The design-led boutique hotels of Singapore

Hilary Lancaster By Hilary Lancaster
Uploaded 15 January 2014

Having lived in and launched my interior design career in Singapore between 1993 and 1999 I have a particular interest in the hotel market in this fast track, ever-changing and architecturally progressive city. There are so many hotels in Singapore to write about and while Singapore is not normally on the map for being "cutting-edge", there are a handful of hoteliers who have challenged the conventional and created exciting and thought-provoking establishments that have attracted not only worldwide acclaim for their designs but also for generating great business.

One of the reasons is that these hotels are unique and offer experiences, in addition to excellent service and a great night's sleep. This article focuses on some these unconventional hotels - all of them having under 100 rooms and three of them being owned by one man - Loh Lik Peng. I have included an interview with this prolific hotelier and restaurateur who is making huge waves in the hotel sector across Singapore and the globe, and who bravely opened the first boutique hotel in Singapore in 2003, (32 rooms across five shophouses) called 1929, kicking off the trend of small hotels developed in converted vernacular buildings.

Following the 1929 opening, The Scarlet Hotel made "her" debut in 2004 in Singapore's Central Business District (CBD). Acquired and developed at an investment of US$35 million, The Scarlet has also carefully preserved the architectural heritage of its exterior. The 80-room hotel includes five individually themed suites, aptly named Splendour, Passion, Opulent, Lavish and Swank.

On a recent visit in September 2013, The Scarlet Hotel was closed for a five-month renovation (link), however I was fortunate to see the New Majestic, the second hotel masterminded by Loh Lik Peng. The New Majestic, opened in 2006 with 30 rooms, used a different artist for every room but within six categories - Premier Pool (overlooking the pool), Junior Lifestyle (smaller loft rooms), Premier Garden (with private verandas), Aqua room (features a central glass-encased aquarium bathtub in the middle of the room), then Lifestyle (five concept rooms) and Attic (larger loft rooms). Each room has its own name such as Wayang, The Pussy Parlour, Untitled, Work and Fluid.

The most recent by Mr. Loh is Wanderlust, (2010, 29 rooms) which says "we are a left-field and totally experimental boutique hotel set to draw madcap voyagers and curious travellers to its doorstep". Located in Little India, the building was originally an old school built in the 1920s. With four thematic levels of 29 rooms by four different design agencies, each group was given full creative freedom. The themes are Level 1 - Industrial Glam, Level 2 - Eccentricity, Level 3 - Is it just Black and White with pop art, and Level 4 - Creature Comforts. A fantasy-filled experience!

What these three hotels have in common is that they are all heritage or listed buildings. Speaking of his interest in old buildings Loh Lik Peng says: "It's really just passion. It's lovely to be able to work with and preserve a slice of history. You can never quite recreate the sense of time and age built into these old buildings and I like that I get to touch and feel history for real. I always try to imagine the stories they have to tell and the lives they have seen and touched."

Speaking of 1929 he says: "I am most proud of 1929 because it was my first one. There were a lot of run down properties for sale at that time and one of them was in the 'wrong' part of Chinatown. No one wanted it. My parents were my first investors and they have made their investment back manifold times but now I would say to any new investors to Singapore be very careful doing your sums. The market has changed since I developed my hotels and the economics are very challenging to start up hotels right now."

The success of Loh Lik Peng's hotels, he believes, is due to his commitment to design and his need to have guests connect with the history and location of the hotel. "I am driven largely by the need to preserve the history of the building. I try to make sure the design is relevant to the building, the location and the country we operate in. We try to be as local as possible and we try to ensure our neighbours are proud of having us there. To me this is very important so we try to use a local designer and local artists in all our projects. Design is the most important thing for me in all the projects I do. It's always integral to every project."

