There has been much to celebrate of late in stylish Barcelona. Following a busy year of welcoming new guests to its address on the prestigious Passeig de Gràcia – the equivalent of Fifth Avenue in New York, or Bond Street in London – Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona marked its first anniversary with a handful of design accolades and a Michelin star. Frequent travellers to Spain’s second-largest city will appreciate that competition for such coveted prizes is fierce. After all, Barcelona boasts its fair share of trailblazing design hotels and is proud of its status as the Catalan capital of gastronomy. Yet since opening its doors in November 2009, Mandarin Oriental’s landmark Spanish destination has garnered international recognition for stunning, avant-garde interiors housing impressive five-star facilities, from a 1,000sq m underground spa to a gourmet Catalan restaurant. No wonder, then, that it has been named ‘Best City Hotel’ in Tatler’s 2011 Travel Guide.
Indeed, Tatler is just one of the glossy magazines to have adorned its pages with images of the Barcelona property. Originally built in the Fifties as headquarters for Banco Hispano Americano, the site itself has a long association with the upper classes, having once served as the home of the Círculo Ecuestre, an exclusive European private member’s club. In recent times, though, its reincarnation as a major city bank has meant that many local residents became familiar with the public space, which counts Gaudí’s Casa Milà among its neighbours. This was an important consideration during the conversion process, overseen by Barcelona architects Carlos Ferrater and Juan Trias de Bes. ‘I remember coming here as a youngster with my father to this big, bold room where cashiers served customers on the trading floor,’ recalls de Bes. ‘Since the site is so well known, we wanted to ensure the building would continue to have an open relationship with the city.’
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This heritage also provided a source of inspiration for Patricia Urquiola, the Spanish designer who dedicated three years to crafting the hotel’s custom-made interiors. Although keen to allude to the property’s past, Urquiola also wanted to acknowledge the city’s Catalan soul while hinting at the Asian roots of brand Mandarin Oriental. Quite a complex balancing act when considering the scale of the project (more than 17,000sq m) and taking into account that this was her first hotel commission. ‘I thought I would start with a small boutique hotel rather than something so big and expensive,’ she admits with a twinkle in her eye. ‘I knew I came to the job as a complete outsider, but then I’ve always liked a challenge.’ Taking on an inexperienced designer in the field was a calculated risk for Mandarin Oriental, but they were happy to champion a talent with a different point of view; somebody with the vision to introduce iconic elements that would resonate with the people of Barcelona and beyond.
This is not to say that Urquiola lacked pedigree. Passionate yet pragmatic, the fast-talking Spaniard had carved out a formidable reputation in product development, earning the title of Wallpaper’s ‘Furniture Designer of the Year’. Her initial training, though, was as an architect, first at a national school in Madrid before relocation to Milan swept her fortuitously into the classroom of Achille Castiglioni, the man she attributes with igniting her deep-rooted interest in intelligent product design. ‘He became my mentor and changed my life,’ she enthuses.
Following graduation in Milan, she held top positions at De Padova and Lissoni Associates during the Nineties, and then set up a studio in 2001. Coinciding with the end of her first marriage, when she felt she had ‘nothing to lose’, Urquiola was driven to try things out her own way, collaborating with B&B Italia, Alessi, Molteni & C and Foscarini to create some of the most poetic and practical furniture of the 21st century. In fact, a couple of sculptural examples, like her ‘Fjord’ armchair for Moroso, form part of the permanent collection at MoMA in New York.
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