22 Mar 2010

World By Design – Heinz Julen finds calm after ‘INTO’s storm

In the third installation of our World by DESIGN (WBD) series, BD takes international inspiration seekers to one of the world’s most artistically-ripe locales. There are few places as chock-full of ancient art history as the famous cities of Western Europe – Rome, Paris, Madrid – to name a few. For the Arts & Culture issue WBD is traveling again to Italy and Switzerland – this time to small, remote towns that prove a place need not be a major metropolitan zone to attract innovative, forward thinkers in hospitality design.

Heinz Julen, a Swiss-artist and designer who was raised in the mountainous Penine Alps region, taught himself architecture and product design and established himself as a well-received architect and designer in the region – not without a fair share of controversy along the way. Simone Micheli has grown into one of Italy’s foremost contemporary designers – a professor of architecture in Florence and Milan, and founder Simone Micheli Architectural Hero – a lofty claim with an explanation to suit.

Heinz Julen Finds Calm after ‘Into’s Storm
Realizes Vision at the Hotel Matterhorn Focus

If you’ve ever been to the town of Zermatt and traversed the surrounding Alps, you understand what it means to say you grew up in the mountains. From such a remote place hails Heinz Julen, a self-taught artist, architect and designer, whose local work has brought him international attention. One of his most recent projects, the Hotel Matterhorn Focus, (or “Focus,” as Julen calls it) exemplifies the success possible when hotel owners believe in their designer, even when s/he is wading through a sea of controversy.

To understand the relevance of the Focus is to understand the journey Julen endured to get there, and that all started about 10 years ago. Julen’s biggest project – and biggest catastrophe – came in 2000, when he debuted with partner Alexander Schärer (of the Swiss furniture company USM) a new boutique project called Into the Hotel – referred to by Julen simply as “Into.” It was set to be one of the most ground-breaking properties Zermatt had ever seen: a complete departure from the Swiss chalet, meant to attract the likes of W and Ian Schrager hotel goers. In what seemed like a flash of press which came swooping over Zermatt after the opening, (and Julen specifically) the hotel was abruptly closed for good. Question remains as to why the doors were shut: according to Julen, the swell of attention he was getting made Schärer and his girlfriend jealous. Supporters of Schärer claim it had to be shut because its design was impractical and non-operational. Rather than reacting angrily to a situation which deeply pained him, Julen took the opportunity to create a piece of public art that displayed how he truly felt about the occurrence. He painted 30 portraits of key collaborators, naked in a room which was essentially a black box, and appeared “almost like a funeral,” as he said. The piece, entitled “The Last Room of a Vision,” was displayed at the International Contemporary Art Fair in Zurich and again in Zermatt and while 28 of his subjects complied, Schärer and his companion did not, and went so far as to sue Julen in the nation’s highest court.

“It became a big thing here about whether an artist can paint somebody,” Julen said. “It went to the high court in Switzerland and I lost the case and had to give the paintings to them. The artist’s liberty was in question.”

Ultimately, the whole debacle turned positive for Julen, who quickly became recognized in the art community as someone with a vision and a voice. With invites to museums who thought his work was a relevant contemporary art performance, Julen wrote a book about the experience, “Into the Performance: Heinz Julen and His Hotel in Zermatt.”

Though he remained a local celebrity in Zermatt (complete with supporters and critics), Julen was unfulfilled in that his vision for a contemporary hotel in town was still not realized. Finally, in late 2008, two local supporters granted him the opportunity he was waiting for with their property, which would soon become the Hotel Matterhorn Focus. Sonja and Christian Noti, who had left Zermatt to live in Zurich, came back to town with aspirations to build an apartment-style hotel and had heard much about Julen’s story.

“They loved Into the Hotel so much and wanted to make a project with me with my architecture, design and my spirit and my soul,” said Julen. “As an architect after Into [the Hotel], I had to go through hard times. People were suing me…the whole nation was following my case. I was all over the news. It was in a way a kind of spiritual experience I would not like to miss. You learn where your values are, what life is about. At the Focus, the people had no problem that people were talking negatively about me.

