AN EYE FOR DETAIL. François-Joseph Graf is an architect, interior designer and decorator. He is also a serious art collector, a man of eclectic talents. He just opened At Sloane, a hotel of 30 rooms in London, in Chelsea near Sloane Square.

François-Joseph Graf, how do you define this new hotel At Sloane?

The goal of this work was to recreate in London the ambience of an old Victorian house. This building was made of several apartments and the inside was not that exciting. The staircases were out of the security standards, but before pulling everything inside down we took some measurements of cornices and mouldings that were to be reproduced in the new building. Everything was then destroyed, the five floors disappeared and we just kept the façade. We rebuilt everything brand new and added the sixth floor, and I really want to thank Cadogan Estate, who trusted us and fully supported this big project which was not easy. The Earl of Cadogan has been very impressed by the result, and I am very happy for that.

Even so, in this very English environment I had the impression of a Viennese influence and a kind of Mitteleuropa feeling?

For years I have been collecting English turn of the century cabinetmakers and artefacts like Godwin, Mackintosh, Christopher Dresser, and it’s the same music for the Viennese Secession of Hoffmann and Koloman Moser. The black and white chess pattern, some designs of tables, armchairs and beds. In 1867, Edward William Godwin created his famous cabinet which is to be seen at the V&A Museum, and it was such a contemporary creation that I wanted to show what the British Empire could provide during this period at its best.

“I wanted to give birth to this house again.”

François-Joseph Graf At Sloane

The exterior of At Sloane hotel in London’s Chelsea

François-Joseph Graf, why did you choose to use stained glass in the windows throughout At Sloane?

Stained glass doesn’t stop the light, but it protects you from outside, and the windows of most of the buildings around in the street were covered with stained glass so we just copied them. We noticed that putting stained glass in the bedroom windows provided a very charming and cozy feeling. It was a very big work, and it was not possible to have it done in England so I asked a French company in Chartres to do it.

Am I correct that you wanted to make even better bathrooms than the famous ones at Claridge’s hotel in London?

I’ve stayed at Claridge’s from when I was a child, when there was sumptuous service and a whole quality of life. The men’s room loos were the nicest loos in the world, but they destroyed Claridge’s years ago and I was very sad. They did some restoration I didn’t agree with so I moved to The Connaught, which is very charming and cheerful with a unique location. The bathrooms in At Sloane are a “clin d’œil” to Claridge’s.

Your mother was a famous art dealer and your career started when you were young? 

I did a lot of studies in architecture at Beaux-Arts and École du Louvre, and the Ecole des Monuments Historiques, then I worked for three years with the main architect in the Château de Versailles. I got the chance to look around, to open my eyes, and to pay attention to proportions and details. It’s the best education ever.

Why did you choose to make At Sloane so very English rather than reinvent it?

The street is too English and the proportion of the façade is too typical to make something different or to create a new adventure. I wanted to give birth to this house again.

Why did you put photographs of famous actors all over the hotel?

I didn’t want to buy pictures, because nice pictures are costly and you can find average pictures in any hotel. To give a glimpse between French, English and American stars, we filled up the big staircase with these photographs and put one or two in each room.

What is the difference between At Sloane and La Mirande, the hotel that you did in Avignon?  

I went back to La Mirande three months ago, and 35 years after the opening they asked me to help them refresh it, to do some new rooms and give it a new ambience. It was my first hotel, with a Louis XIV façade, very sumptuous and pompous, and a wonderful location right on the Palais des Papes. The inside had been entirely redone in a neo-gothic style before the First World War and was very gloomy, everything was painted black. With my client we decided to read back the story and to make the inside breathe with the same air as the façade. We invented everything. It’s a little bit faded now, but it’s very charming and it still smells very good.

“I’m sure this small hotel will bring a new and fresh air to hotels.”

François-Joseph Graf, there is a great variety in At Sloane and every detail is carefully attended to, from the fireplace, to the monochrome mosaics, to the Benson lights, to the William Morris chairs. In the restaurant upstairs there are bookshelves filled with Chinese vases. How were you able to imagine and to do this?

I read a book years ago on the Peacock Room by Whistler and Jekyll, and I flew to Washington to take the measurements of the room in the Smithsonian museum. It was gilded, resplendent, and filled with blue and white China. I reproduce it here in white polished laque with different China that I went to Chinatown in Singapore two or three times to buy. Some vases are 18th century, some 19th century, and some more contemporary. This hotel has perhaps 70 different colors, but it looks like a black and white place, with a little bit of red dots. That’s why I did these white shelves in the dining room like a private home and had mosaics done by the London Mosaic company, who have done a wonderful job.

What is most important?

The light. I don’t like spotlights. In regular luxury hotels they use plenty of those, everywhere, even on bathtubs, so I decided to get rid of them. We manufactured something very small, finger size spotlights, to go on with the fantastic collection of W.A.S. Benson lights which I had the luck to find. All the original pieces have been set on site and very good copies done in India for copper and in Ukraine for the glass. It brings something probably unique.

Is there also Japanese style in your work?

Yes, and I have personally in my collection some Japanese pieces. The inspiration of the Peacock Room comes from Japan, and in the bar I rebuilt screens according to a wonderful example in the Victorian & Albert museum.

How many people work with you?

We are something like 13 people, a small team. I like to do everything by my own.

Is your own home in Paris similar in décor to the work you do for other people?

