The Principal LondonNeena Dhillon • Photography by Philip Vile • September 5, 2018
Once home to bohemian writers, artists, and thinkers known as the Bloomsbury Set, a forgotten corner of London is primed for a renaissance spearheaded by the return of a grande dame. In 1898, the imposing vision of architect Charles Fitzroy Doll was named after its location on Russell Square. Today, that same distinct terracotta façade welcomes guests to the London address of the hotel collection, following a four-year, $113 million transformation project bankrolled by former owner Starwood Capital Group. (IHG recently acquired the property.)
Brought onboard by chairman and CEO Barry Sternlicht, local firm was tasked with devising a design DNA that would restore the property to its former glory while simultaneously ushering it into the modern age. “Our balancing act involved embracing the rich history of the space while evolving it to meet the needs of today’s guests,” explains studio founder Tara Bernerd. “Aesthetically, we wanted elegance harking back to the heyday of the Bloomsbury Set, albeit with a contemporary edge.”
As a Grade II-listed building, original features such as stained-glass windows, zodiac floor mosaic, and multi-hued marble pillars have been retained for Victorian grandeur, while rich velvet midcentury furniture in warm sage and deep navy, as well as additions such as a bespoke cast iron fireplace, represent warmer, seductive counterpoints. Ornate timber paneling and antiqued brass light fixtures, meanwhile, add to the allure of the storied building. “There’s a sense of occasion for guests as they walk up the marble entrance steps, the custom-built bronze doors opening to a vista that draws the eye straight through into the Palm Court,” Bernerd says.
The reinstated social hub of the hotel, the buzzy Palm Court is characterized by a double-sided fireplace, floor-length steel-framed windows and doors, limestone floors, folding screens, and verdant plants, all as an accompaniment to armchairs in natural abaca and rattan. “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” she notes. “It is quite a stunning experience, and truly sets the tone for the rest of the guest’s journey.” While Bernerd was unable to completely reopen the ceiling, she restored part of the original, which, when subtly backlit, creates the effect of a glass roof.
To complete the F&B oasis, the floorplan has been reimagined to allow for a winter garden, an intimate open-air courtyard, and the sumptuous Fitz’s cocktail bar—named after Fitzroy Doll and designed by London firm —that is defined by dark wood paneling and h fabrics, as well as a disco ball suspended from the ceiling.
The scale of the Principal London created a complex layout for the 334 serene rooms and suites, but Bernerd used this to her advantage, turning small spaces that once would have been used by butlers into chic city singles. “The rise of today’s solo travelers gives these rooms new relevance,” she confirms. “By reconfiguring floorplans and designing bespoke joinery and furniture, we’ve been able to provide the ultimate crash pad.” Even the smallest abodes have good-sized bathrooms, integral to the guest experience in which traditional reference points like mosaic tile flooring and British Carrara marble merge with modern features such as black steel shower doors and gray metro tiles.
In standard guestrooms, two-poster beds with curtain canopies recall the look of stately homes, while the “impeccable” suites convey true residential luxury, their timber floors enhanced with rugs, four-poster beds complemented by feature fireplaces and stone-topped bedside tables, as well as minibars with leather upholstery doors and antique brass details. Though “corner suites have real gravitas, they each have their own vibe,” she points out. “And one with an amazing view overlooking Russell Square, would be my home [away] from home if I didn’t already live in London.”