Jean-Michel Gathy is a self-confessed control freak. The esteemed designer recently put the finishing touches to Aman New York, working 18-hour days for over a month moving furniture, changing the frames of paintings, and hauling potted plants onto balconies to ensure every last detail was perfect.
Sometimes he was so tired when he returned from work that he had no energy left to speak. But that’s how he likes it. “I live on the adrenaline,” he tells me, from his home in Kuala Lumpur. “It feeds my creativity and keeps me going. It’s like the Queen of England says, ‘I stop, I drop’.”
I’m speaking to Gathy during one of his rare holidays and he is suntanned and relaxed, having just returned from an evening stroll. Even though he is having some much-needed downtime, he is still brimming with energy and it’s clear that for Gathy, his work is far more than just a day job – it’s his passion.
The tenacious architect always knew he had a creative side. Growing up in Belgium, he loved poring over maps of the world and visiting museums and galleries with his grandma. When he was just nine years old, his parents tasked him with planning a family vacation to Italy.
“It wasn’t like it is today – there were no computers,” he says with a chuckle. “It took me three months to prepare for the trip, studying maps and reading guides. I was very lucky – my parents were committed to making sure we discovered the world, and I was always traveling as a kid.”
After a stint in the architecture office at the University of Liège, Gathy moved to Hong Kong and set up his own firm, Denniston Architects. It was here, while he was renovating a hotel using a construction system he had developed, that he met the hotelier Hans Jenni who gave him a project to work on in the Maldives.
“When I was finished Mr Jenni said, ‘Oh my god I know someone who is going to love your work, I have to introduce you’,” remembers Gathy. That person was Adrian Zecha – founder of the ultra-luxe hotel chain, Aman Resorts.
From this point, Gathy’s life changed dramatically as he was ushered into the glamorous world of high-end hotel design. His first project for Zecha was Amanwana – a tented camp on Indonesia’s Moyo Island. “I was there to welcome Princess Diana when she came to visit in 1992,” he recalls. “That was where it all began.”
Fast forward 30 years and Gathy is the go-to designer behind many of the planet’s most prestigious hotels including The Chedi Andermatt, Four Seasons Tokyo, Marina Bay Sands, and, most recently, Aman New York.
Today, he is used to rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, spending his fleeting stretches of free time aboard yachts and private jets. “I have the life of a billionaire without being a billionaire – it’s fantastic,” he says. “I know what they expect.”
Gathy is known for pushing boundaries with his charismatic designs. “Every single project I find something new to bring, either in the layout or the materials,” he explains, highlighting the overwater netted hammocks at the One&Only Reethi Rah in the Maldives as a case in point.
“Today everyone uses that detail, but I’m the one who came up with it,” he says, with pride. “I know it existed on sailing boats but I applied it to the hotel business – it had never been done before.”
Anyone that’s stayed at a hotel designed by Gathy will be struck by how unique each property is. Aman New York, for example, appears at first glance nothing like the wonderfully grand Venice outpost. But look closer and consistencies can be found; his projects favor indirect lighting, classic geometry, and lots of layers.
This propensity for architectural layering is inspired by his time spent living and working in Asia – something he believes gives him an edge in the competitive world of hotel design. “European architecture is structured and can be a little bit rigid, whereas in Asia it’s much more nuanced, layered, and rounded,” he reflects. “I think it makes my designs more attractive.”
While Gathy admits he is an “absolute control freak”, overseeing every aspect of the architecture, interiors, and landscape of his projects, he stresses that he is always willing to listen to other perspectives.
“I’m not a prima donna,” he says in his no-nonsense manner. “I like to be challenged. If a client makes a suggestion, I don’t look at them arrogantly; I listen and consider whether I can incorporate it. There are so many talented architects in my office and I try to give them as much space as possible to continuously challenge me.”
Above all, during his projects for Aman, Gathy’s mission is to capture the essence of the property’s location and reflect it in his designs. For his latest project in New York, he sums this up in a single word: “energy”.
Merging the hustle and bustle of New York City with Aman’s signature tranquil style was no easy task. Situated on the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, a stone’s throw from Central Park, the new hotel is right in the center of the action.
“It’s very noisy out there,” says Gathy. “You walk through the front doors and you’re transported into another world. We used the very best materials to absorb the sounds. Everything we did was to create a peaceful atmosphere – the entire property is designed with muted colors, indirect lighting, a high level of acoustic, and simple wall paneling.”
The rooms themselves are an oasis of calm with cozy fireplaces, contemporary furnishings, and open-plan stone bathrooms. By New York standards they’re enormous, with suites starting at 820 sq ft.
For Gathy, the biggest challenge was the logistics of transforming the historic Beaux-Arts Crown Building into a hotel. “It was designed over 100 years ago as offices so the lifts and windows are located in certain places, and of course, there aren’t many bathrooms,” he explains. “That’s why the rooms are the size they are – not because we wanted them to be that big but because of geometry.”
The utmost care was taken to respect the property’s heritage through subtle details such as framing the façade of the building with a brass and bronze lattice and decorating the public areas with 1920s-style floor tiling.
After so many sleepless nights how does it feel seeing the project come to fruition? “I’ve never been pregnant but I believe it’s the same,” laughs Gathy.
“Except for when it’s a hotel it’s not nine months, it’s five years of painful preparation. When it finally opens, you feel so proud and fulfilled. I still call the hotel every day asking how the clients like it. You feel it’s your baby – it belongs to you.”
Like with his own children, Gathy cannot choose a favorite project. But his eyes light up as he launches into a list of future hotels he will design dotted around the world in Miami, China, and the Bahamas.
It’s almost nine o clock in Kuala Lumpur now and Gathy’s wife is waiting to have dinner with him. “I’m in trouble,” he says, with a mischievous grin.
Soon his vacation will end and he’ll be back to the chaos; the 18-hour days and transatlantic flights. But Gathy wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love what I do,” he says – and means it.
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Winter 2022/23