My home is a big mess, a mixture of all of things. Both Jean-Louis Costes and I decided to have this project made in this more English manner. The choice and use of fabrics and details, tassels and so forth is a great collaboration between a client, Costes, and me. As in my other projects, the style and the taste of the client is very important. It’s his home and not mine.

You understand space well. How does it work?

I’m very attracted by the skeleton, by the design of the room. Like the cut of a jacket in couture, the room has to be cut with nice proportions. Then I rebuild everything inside: the decoration, the boiserie, the wooden paneling, the wainscoting, the stucco, the flooring. Then the colors could be something totally different. The choice of the fabrics could be also something on the side. Then, the pictures and all the furniture could be absolutely another story. We can really mix everything of the same quality…

Are you very much influenced and inspired by places like the Frick Collection in New York or the Nissim de Camondo Museum in Paris?

I love Katsura House in Kyoto. I love some places in Isfahan or Samarkand or Yemen. What I like in Frick collection and Nissim de Camondo is it has really been designed by professional people. It’s more a way of doing than a style.

François-Joseph Graf At Sloane

FrançoisJoseph Graf: Interior of At Sloane

François-Joseph Graf At Sloane

FrançoisJoseph Graf: Interior of At Sloane

François-Joseph Graf At Sloane

FrançoisJoseph Graf: Interior of At Sloane

François-Joseph Graf At Sloane

FrançoisJoseph Graf: Interior of At Sloane

François-Joseph Graf At Sloane

FrançoisJoseph Graf: Interior of At Sloane

François-Joseph Graf At Sloane

FrançoisJoseph Graf: Interior of At Sloane

“The goal of the At Sloane’s project was to focus on the English personality of its atmosphere and for the guests inside to be certain they are in London.”

François-Joseph Graf, you’re based in Paris, but have you traveled widely?

I’ve been travelling with my kid all over Asia, in India more than 100 times, in China 25 times, in Japan also, South Asia, Middle East, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, a lot of wonderful and very interesting places. You have to travel to get a new look in your eyes, find new proportions, new patterns, new smells, something different.

Why do you always wear something purple?

I like purple or violet, it is the only color which fits together with all the others. I’ve always purple socks, it’s easier not to change color. I am not superstitious but I’m always wearing something purple. It’s the absolute divine color.

Do you have a great love of opera since a very early age?

I’m working with Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi or Puccini all the time.

But you never did stage design?

I would love to do it, it’s really one of my goals.

In your career are there some projects that you cherish?

The next one. The one which is in the oven is always the best.

Which is your next project?  

A big hotel particulier in Monte Carlo, and a huge property in the South of France. Then a grand house Marrakesh, and something very exciting in Qatar. In the meantime I’m helping the Musée d’Orsay to create and build up the new Napoleon III rooms.

You are yourself an art collector, do you buy many things for your clients?  

I’ve been collecting a lot of 18th century Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Wiener Werkstatte pieces. I love to find the pieces. It’s like a love at first sight. I advise my clients for great pieces out of their own collections. I always learn a lot from them, and it’s very exciting to build up to six different houses for the same clients over thirty years. It’s the same smell, the same way to work, sometimes in different styles, periods, and places but always with the same soul.

How much do you influence your clients and how much do they influence you?

The relationship is like a love affair. Working over 30 years is like a marriage.

You also design and sell handbags for women?

Yes, it was a fancy. Designing a bag is like designing the pattern of a door, it’s just architecture. I design every bag as a unique piece. There’s a shop that sells them for me at the Hotel George V.

You don’t talk much about painting or sculpture, are you less interested in that?

I am very interested, but most of my clients have already great collections of modern or contemporary art, so they have quite everything and the best of it. I like 19th century sculpture, even Greek and Roman arts sculpture, and the archaic period of Egypt. If you have big paintings, big pieces of furniture, you have of course to adapt the architecture to the painting and pieces. It’s quite exciting.

Do you think that furniture by Jean Prouvé or Carlo Mollino or by other designers and architects which cost a lot of money at the moment will remain and still be important? Or is it just a phase and a fashion?

Prouvé did extraordinary things. All of those designers did masterpieces. Those will remain, but the middle stuff will disappear. In the future we will remember only the best of each.

At the end of the day, are you pleased with this new project At Sloane? 

I’m sure this small hotel will bring a new and fresh air to hotels. I’m a great hotel client. I travel all over the world and as soon as a new hotel is opening I’m going there to have the first smell, and the first look, and to see what’s going on. The problem is most of the hotels are alike all over the world. The goal of the At Sloane’s project was to focus on the English personality of its atmosphere and for the guests inside to be certain they are in London.

Which is your favourite Paris hotel and would you like to build a hotel in Paris?

It was the Ritz before the work, its location and its history. Most Parisian hotels have been restored, not always in the best way. The most fashionable hotel with an extraordinary ambience is the very successful Costes. It’s incredible, there is something in the air so different. The other big palace hotels need to focus more on the program of their restoration and they should adapt themselves to the 21st century. It’s not possible to still have a service in night jackets with clients in shorts and slippers. Those “grand palaces” have been built for families, for a certain quality of life which completely disappeared. They have really to recreate a new palace hotel story. 

Is the quality of the service also very important?

Yes of course. The best in the world are Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, the Royal Mansour Marrakech, and some Aman in East Asia, and Le Bristol in Paris. After, it’s another music…

François-Joseph Graf, thank you very much.