Now, unsurprisingly, as Singaporeans love to continually improve themselves and show this to each other and the rest of the world, we have seen quite a few new design-led boutique hotels opening up in the last five years that are making an effort to push the boat out. The Wangz Hotel Group deserves a mention here as they launched their first boutique hotel in 2009 with no prior experience in this industry. This is a business run by a family who have always been in the finance sector but decided to try hotels for fun! The Wangz Hotel has 41 rooms, each between 26 to 47 square metres. The building itself is interesting, a soaring metallic, cylindrical, structure on a corner of a busy roundabout, located in the heart of Singapore's heritage area, Tiong Bahru. The lobby is funky, the furniture following the organic curves of the building. The rooms are well designed and detailed with commissioned artwork collectively valued at SG$400,000 which is impressive for such a small hotel. Their new serviced apartments called The Forest located near the famous Newton Circus Hawker Centre are equally well done. We await the next project that may push the boundaries further.
Klapsons, which also opened in 2009 was designed by William Sawaya of the Italian architecture firm Sawaya & Moroni, with just 17 rooms in an annex to the office building of Jit Sun Investments, whose owners created the hotel. The overall design theme could be called futuristic and eclectic, with touches like plexiglass and luminous colours, but no two rooms are the same. In the public areas wacky creativity abounds: the check-in desk is inside a giant silver sphere suspended above a small pool of water, upright chairs that become recliners when tipped over, tables that seem to glow with their own inner light, video screens in the ceiling of the elevator, and uniquely designed showers in the rooms placed in the most unusual locations.

The Club Hotel built in 2010, by Harry's Hospitality is a 22-room luxury boutique hotel in Ann Siang road, one of Singapore's most fashionable and quirky districts, near Chinatown. Housed in a stately 1900s heritage building, the establishment brings the area's rich heritage to life with a blend of contemporary minimalism and antique, oriental touches. Harry's Hospitality (which operates more than 30 bars and restaurants) was born in 1993 with opening of the now iconic Harry's Bar at Boat Quay. The Club Hotel is the first hotel opened by the company. In January 2013 Asia-focused private equity firm Everstone Capital partnered with family-owned investment company Verlinvest to acquire a 90 per cent stake in the Singapore-listed restaurant chain for S$21.85 million.

The newest opening (opened in 2007 and now re-opened in November 2013), the most luxurious of them all, is Naumi - back in business following a year long, multi-million-dollar refurbishment and charging SGD 790+ per night. It has 72 rooms and is owned by Naumi Hotel Group, Singapore, which also owns Naumi Liora, which opened in November 2012. Naumi Liora was constructed in a 155 year old Peranakan building and the interior aims to refer to this heritage. Timber screens that have been abstracted from the lattice design of traditional Peranakan tiles and the original metal railing pattern of the exterior of the hotel.

Check out our pinterest site to see them all:

Our top three summary is:
Rooms: 30 rooms / 20-28m2                                               
Design Features: Every room has its own special features. Lifestyle Fluid is a fully carpeted minimalist take on a 1970's James Bond pad with futuristic lines and a bed sunken into the floor. The Premier Pool Room features a glass-encased bath dividing the bed and the bathroom areas. Other rooms feature installations by local artists. A very special feature of this hotel is the installation in the lobby that is part of the "Space Program" by graphic designers Foreign Policy Design Group - an travelling insertion concept that is part museum, part retail, part gallery curated with objects that relate to the city. The primary building block of this installation is the washboard - which is a symbol of the grit and hard work of Singapore founding fathers.                                  

Rooms: 72 rooms / 21-54m2 (1 suite is 83m2)                                                     
Features: With clean lines and high level of execution it is designed in neutral earthy tones, and finished with a blend of natural wood, glass and LED lighting. Furniture is by Tom Dixon, B&B Italia and Poltrona Frau which sit alongside specially commissioned work by Singaporean artists. A few rooms in particular stand apart from the rest. Two suites take inspiration from Andy Warhol and Coco Chanel, with interiors created in each artist's particular style. And the Naumi retains its signature service: an entire floor dedicated to female travellers, providing special products and complimentary benefits to its guests.

Rooms: 22 rooms / Club 24-28m2 and Signature 26-32m2                    
Design Features: Signature rooms are large for Singapore (30m2+) and luxurious with individual design features themed on Chinese heritage in the modern world. Club Rooms have been designed to suit their location with a thoughtful layout that allows for work and leisure. Signature rooms each have a bold design features, from fitted ceiling-to-floor wraparound curtains for complete privacy, to a bed framed by a pair of grand pillars adorned with traditional Chinese carvings. The bathrooms are particularly striking in black and white tiles.  'The client was incredibly open-minded about design and gave us complete free rein,'' says MOD design director Colin Seah.                                                 

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