How the Ampersand Hotel drew inspiration from South Kensington’s museum district
I love design in boutique hotels. Every time I visit one, I try to see if there is a story in the design and if I can identify any sources of inspiration. It’s like when I used to play the game scavenger hunt as a child and submerge myself in the pleasure of finding clues and solving puzzles to find the prized object.
One London hotel, in particular, was able to bring me back to my childhood tendencies. The Ampersand Hotel in London’s South Kensington district takes you on a journey back to the 19th century, a significant era in British history when innovation and discovery was the driving force of the Industrial Revolution. Applying boldness and subtleness in equal doses, its design, developed by Dexter Moren Associates, successfully tells a story of connections between Victorian history and the museum attractions of the local area, using the critical themes of botany, music, ornithology, geometry and astronomy.
The actual building of the hotel was initially built in 1888 as a hotel of 80-rooms, in a very significant period, following the success of the Great Exhibition 1851 – an idea created by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband to showcase creations of industrialization and the role Great Britain was playing as leader and innovator of this revolution.
South Kensington naturally became a museum site (taking the name of Albertopolis) following the accumulation of surplus items that had been exhibited at the Great Exhibition.Consequently, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall and the Science Museum were built shortly after to house the vast collections of works.
The Natural History Museum was also built in the same area to house the collections, Sir. Hans Sloane, which included many anthropological and natural history specimens.
The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A)
The success of Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition in 1851 had amassed a sizeable financial profit of which Albert was keen to use to develop educational establishments for the public. The first development was named South Kensington Museum and was opened in 1857. It was later renamed The Victoria & Albert Museum in memory of the work and support that Prince Albert had dedicated to the advancement of the Art & Sciences.
Today, the museum holds various collections of ceramics, glass, textiles, costumes jewellery, paintings and furniture from continents such as Europe, Asia across a timeline starting from the ancient period to present day.
One of my favourite collections from the V&A is the tile designs of Owen Jones. He was an architect, designer and theorist who became well known during the time of the Great Exhibition. He was particularly inspired by how geometry, mathematics and astronomy were used in the designs of tiles in the Islamic culture.
He was also very influential in the formation and development of the V&A, which is why I see inspiration from his work within the Ampersand Hotel, more specifically within the entrance of the hotel’s restaurant Apero. The black & white style mosaic flooring, very popular in the Victorian times, fits so well amongst the other modern aspects of the restaurant, including the suspended Allegro Assai Lamp by Foscarini.
The Victoria & Albert Museum Cromwell Rd, London, SW7 2RL www.vam.ac.uk
The Science Museum
The Science Museum was originally part of the South Kensington Museum. But it wasn’t until 1909 that it became fully independent and was renamed as the Science Museum.
Its original collections included ‘Puffing Billy’ of 1814 (today’s oldest surviving locomotive) and Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’. Over a century later, the museum now has a collection of over 300,00 items, including areas of astronomy and mathematics.
Although astronomy in the Victorian era was mostly a hobby for wealthier classes, it was a time when many observatories were built and new theories created, aiding the advancement of astronomy.
All the Single and Double rooms within Ampersand Hotel have bespoke wallpaper with depicting the planet system. On the bedside table, there are even books related to the theme of astronomy – a nice touch that ties in well the overall design.
Likewise, the study of Geometry was also an essential subject in nineteenth-century education, not only for the wealthy but also for artisans. Euclidean geometry, for example, a mathematical system created back in the Ancient Greek era, was very much integrated and discussed in Victorian culture.
In the Games Room of the Ampersand, you will see geometric patterns of squares and circles displayed within the displayed art and on fabrics, which create a clean, modern edge to the ambience of the room. Combined with lots of Victorian games, gadgets, plus a ping-pong table, there is a good reason why it’s called the Games Room.
The Science Museum Exhibition Road, London, SW7 2DD www.sciencemuseum.org.uk
The Natural History Museum
Two of the most prominent themes that you see within the hotel are connected with botany and ornithology: both of which have huge significance within the Natural History Museum. A vast majority of what you see in the museum is thanks to Sir Hans Sloane. A keen collector of objects, he amassed over 71,000 objects, including 800 species of plants. When he died in 1753, he bequeathed his entire collection to the British Museum.
It wasn’t until 1862 that the natural history collection was re-housed to a new building in South Kensington. Today, the museum holds to over 70 million life and earth specimens, including its famous exhibition of dinosaur skeletons.
At the Ampersand hotel, one of the most beautifully decorated spaces is in the Drawing Rooms. Botany and ornithology naturally both have so much colour and animation, something that the Victorians can be remembered for. And their love for ornithological specimens was no exception. Brought about by the industrial revolution, there was an increasing desire to for the ladies of the time to reconnect with nature. Colourful feathers, hats stuffed with entire birds were all the craze. Likewise, the goldsmiths and jewellers were kept very busy manufacturing smaller embellishments like beetle carcasses!
The Drawing Rooms are fitting for that era. So much so that you can even imagine yourself as elegant Victorian lady sipping afternoon tea while biting on a crisp cucumber sandwich. It is an experience that cannot be missed.
The Natural History Musem Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD www.nhm.ac.uk
The Royal Albert Hall
The creation of the Royal Albert Hall was another spin-off deriving from the major success resulting from the Great Exhibition. Unfortunately, Prince Albert didn’t see his vision come to life as he passed away before the building was complete. It was opened in 1871 by Queen Victoria and named The Royal Albert Hall of Art and Sciences as a dedication to her late husband.
Not only renowned for holding musical concerts, but the Royal Albert Hall was also conceived to host significant exhibitions, award ceremonies and scientific discussions. Today, it continues to sustain the vision of Prince Albert hosting over 350 events each year.
If you can stay in one of the Ampersand’s Superior Rooms, the connection to music is visible through its wallpaper design and other fixtures illustrating the art of written music. If you want to enter into musical meditation, you can hook up your iPod to the room’s docking station and belt out some repertoires from Edward Elgar – an English composer who was equally famous in the late Victorian era as Justin Bieber is today. The only difference is that Elgar was musically talented.
The Royal Albert Hall Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AP www.royalalberthall.com
If you are interested to follow the entire story of the Ampersand Hotel’s design journey, I would recommend that you visit Dexter Moren’s dedicated blog to the project.
The Ampersand Hotel: 10 Harrington Road, London, SW7 3ER, UK
To make the most of this neighbourhood, stay at the boutique hotel, The Ampersand Hotel, South Kensington London