begins before everything. With Valéry, we work on what we call the brand statement. So each time, we create a small booklet that describes our vision for the project. Before finding the right architect, before finding the right food or everything you’re going to have in the hotel, we are putting down all of our thoughts and visions for the project.

VG This is what was in my head from the very beginning. We do that with every project, because it’s how we stay consistent. And we use that throughout the project up until the hotel has opened. There are no long discussions, even with the architects. The way we work is the concept in my head, Antoine takes it out and puts it into images. We talk, we talk, and this document comes out of it. We make 25 versions and then we cast the document in stone. That’s the brief for PR, that’s the brief for the architects, for F&B, for services, everything.

VK The region has developed a lot. There’s a long tradition of holidaying by the sea in the South of France. It dates back to the 1850s when they started to have trains along the coast. And that’s when it really developed into the French Riviera as we know it. They had the Orient Express and all these trains that took people from Paris to the coast, and later the English would come.

HS One hour away by car, there is the Eileen Gray house. She made a villa called E-1027. It’s really close to the sea, really pure, really wide, really cubic. It’s like a little Roches Rouges, so it was a big inspiration for us.

AR I try to look for inspiration in places that haven’t already been tapped out. So I spent a lot of time deep in the Provence looking at things like old factories. I could be inspired by something like a petrol station in the backcountry. Inspiration comes from places where people really live, and when I put things on the wall, I’m not trying to make the space cool at all. I’m trying to put people in a space that feels real.

Chapter IV TRANSFORMATION

VG There’s a saying from a Sri Lankan architect called [Geoffrey] Bawa, and he says, ‘Don’t put too much architecture between me and the view.’ So when I gave the brief to the architects, I told them I want customers to have the same feeling I had when I first came in and all I could see was the water. So let’s make sure, whatever we do, nothing obstructs the pleasure of being so close to the water.

HS It’s an interesting building but not an old, charming building. It’s really long, really pure. During the 1980s there was a modification we didn’t like at all — this red cylinder in the middle and new balconies. We took away everything we didn’t like from the 1980s and ‘90s, to go back to the original 1950s, ‘60s look. The most important thing is not the building but the environment: the sea, the view of the Mediterranean, the little island.

VG Don’t turn it into a fancy fashionable refurbishment. Let’s just make choices based on architecture from the ‘50s, so that things feel natural.

HS The first thing we did was to refocus on the view. So all the windows from the lobby facing the road are blur windows. You can see light inside but then you come into the space and you are totally wow. We made the windows wider, larger, higher. Regarding materials, we did something very white, clear, no graphics, really pure. We took off a lot of things from the façade. We put in a new swimming pool — a long, thin concrete basin. The old one was a typical ‘90s one, a bin shape, really cheap, almost with a dolphin inside. We used a lot of Opus Incertum, a type of patina used here in the ‘60s. We used it for the flooring outside and in the restaurant to have an overture between outside and inside.

VK We learn about the history of the place, learn about the region. Sit with the architect and see how we can reveal the building and respect its history. Then you develop the rest of the product: choosing amenities, setting up collaborations, developing the menu, setting up the website and newsletter.

HS If you take the lobby, you open the blur window to come in and everything is concrete — it’s to take your mind off of the structure. We didn’t build a standard reception desk. We built a long, long table in wood on the side so that there’s nothing between you and the sea. Everywhere except outside and in the restaurant is in polished concrete, because we are on the sea and sometimes there are wet feet. It’s five stars, but we don’t want to do something showy. So when we use wood, it’s a beautiful oak. We use some terracotta ceramic, everything from South of France, everything authentic.

The hotel is located in a natural reserve called Esterel, which is still very secluded. The surrounding red rocks — roches rouges — inspired the hotel’s name.
The exterior design goes back to the 1950s and ‘60s French Riviera style.
Charlotte de Tonnac of Festen Architecture.
Valéry’s vision is illustrated in the brand statement — the blueprint for the entire project development.
Unappealing add-ons from the 1980s and ‘90s were removed.

SA The project at the beginning was to have a naturalist garden — not a decorative garden but a garden that would speak of the Mediterranean country. So with a lot of aromatic plants, not an English garden, not with a lot of green grass. We are not in England — we are on the Mediterranean coast! Imagine rosemary, rock rose, myrtle, lavender, naturalist language, and lots of aromatic flowers. During the summer you have less flowers but more perfume, because essential oils help Mediterranean plants survive the dryness. The salt water makes it difficult for the plants to live on the waterfront. So we tried to get only plants from the coast.

VK You would think that a palm tree is what’s supposed to be in a garden by the sea but actually there are many other plants that would be more suitable.

