Jean-Michel Gathy – riding the waves with an exclusive interview with one of the world’s foremost designers
Today, he’s one of the world’s foremost designers and has been responsible for some of the greatest hotel designs – from Aman to One&Only, and from The Setai to Marina Bay Sands in Singapore (home to the world’s largest rooftop pool) – but Jean-Michel Gathy was still a child when he first discovered his passion for geography and architecture, in the wake of numerous family trips. At just nine years of age, he was entrusted with the responsibility of organising a family holiday and planning a journey across Europe. He put together a detailed itinerary that saw the family visiting villages, structures and sceneries emblematic of each country they explored.
“I have travelled my whole life and it has actually been my school of learning,” admits Gathy, who, due to various work commitments, is generally away from home for up to 200 days of the year. “People often ask me what triggers my creativity. I believe whilst travelling, you actually unconsciously amalgamate a library of visual information, emotion and experiences, which carve the mind and the brain. Luxury hotel brands and developers make space to allow the integration of all these assets in their products, be it in hotels, resorts, yachts or real estates.”
Born in Belgium, Gathy has spent much of his adult life based in Asia. After founding his architecture and design studio, DENNISTON, in 1983, he has gone on to become the go-to name for the creation of innovative and forward-thinking designs for leading luxury hotels around the world; the result of the blending of his European education, his upbringing and his lifestyle.
Gathy’s recognised signature aesthetic and exposure to luxury lifestyle, together with his deep passion for travelling and conservation, meant he was a clear choice for Ocean Residences Development – the team behind a new residential superyacht called M/Y NJORD – who recently announced that he is one of the lead interior designers for the project.
“Ultimately, I want to create a shelter, a safe haven, where those who choose to live onboard M/Y NJORD can close their eyes and let the day work them, instead of them working the day,” Gathy says of the project. “The difference is subtle but fundamental. Who in the world has a home that one day faces East at sunset, and the day after faces West? No-one!”
Those who are familiar with Gathy’s work will be pleased to hear that the signature style for which his design studio is world-renowned can be employed within their onboard residence. When asked what he thinks the key golden thread running through his designs is, Gathy says: “I think it is soul. Soul and charisma, resulting in comfort.”
On board M/Y NJORD, despite the strength of Gathy’s hand, there is scope for the inclusion of personal identity. Residents can choose to have everything from a walk-in wine cellar, to a humidor, a private gym, a steam room or even a kitchen chock full of the latest gadgets and gismos. For Gathy himself, however, when he is at home he is content as long as the fridge is full of his go-to essentials. “Milk, chocolate, caviar and a bottle of champagne!” he laughs.
“Everything is in the details,” he explains, saying that M/Y NJORD is fundamentally “a home, where you can display pictures of your parents and your children; it is not an institutional venue in any way.” This is immensely important to the designer, who confesses that the one object he could never be without is a photo of his family. He is also a big art collector and admits that if he was to have followed any other career path, he’d be working as an art curator. “You must have a sense of place,” he says. “A sense of place is not necessarily physical – it’s not just geometry or an architectural language – it can also be a reference to social texture, or a cultural or environmental issue.”
The environment – or more specifically, the protection of the environment – is immensely important to Gathy. “It is a responsibility for every developer, architect, planner, and even every country – let alone every human being – to contribute to the health of our planet,” he says. “Whether it is marine conservation, environmental conservation, or heritage and cultural conservation, everyone on this earth has a responsibility to contribute.”
For Gathy, spending time in nature is enormously enriching. “When I walk alone, I always gather my thoughts, finding solutions whilst keeping positive. In the end, I always have a positive outcome and it boosts me up,” he says.
Finally, Gathy is posed the one question we ask everyone – what is his favourite luxury? “My watches and my art collection,” comes his immediate response, and then, after a beat, “and private travel!”