It is hard to imagine visiting France without allocating at least a full day to take in the vastness and magnificence of the Château de Versailles, undoubtedly one of the country’s great symbols and a global icon for art and culture. Historically favoured by French royalty as a place to indulge in sport and recreation, Versailles — located about nine miles from Paris — transformed from being a modest hamlet into a byword for opulence after catching the attention of Louis XIII who came hunting here with his father, Henry IV. However, it would be Louis XIV, the legendary Sun King, who would — together with his favourite architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart — go on to build, refine and redefine the masterpiece that remains as awe-inspiring today as it was in 17th-century Europe.
Fit for kings
As Château de Versailles turns 400 this year, what better way to mark the occasion than with a weekend break at Le Grand Côntrole, the impossibly luxurious hotel right by the palace’s side? Having opened in 2021, the latter is, by all accounts, a boutique hotel but an overnight stay will put paid to that thought immediately. Perhaps the term “luxury refuge” would be more apt, as Le Grand Côntrole is a veritable extension of the Château de Versailles. Managed by the Airelles hotel company, the property is, of course, as exclusive and luxurious as you’d expect it to be. Offering just 14 sumptuous rooms and suites, all done up thoughtfully in the Louis XVI period style, the rates are also predictably steep (a quick glance shows rooms starting from €2,200 per night) but guests may sleep a little better knowing that part of the fee goes towards funding ongoing restoration works on the palace and its sprawling 800ha grounds.
Those lucky enough to check into Le Grand Côntrole can easily imagine themselves living a day in the life of the pampered French court — pre-revolution, of course. The rooms remain true to the spirit of the place but with every modern convenience imaginable. A personal butler? But of course. A gourmet repast every evening? Certainement. The great Alain Ducasse, with at least 20 Michelin stars collectively to his name, has seen to the F&B offerings himself, ensuring menus fit for modern Sun Kings. The highlight of a Le Grand Côntrole stay, however, is the privilege of being able to tour the château after-hours (guided, of course), long after the tourist hordes have dissipated.
One key name behind Le Grand Côntrole’s restoration is Christophe Tollemer. A renowned figure in the world of interior architecture and design, Tollemer is also the talent behind other bijou but remarkable properties, including La Bastide de Gordes in Provence’s Luberon Valley and Les Airelles Courchevel, right in the heart of French alpine ski heaven Les Trois Vallées. He is also the person luxury perfume maison Henry Jacques trusts implicitly with its bottles, cases and boutiques.
Given the diversity of his projects, it is interesting to note how Tollemer approaches each distinctively, be it perfume flacon or historic hotel. “I don’t like the word ‘workflow’ because it sounds like being in a factory,” he stresses. “For me, the focus towards work is always about the rhythm. My approach to any project is that I must first know the place’s or object’s history, the hows and whys; to see what it will be used for; and what memories can be evoked when entering and exploring the space. What matters is how we feel about it. Also, our brain is constantly functioning, so it’s important for me to keep that continuous rhythm going and not close myself off to anything. Even when I am sleeping, my brain is working,” he says, half-jokingly.
Over in Paris, a quick stroll along iconic Avenue Montaigne in the swanky 8th Arrondissement will take you past the prestigious Plaza Athénée hotel as well as actress Marlene Dietrich’s old apartment at number 12. Dior’s historic flagship boutique may also be found here, cementing the avenue’s reputation as the grande dame of Paris’ streets.
The new-ish Henry Jacques boutique at number two is also the result of Tollemer’s vision and toil. “When I first saw the site of where the store would be, it was just wow,” Tollemer says animatedly. “When you find yourself in front of a space this large along such a prestigious avenue, you can’t help but get excited! And indeed it was exciting to see how and where Henry Jacques’ history can be freely expressed through architecture and design — it was absolutely incredible.”
A stunning 400 sq m duplex store, the Henry Jacques Paris flagship combines historic Parisian architecture with modern design codes and boasts one of the rarest indulgences in the heart of prime real estate — a private garden along Avenue Montaigne. “We wanted a true perfumer’s garden,” says Tollemer. “It is [a source of] immense joy and a historic pathway for our clients … they enter through this calm and soothing garden, which is planted with many different flowers, the essence of some of which may be found in Henry Jacques’ perfumes. We also wanted a place where we could host events, enjoy a beautiful lunch or a cup of tea and celebrate life as a whole. It is a garden which will flourish and transform with the seasons, just as nature intended, and serve as an entrance to the lively world of Henry Jacques with its scents, colours and the sound of water, which is in serene contrast to the bustle of Avenue Montaigne.”
Eschewing the traditional model of a classic boutique with window displays, Tollemer instead crafted a glass vitrine that commands your full attention the minute you enter. “It allows you to walk around it so you feel the display come alive,” he grins. “Upon entering, guests have the opportunity to get a first glimpse of who Henry Jacques is. Just like in a home, we worked on different reception/living spaces which can be adapted to our clients, who sometimes come alone or with a group.”