SA We have four different gardens at Le Roches Rouges. By the sea, we have a wild flowering garden in the rocks with mostly small plants, a lot of biodiversity. On the Mediterranean bank we have the main garden, where we have a lot of aromatic plants and herbs. Then there’s another garden, a pine forest. And it is here that we have the ‘green room,’ a very flat, enclosed space under the pines, which is the only place where you can be without noise, without the sea, to read a book or just sit in reflection. Then there is a fourth, very small tropical garden, because we have a little place protected by the building from the sea and the salt. A garden is a process. It is not like a building, not like decor. The garden will be what it will be in four years. What is important is the dynamic of the plants. Little by little those plants that we plant now will give us a lot of spontaneous plants — like a garden of movement, with a lot of evolution, a lot of surprise for the gardener and the visitor.

AR Working on identity, it’s not reserved to graphic design. Visual identity is a mix of materials, the surface of the table, what you touch, the proportions of the space, the art hanging on the wall.

HS We have concrete in the bathroom but in the shower it’s ceramic tiles made by Arndt. These are not industrial things so there is imperfection. Like in the sea, sometimes there is imperfection. The bathrooms have marble basins, terracotta for the spa floor. We have carpenters, mostly from Portugal, who make everything to measure. We got a lot of the ceramic and terracotta from Céramiques du Beaujolais. On the outside of the closet door is rattan cannage, a style of weaving typically used on chairs. And we use this same pattern to do the ceiling of the restaurant. It’s a way to hide the electrical wires going across the ceiling and it’s also a way to insulate sound. It’s always the same pattern, different sizes. It’s inspired by the feeling of a house in the ‘60s in the South of France.

VK In the room, we have local products, because we want people to feel the area through little touches and details. So you’ll have chocolate or a biscuit from a local artisan, water parfumée with herbs from the garden, or lemon grown nearby. In the room, you’ll also have a walking stick, but not a decorative walking stick, a proper, technical walking stick. You’ll have snorkeling gear, sun hats. Not a famous brand but a traditional hat made in the neighborhood. We’re collecting books to put in the rooms, which will range from Provençal cuisine to famous architectural sites of the area to books about local varieties of honey. The amenities are from Le Labo, a brand based in the nearby town of Grasse.

AR We’re going to have big letters on the rooftop, and those letters, HRR, will be metallic. It’s going to look like it’s been there forever, no illumination or anything, just these metallic letters. In 2016, there are so many things with LED and light that make it more visible. But people in the South of France in the ‘50s were not able to put lights on like this because it was too expensive. What I found really interesting is that at night when the moon reflects onto the sea, you see the letters through the light of the moon, this backlight, and it’s going to be so beautiful, so the signage, you’re going to see it but just with natural light.

HS Budget is an interesting point. Because the hotel is on the sea, there is a lot of damage each year. You have to think about this, that in the winter the sea will come inside the building. You have to imagine that the ground floor will be submerged. When we did inside furniture, we used concrete, and all the soft things you have to think about removing from sea level and storing them, both inside and outside. All the sea-level windows close with metal planks to protect them from rocks that come in from the sea. So we had to find solutions for it to be less expensive. We are working with a company, called ERM. They follow the project and find solutions to get the budget lower, so they did a really smart technical intervention.

The interior design is faithful to the architecture of the 1950s French Riviera.

VG What’s a typical day? A year before opening, we’re drawing plans. We review architectural plans and we decide should we go this way or that way. Should the restaurant be like this or like that? It’s really the definition of the project. Six months before, I would say a quarter of the day is making sure that the ongoing work is giving the results we expect. I’m on site talking with guys, we decide on the color, we make tests. We change, we adjust. Twenty-five percent is getting ready in terms of service delivery, so putting the website together, all the collaterals, hiring staff, getting all the systems and process in place. Twentyfive percent is about procuring what’s going to be inside, so buying pieces of furniture, every little object. And 25 percent is building all the partnerships: artists we want to work with, the guys who do the music, working with the chef on F&B, and what suppliers and partners to work with.

Chapter V COLLABORATION

VK In terms of finding local partners, I think the best approach is always to go and wander around on your own. I spent weeks visiting the neighborhood village, going to the port, to the tourism office and learning about local actors and communities. One local tells you to talk to another, then that one recommends someone else, and it goes on from there.

VG We have two restaurants based on local food, fish and seafood in Provence. And then we said, if we want to make it really authentic then we need to find partners — fishermen — that will bring the catch of the day on a daily basis to the hotel. That’s a decision, not to go to traditional suppliers.

