Europe is full of great boutique hotels, but some just stand out. If you've ever stayed at one of Saar Zafrir's hotels, you know what we mean. The Amsterdam-based Israeli interior designer is behind such eye-catching properties as Brown Beach House Croatia, a tobacco plant turned 1950s-inspired beach resort on the Dalmatian Coast; Sir Savigny Berlin, an urban retreat for modern aristocrats in luxe Charlottenburg; and, most recently, Provocateur Berlin, an unapologetically sensual boutique in the same neighborhood inspired by 1920s-era Paris. Fathom editor Daniel Schwartz caught up with him to find out what goes through his head when he approaches such projects.
You started off in finance. How did you make the jump to designing hotels?
After working in the capital markets for twelve years, I took a year off to surf and travel and bought an apartment in Tel Aviv. I decided to design it myself with all my free time and fell in love with the process, drawing inspiration from Home & Design Magazine, Elle Decor, and Wallpaper. Soon enough, working on apartments for friends and family became a hobby. Designing boutique hotels was the next step. It’s like writing a book: You start with a concept then build a story around it. Each project is different and presents an opportunity to reinvent yourself and your aesthetic.
Speaking of, what is your aesthetic?
It's very hard to put a finger on it because projects are so different from one another, but if I had to describe it I would say that my design is "complete." My work starts and ends with my concept. For example, at Sir Savigny, I thought to combine the concept of the hotel with that of the the first-floor restaurant, The Butcher, which was designed by another firm, Baranowitz + Kronenberg. To unify the space, I brought the restaurant right into the rooms. The result: Dial-a-Burger intercoms, which read “Call the Butcher” and can used to order room service from the restaurant downstairs.
Burger intercoms. I need one. How did you think of that?
I found this amazing photo on the internet of a switch button from the 1930s that read “Champagne Please.” It was part of the inspiration file on my computer — a sort of personal archive with photos, music, movies, and other design memories that I’ve been collecting throughout the years. I always look there when I’m starting a new project and figuring out which direction to go. The goal is try and bring something new to the table every time.
Talk me through the design process when a new project comes in.
Interior design is all about layers. Each layer is important and can't exist without the previous ones. There are hundreds of layers in each space, and they must all speak the same design language. There is no priority; every part is equally important. When I receive a new project, I start to write and conduct research. The story begins with the country, city, and neighborhood the property is located in. Then comes the structure and history of the building. The older the building, the more stories to be found.
For example, Provocateur Berlin started with an old picture frame I found in the basement of the building. The photo was taken at the end of the 1920s in Paris, and in a second I knew my design narrative would incorporate this time period and location. The story was about secret places, speakeasies, and underground clubs in dark alleys. Then I decided to incorporated velvet textures and a strong color palette of reds and blues to build off that idea.
History or place: How do you decide what to highlight?
History is only important to me when the hotel is in an historical or landmarked building. Otherwise, I don't like to put it front and center. Place, however, I always pay attention to. I do my research to make sure my hotel fits into the neighborhood and will be enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Take Brown Beach House Croatia in Trogir, an UNESCO World Heritage City once ruled by the Roman Empire. I designed the pool and sundeck area to reflect the grandeur of Roman design, with a black-and-white marble floor overlooking the Adriatic.
Lighting is crucial. How do you get it right?
There are two aspects to lighting: first function, then design. You need to have enough light in the room, but it needs to be the right color. A light that's too white can kill the vibe, which is why I prefer warm light. The design of the lamps are also important. I like to use one as an art piece if it fits the style of the room. At Provocateur Berlin, I wanted to create a 1920s vibe but updated to the 2020s, so I used Ingo Maurer candle lights, which look like candles but work with a modern chip.
What's the most challenging part about your work?
Budget: Very rarely do you have enough, so you need to prioritize each object, which can be challenging. Also building structures and location: Sometimes a building's physical structure can hinder creativity when it comes to incorporating daring design elements. Not every location is ideal, but it presents an opportunity to make the hotel a cultural epicenter. I'm working on a project in Brussels — it's a boring building in the center of the city but give it two years, and it'll be one of the most iconic buildings in town.
These days, it seems like everything is made for Instagram. How does it impact your process?
Instagram is just part of the marketing. Whether you like it or not, you need to think about how your design will be showcased visually online, and part of that is creating something new and unique. That's the biggest challenge. At Sir Savigny, we have the "Call the Butcher" intercoms. At Max Brown Ku'Damm, I hung mini brass metal basketball hoops in each room. At Provocateur Berlin, there's Provocateur Mode, a vintage-looking switch in each room that sets the mood by dimming the lights, playing seductive tunes from an hour-long playlist I edited, and screening arousing video art taken from a backstage photoshoot at the hotel. The atmosphere turns soft and sensual and makes the room feel like a movie set. You have to try it.
Who are some of your favorite interior designers?
Philippe Starck and Jacques Garcia. They see the future of design by reinterpreting the past.
What are your hobbies outside work?
Surfing is a mind cleaner. When you're at sea by yourself, you're thinking of only one thing: when the next wave will come. It's meditation. I try to surf between projects, but it's very difficult now that I'm working on over ten properties.
Do you have a favorite design hotel?
J.K. Place in Capri for the combination of colors and nature. It's like being in the right place at the right moment. I can't describe it better.
Which hotel are you dying to visit?
Shangri-La's Villingili Resort and Spa in the Maldives. I can't imagine a better place to be on my honeymoon with my future wife. White sands, clear water, the design of the hotel, and nature seamlessly integrate without causing any ecological damage.
What are you working on next?
A few secret projects in Brussels, Rome, Berlin, and Amsterdam ... Stay tuned!