Alexandra Champalimaud looks right at home, elegantly attired and reposed, in a suite of Singapore’s historic Raffles Hotel. Her perfect equanimity belies the monumental task the New York-based designer has undertaken of reimagining the interiors of Raffles, one of the world’s iconic hotels, due to reopen in the first half of 2019 following a complete restoration.
But then Lisbon-born Champalimaud is no newcomer to big hospitality projects. She and her eponymous design agency have worked on some of the world’s great luxury hotels, including The Dorchester in London, Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, and The Waldorf Astoria and The Algonquin in New York.
In fact, she discovered early in her career she had quite the knack for hospitality design work. Returning to Portugal after finishing her schooling in England, Champalimaud studied design at Lisbon’s Ricardo do Espirito Santo Silva Foundation.
After a time living in Mozambique, she wound up with her two sons in the Canadian city of Montreal where, after a few years, she set up shop focusing on hotels. “The opportunity presented itself,” recalls Champalimaud. “Residential work was too whimsical. People have their moods. I like projects with a beginning and an end.”
Several international design awards followed, propelling her onto the global stage and prompting her eventually to move her studio to New York, where she built an enviable portfolio of hotel clients worldwide.
“I’m not bad at understanding the roots of a building and the stories that went on within it,” Champalimaud says of her design approach.
Revamping a national monument
Few hotels have roots as deep as Raffles, which celebrated its 130th anniversary last year. Certainly, it has come a long way since the Armenian-born Sarkies brothers opened a 10-room beachfront hotel named after Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s founder.
Declared a national monument on its 100th anniversary in 1987, Raffles has served as a landmark for generations of well-to-do globetrotters and celebrity jetsetters passing through Singapore.
“You have to be respectful of this building and the history this place has,” says Champalimaud. “That’s where you start, the respect for the hotel … and what it means to Singapore.”
When we meet, work has well and truly started, with much of the hotel’s famous white facades hidden behind hoardings and scaffolding. It is the first major renovation since 1989, when Raffles closed for two-and-a-half years, and arguably the largest expansion since the main neo-Renaissance building was completed in 1899.
The main hotel building, lobby and many of the hotel suites are off limits. So, too, is the distinctive Raffles Arcade, which houses shops, the ballroom and restaurants and bars including the Long Bar, where a bartender invented the Singapore Sling in 1915.
All the suites are being overhauled, with new categories added and others renamed (Raffles Inc suites will become State Room Suites) taking the total room count to 115 from 103. The lobby and arcade are also being revamped, as are the restaurants, bars, event spaces and gardens.
Respect the past, embrace the modern
Champalimaud, though, makes it clear she has purposefully steered away from trying to mimic Raffles’ colonial past, which strongly influenced the previous multimillion-dollar renovation.
“Everything in this hotel is going to be modern,” she says. “It’s not going to be angular, aggressive or cold. It has to be of today…and has to last the next 20 to 30 years.”
To this end, Champalimaud – who trained in the history of art, furniture and decorative arts – admits one of the key challenges is finding that “special recipe” that balances Raffles’ old-world character and charm with a new, modern context. It’ll be respectful of the past but speak to “a new sense of place, a new personality”.
“That’s the part I’m good at,” she says.
With Raffles’ suites, for example, the tripartite layout – parlour, bedroom and bathroom – will be retained. But rather than feel like a “suite of furniture”, as Champalimaud sees the existing state, the rooms will convey more of a whole experience. Contemporary lighting will play an important role in achieving this. So, too, will the layered use of textures and materials, like marble, fabrics, leathers and patterned glass. The decor will be reminiscent of its heritage, yet with a cleaner, simpler elegance.
Champalimaud explains it’s about taking the hotel’s existing narratives and redrafting them visually so that each space develops it own story. “The new interiors will capture a memory in a contemporary version of what old Singapore was,” she says.
She points to sample boxes for rooms, each filled with at least a dozen materials to illustrate her approach. Each suite, she says, will have its own signature pattern.
This approach is being adopted for the hotel’s other areas too. The Tiffin Room, for instance – renowned for its north Indian cuisine – will have its original herringbone timber floor, while a new wall filled with plates and shelves of tiffin boxes will convey the “messy vitality” of the traditional lunchtime ritual.
No ‘I’ in team
Champalimaud is not shy about her abilities. “The world is my oyster. I can make things happen. I’ve always been like that since I was quite young,” she says matter of factly.
But she also acknowledges none of it is possible without her Champalimaud Design team, whom she calls “an amazing group of people”.
Managing director Ed Bakos says the Raffles project isn’t just about restoring bricks and mortar; it’s about strengthening the hotel’s social and community fabric. “When Raffles opened, it was a near beer hall experience, where the community came to the hotel,” he says.
This fits in with a broader trend of upmarket hotels looking to embrace locals as much as guests. For Raffles, this means redesigning the restaurants, cafes and bars and events spaces to draw in Singapore residents when the renovated hotel relaunches.
“Both the new Writers Bar in the main building and the Tiffin Room will have the ability to spill over at different times of the day to energise what is the centre point of the hotel,” explains Bakos.
It is an approach strengthened recently with the unveiling of Raffles’ new dining offerings. Among them are BBR (Bar & Billiard Room) by Alain Ducasse, Yi by Jereme Leung, La Dame de Pic featuring Michelin-starred chef Anne-Sophie Pic, and the high-end steakhouse Butcher’s Block.
To date, only the Long Bar has reopened, and is serving only drinks – mainly the Singapore Slings for which visitors flock. A pop-up gift shop has also opened temporarily around the corner. All other hotels areas, though, will reopen at the same time in 2019.
The new look and offerings are also designed to tie in with an evolving notion of luxury. In Raffles’ heyday during the first part of the 20th century, luxury meant exclusive, over-the-top and ornate. Today, luxury still relies on a high level of aesthetics and design, but it feels more curated, approachable and, importantly, accessible.
“People are seeking locality,” Bakos says. “The work we’re doing today is restoring the property to a social engagement with the community … a gathering place for different people.”
The writer travelled to Singapore as a guest of Raffles.