VK One of these guys who will deliver the fish to the restaurant, he’s a real local guy I found on the port, and he speaks with the accent of the south. I asked him if he would take visitors out to go fishing. He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it but only one or two at a time and they have to wake up at 4 a.m.’ It’s traditional fishing, not the fivestar thing where they just throw the line for you, but the real respect for sea life, ethical fishing. These are real collaborations. We met different people and chose the ones who are most passionate.

HS Everything in the rooms is bespoke, mostly made by Portuguese carpenters, except for the chairs: terracotta lamps, laser ceiling lamps, tables in lava stone with metal feet — simple but noble materials. But we also found some amazing vintage ‘60s pieces.

VG We have two partners who we work with on furniture — vintage on one side and new on the other side. So Hugo, Charlotte, and I, we go together. And when I say it’s a journey, it’s a proper journey. We go to Avignon to an antique fair for a day in a half, then the next day we go to Montpelier to another antique fair. We do that five, six times a year. We could do it a very different way, but it’s so much fun.

VK In the neighborhood village there are people playing [the Provençal form of boules known as] pétanque. We’ve arranged for the president of the local pétanque association to come a couple times a week and teach people how to play. Another activity will be open-air cinema in our garden. And just in front of the hotel, there’s the île d'Or, or Golden Island, which is a very renowned diving spot. So we’ve collaborated with a nearby diving center that will pick up guests and take them there and also do snorkeling tours. There’s a woman specializing in walking in Esterel National Park, which is all red rocks. That’s the meaning of les roches rouges, by the way, ‘the red rocks.’ This lady, who is a specialist in the region’s plants and flowers, will take guests on walking tours. We want people to come to the hotel, relax, be far from everything, enjoy themselves, enjoy the view. But if they want to be more active, we are giving them the chance to do authentic local stuff with local people. So they are learning about the place and the history of the region.

VG For the art program, it’s the same. I do that with Antoine. We go on journeys meeting people. He will select artists that he thinks are relevant. And often it’s not just about what they do — it’s about who they are. So we had worked on the Pigalle in Paris with a tattoo artist named Jean André, and I said to Antoine, ‘I want to work with Jean André at Roches Rouges. I don’t know how — just find a way.’

AR It’s like with the Eileen Gray house in the South of France, Le Corbusier was using the house in the summer before he got the Cabanon and he drew eight murals on the walls [Eileen Gray didn’t really like the murals, by the way, but that’s not the point]. This is what Jean André is doing at Roches Rouges. And it’s scary to invite someone to draw on your wall when it’s brand new. Trust me, when we go into the model room with Jean André and we’re like ‘Okay, let’s go,’ and he’s there with his big pot of paint and his big brush … it could have been a disaster! But Valéry is like that. He just says, ‘Okay, we decided to work with this guy. The room is yours! Carte blanche!’

Reinforcing the structure between the floors of the building.
As well as on-site meetings, Valéry and the designers go on regular excursions to find the perfect piece of furniture or art.
A work in progress …
Draft images of the hotel’s gardens, consisting mainly of plants that adapt well to the salty, dry maritime terrain.
Hugo Sauzay of Festen Architecture on the construction site of Hôtel Les Roches Rouges.
An image from the Brand Statement. The hotel is located on the rocks only 10 meters from the Mediterranean Sea.

VG It’s a very, very collaborative approach. It’s not just me deciding. It’s the whole group. In France we say colonie de vacances. It’s like summer camp. We go to summer camp and we end up with a hotel.

Chapter VI EVOLUTION

VG For me, it really starts with a place, and then it’s a matter of how truthful you are with what you see in that place — it’s about revealing what’s there. You can travel to Provence and often restaurants will serve some sort of mild version of what people think is food in Provence, which comes from a sort of globalization of dishes that you can find everywhere. It can be good or bad, but the question is: is it a dish from that region? To be truthful to a place, it means authentic. If you say I will be locally rooted, then our responsibility is to not put in too much of what we have in mind, or of what we think clients will expect, but to reveal the place, the region. And that’s more difficult than it seems.

AR No one cares about the graphic identity of a hotel, what the logo looks like, the monogram, or whatever. What people will remember after they’ve come to the hotel is the material in the shower. Someone will remember the little matchbox he keeps in his pocket. Someone will remember arriving at night and seeing the hotel reflecting the moonlight.

VG When I say I have a vision, I make mistakes every day, don’t get me wrong. I travel to the hotel on a regular basis when they’re open. I would say I go once a month at least. And I just spend time over there to see what’s going on, and then I adapt. It’s a work in progress. We change small things. Sometimes customers they have their own way of apprehending the space. You thought they would use this door, but guess what: they used that door. ■

Text Charly Wilder
Photography Stephanie Füssenich