“I believe that the projects are as good as the freedom in them. If you have freedom and a good soul and spirit in the project, someone who loves the project, and they bring good vibes and energy into the project, it’s heaven on earth.”

With the Notis, Julen found such a paradise.

The Focus is a display of his artistic vision and progressive ideas but does not feels like a lament on what he lost at Into; it’s its own triumph. Serving as a window to the Matterhorn above, and with close proximity to the main cable car which whisks people up to the mountain, the Focus is built as a lens of concrete, steel and wood that looks onto the natural majesty of the area.

Simone Micheli’s i-SUITE Stimulates the Modern Senses

For the i-SUITE hotel in Rimini, Italy, designers were charged with the responsibility to plan a property with rooms of all different shapes to resemble “the irregular spaces of a luxurious mansion while being at the same time domestic as a cozy house,” as Marco Ermeti, one of the hotel’s owners, said. An addition to his company, Ambienthotels, the i-SUITE was meant to bring to the coastal town a hotel similar to the contemporary boutiques one might find in Miami. For this, Ermeti and his brother hired Simone Micheli Architectural Hero – an Italian design firm that promises to live up to its name.

“I feel like a metropolitan wrestler,” said Micheli in reference to the lofty title of his design company. “Which doesn’t ever stop dreaming…fighting to prevent the idea’s conformation and the possible change of projects in relation to the stereotypes and to probates which characterize our present.”

Such verbiage is what defines Micheli, a man whose architecture and design expertise lies in experiment, emotion and redefinition. At the 30th Colombian Architecture Convention in 2007, Micheli asserted that “the new luxury does not mean immobility or habit, but rather freedom and movement. As for architecture, the new luxury is related to the idea of regaining the beauties and the truth of our daily life together with our inner feelings.” He treats each project as an exploration of senses and experiment on human interaction and the 54-all-suite hotel, i-SUITE (which opened the end of November, 2009) was no exception.

“The i-SUITE is a hotel ‘other,’ created to revolutionize standard and eliminating bias in the hotel sector,” he said. One of the main barriers the i-SUITE aims to break down is the separation between hotel guest and hotel employee and create a reception area where guests are greeted with a smile and handshake as opposed to a sign-in desk. The hotel also takes a risk by dedicating the most important part of the building – the entire sixth-floor panoramic area – to the wellness center, where Micheli says the view and light allow a “perfect relax.”

The contemporary layout, fixtures and fittings at i-SUITE are not meant to exist for the sake of boundary-pushing, as it might at first appear, but rather to encourage guests to live their stay at the hotel in a dreamlike state of relaxation. In addition to conceiving the interior layout, Micheli also designed the i-SUITE furniture collection for the hall, suites, restaurant, spa and swimming pool.

“The goal that drives every single planning thought is linked with the will to qualify human life, to favor his emotions, to let every receptor of my three-dimensional message break the known barrier in order to come closer to a visual and contenutistic future,” said Micheli. “What links all my works and connects me with the purchaser I choose or who chooses me is a sort of sensorial type. All my realizations wrap and involve the man taking him in a dream dimension of wonder and amazement.”

In order to actualize some of these very heady ideas, Micheli created an interior that focuses on materials, colors and space. Micheli describes Rimini with the words “vitality, cordiality, heat, spontaneity, love, amazement and energy.” His goal was to highlight those characteristics inside the hotel by using colors like green which he calls “life’s expression,” silver which he likens to dynamism, and white, which Micheli says symbolizes innocence and elegance.

Micheli is currently working on the design for a hotel in Milan as part of the Boscolo Hotel’s chain, two hotels in Tuscany and southern Italy as well as a project for a touristic village near Venice. All the upcoming projects will be created with one aim, says Micheli: “To create works able to originate widespread economic comebacks to buyers, telling three-dimensional stories about excellence, uniqueness and the extraordinary.”