Renovating History: The Evolution of the Clift (Part Two)

By | July 4, 2011

The Clift Hotel Lobby, c. 1915. Source:

Early photographs of the lobby of the original Clift Hotel show a richly decorated space, an architecture of surfaces tightly packed with relief carving, egg and dart mouldings, cartouches, balustrades and Corinthian columns. The density of the surface treatment seems absurd to a modernist eye schooled in the aesthetics of Corbusier and Mies. Yet one can easily imagine the ethereal, transformative power of such a space when stepping from the noisy, gritty streets of 1915 San Francisco to that glowing, wedding cake of a lobby.

Today nothing remains of the early lobby but its grand height. With his 2001 transformation Philippe Starck has produced an equally magical space but through a very different means. The lobby is now sequestered from the street by plush, dark curtains that act to screen the daylight and stage your entry into a subdued world that unfolds slowly scene by scene. The cool gray, polished plaster walls complement the Pietra Serena limestone floor, and together with the deeply subdued lighting, signal a self-conscious stagecraft that surrenders everything to affect.

The Clift Lobby, 2001. Source: Morgans Hotel Group

Starck’s absurdly oversized adaptation of a Louis XVI armchair dominates the entry, a reminder that this is a world where the id’s instinctive energies will be unfettered by the rational constraints of the everyday world. We have entered a space of libidinal pleasure unceasingly shaped by Starck’s unique sense of narrative and semiotic play. The eclectic mix of lobby furnishings is drawn from Starck’s vast inventory of idiosyncratic forms. A bronze and marble coffee table by Salvador Dali, a concierge’s desk by Jean Nouvel, a Magritte-inspired chair by Sebastian Matta, and a massive fireplace mantel by Gerard Garouste function as readymades twisting and extending Starck’s personal iconography of elaborately designed furniture, lighting and textiles. A gilt chaise longue and absurdly oversized lamp are among my favourite Starck designs for the lobby.

The Clift Lobby, 2001. Source: Morgans Hotel Group

From this dream-like space it is an abrupt transition to the adjacent ‘living room’ with its comparatively staid, club-like atmosphere (despite the dozens of toy animal portraits by French fashion photographer Jean-Baptise Mondino embedded in the wall) replete with comfy leather armchairs and velvet covered couches. In this context the living room is like an unwelcome intermission, disrupting the lobby’s dream-like tableau. By contrast, the hotel’s reception desk, on the opposite side of the lobby, steadfastly retains the illusion—even as they take your money. The desk’s magnificently carved mahogany surface, dramatic up-lights and chilled staff, seem perfectly aligned with the lobby’s surreal ambitions.

In the end it may be argued that the Clift’s owners have only traded one illusion for another. The early 20th century fantasy of a rebirth of Italian Renaissance splendour and wealth is little different than the early 21st century ego-driven fantasy of de-sublimated desire and an irrepressible unconscious.

Part two of a three-part series on the Clift.

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