Clients may then sit down at the Espace Montaigne, a perfume bar set up like a laboratory, to work alongside an expert perfumer to create the scent of their dreams. “He will be able to show you and tell you more about all the raw components used in Henry Jacques’ perfumes. We also wanted to create a home that represents the spirit and evolution of the maison over the last 50 years through a space that mimics a museum with an array of contemporary art, different objects, flacons and utensils,” he says. For fellow magpies or treasure-hunters listening in, Tollemer does not reveal the exact locations of his troves. All he would divulge is, “I source them from antique stores and art galleries but it truly is the work of an archaeologist to unearth all these pieces!”
The rest of the interiors embody the elegance and old world glamour one would expect of a classic Parisian apartment building, complete with design details like wood panelling and stone floors. Tollemer cites how some of his main inspirations were modernist French design genius Jean-Michel Frank’s 1940s flats with their pure lines, lighter hues and materials, as well as the artworks of Claude Monet, so clearly referenced in the Salon Nympheas — a contemporary meeting room and dining space that sports a very TeamLab version of the artist’s celebrated Les Nymphéas, which presently hangs at the Musée de l’Orangerie.
The Sur-Mesure room, on the other hand, is a genteel salon, blending classic pieces like a Louis XV-style console table with contemporary art pieces by Jean Clareboudt, a large sculpture by Christophe Gaignon and flannel wall hangings from Holland & Sherry. “The Sur-Mesure VIP room should have you feel as if you were in a friend’s home,” says Tollemer. “It is important to feel at ease in order to let one’s emotions flow freely, sharing your memories in order to choose — or create — the perfume that suits you best.”
“This new boutique represents a big turning point as it reunites all of Henry Jacques’ fundamentals since Anne-Lise Cremona, Henry’s daughter, took over the brand,” he adds. “[But honestly] I prefer using the word ‘home’ rather than ‘boutique’ because it really is a place where you want to find yourself. We’ve kept this in mind while working on all of our different spaces so you can find the same design codes borrowed from our other Henry Jacques stores. It is just here that we have pushed things a step further.”
Designing human bonds
Tollemer once stated how his intention in architecture is “to bring people together”. And be it the Henry Jacques stores or his ultra-exclusive hotels, it’s clear he makes good on his word. “Taking Henry Jacques as an example, the boutiques are designed to speak to a large group of individuals … people of different cultures, age groups and so on,” the architect explains. “Similarly, for all of our creations, the boutiques are simultaneously contemporary yet extremely classic. These creations are made for the young as well as old. This was always the aim: to be able to bring together a beautiful mix of people that belong to completely different worlds with the same product. When different generations meet, it creates an incredible sharing of knowledge — a beautiful mix of history and modernism.”
Despite most creatives who view being given a free hand as a veritable boon, Tollemer says he personally does not prefer full carte blanche. “In-depth dialogue with clients is what makes the difference in every project,” he argues. “Just as I prefer describing a boutique as a home, I also like the term ‘interior exploration’ versus interior design. It shows a pursuit of genuine togetherness.”
The shuttering of the world during the still very raw and recent aftermath of Covid-19 has also strengthened Tollemer’s resolve to heighten investment in one’s spaces. “[The pandemic] has confirmed once more that our homes are our sanctuaries. It is where we need to be able to feel at ease and cultivate an art of living … and also self-respect.”
Thankfully for Tollemer, his path to architecture and design was always crystal-clear. “It has always been completely evident to me,” he says, full of conviction. “While in primary school, I was already drawing houses, balconies and furniture pieces and was often scolded by my teachers for being distracted during class,” he laughs. “I had an innate taste for spaces, volumes, objects and more. The urge to draw and create has always been there in me. Hence my path was quite obvious, and I was lucky enough to benefit from an education in my field of interest.”
Tollemer cites Christian Weltz, a former project manager at the architectural firm where he did his apprenticeship, as a particularly special mentor. “Among many other things, he taught me that our profession could come with a lot of madness but also complex responsibility, because when we are on a worksite with hundreds of people, it is important to have a core understanding of all of their different professions in order to manage them. So now, if young people were to ask me for advice on how to achieve success, I would say be hardworking, passionate and humble. I also have a philosophy that can be narrowed down to three words: love, give and respect. This is the DNA for myself, my practice and my team. Also remember, it is important to have dreams and to pursue them until the end. Dare and never give up. We only have this one life!”
Given the technical complexities and challenges that come with every project, Tollemer shares how the need to reset is also paramount. “I replenish my soul in my remote mountain home or on an island I particularly enjoy in the south of Sicily. I go back to simpler and more natural things.” And when asked what he would do if it was time for a complete career change, he shrugs and says nonchalantly, “Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to do anything else. Design is anchored in my DNA. Maybe I could be a gardener but …” glancing around at what he has achieved in the heart of Avenue Montaigne, he grins and says, “I think I already am one!”
This article first appeared on Mar 27, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.