Spread across three hills, the all-white city of Ostuni, in Italy’s Puglia, sits resplendent like a magical town you would usually find in the pages of a fairy tale. Surrounded by ancient olive groves, the whitewashed citadel is widely regarded as an architectural jewel. It’s no surprise, therefore, that noted architects and interior designers, Pascale Lauber and Ulrike Bauschke, found their most recent project here.
Carved out of one of the city’s most notable buildings – the former 17th century Palazzo Rosso – is the new Paragon 700 Boutique Hotel & Spa. The duo fell in love with the historical property, which had stood empty for over 40 years, and they worked with conservationists to uncover the mysteries of the multi-secular ‘red palace’, restoring it to its former glory.
Multi-layered with history, the building was once the home of Ostuni’s first mayor, Don Paolo Tanzarella, and also housed the Biennial exhibition of the Industrial Technical Institute, the city’s Scientific High School and latterly the barracks of the powerful Italian Customs and Financial Police. With preservation and celebration of the building’s history central to the redesign, every detail reveals a story of the palazzo’s history.
The ‘Pompeii Red’ façade for instance, gives the most visual insight into its past. In the 18th century, Pompeii Red became a fashionable status symbol as the pigment was the most expensive on the market. Cladding an entire façade in the red shade was therefore an ostentatious display of wealth and even more so among the whitewashed buildings of Ostuni.
The hotel’s spa – with a Turkish bath, Himalayan salt wall, multi-sensory shower and a natural whirlpool – is also unique, carved out of the palace’s former underground water chamber, while the former olive oil chamber has been transformed to create a wine cellar.
Pascale Lauber and Ulrike Bauschke have worked on a multitude of projects together all over the world, but this three-year project was certainly one of their most unique undertakings. Each of the 11 bedrooms and suites at Paragon has been individually curated with Pascale’s trademark mixing of old and new art, objects and furnishings: repurposed light fixtures sit next to South African sofas; gazebos from India are turned into bathtubs; traditional night-stands from Puglia are juxtaposed against unconventional sculptures; and irreverent paintings by the London artist Suzanne Lipsey are hung on the walls. Throughout, traditional handcrafted techniques by artisans were sourced for the renovation, which took over three years to complete.
Here, Pascale Lauber talks about the design inspiration behind the hotel.
How did you discover the original building?
We first visited the Palazzo Rosso in 2016, at the invitation of an Ostunian friend. At the time we had no intention of taking on a new project and we were simply in Puglia to ‘recharge our batteries’. We had been coming to Puglia for several years, and we had even restored a local, traditional masseria as a summer haven for ourselves, so we were already in love with the region.
What was impetus behind you wanting to restore the building?
We agreed to visit the historic building to admire the architecture. However, as soon as the red carriage door opened, it was love at first sight. We knew instantly that we would not be able to resist trying to restore it. You could see and feel its potential. The height of its ceilings, its vaults, its frescoes, its red-stone.
We have shaken up the rules of real estate and interior design in projects all over the world – from Verbier in Switzerland to Paris; from New York to Cape Town – and we knew instantly that we could do the same here. For us, it was unthinkable not to make the building a hotel and therefore accessible to the public, it really is just too beautiful to stay hidden!
It is layered with history, but what was your favourite ‘discovery’ in the restoration process?
It was the smaller details and treasures that we discovered during the restoration that I loved the most. For example, there’s a wooden door with peepholes, typical of a 17th century cloisters, that suggests that the palazzo once housed a convent. Equally, the original majolica tiles – which have been given a new lease of life in our Bar 700 – were an amazing find. On the back of some of the tiles, we found an ‘M’ stamp. This is the mark of a famous workshop, owned by the three Massa brothers. They were ceramic masters in early 18th century Naples, suggesting the building was once in Neapolitan hands.
How would you describe your signature design style?
Each project I do is so different and distinct. But my trademark is probably the creative association of old and new art, and mismatching unique objects and furnishings in a head-spinning and yet personal mix. I’ve developed this after years of travelling the world, visiting countless international art and trade shows. I also love local flea-markets, where my sense of observation has really been sharpened. I have a vision that is multicultural and original, down to the smallest detail, and this creates a unique result that I hope is coherent, deeply modern and stimulating.
How would you describe the design ethos of the hotel?
I would say that it has exquisite modern design, with attention to every detail, while also preserving and celebrating the history of the building.
You worked with Ulrike on this – what elements did you both bring to the project and in working together?
Ulrike and I have opened and renovated restaurants, boutique hotels and apartments all over the world together. We make a complimentary pair, each with our own, very distinct strengths. I’m an instinctive designer, something that runs through my veins and guides everything I do, so the architecture and interiors were very much my vision. I took the lead with the renovation, but the way I work is with few words and thousands of images in my head. I couldn’t have brought it to life exactly how I wanted it without the help of Ulrike, who, as a passionate traveller, knows exactly what makes an outstanding hotel.
What is your favourite area of the hotel?
Each of the 11 bedrooms are completely different, but for me Onyx, which is black, is my favourite. I also love the outdoor parts of the hotel, the swimming pool, garden and the bar, which has an 8.5-meter-long stone counter clad in antique Argentinian tin-plates – it’s the perfect place for an aperitivo.
What stands this hotel apart from others?
Paragon 700 Boutique Hotel & Spa is truly a one-off! The hotel is the only one in Ostuni to offer guests a swimming pool and garden, so this is a real highlight. It gives guests the opportunity for a relaxing stay, without compromising on location, within the heart of the city.
Who will be the Paragon 700 Boutique Hotel & Spa guest?
Our typical guest is well-travelled and in search of an authentic Puglian experience combined with contemporary style.
What is the dining concept?
Our Restaurant 700 is much like the thinking behind the hotel’s design. It offers guests a seasonal menu, which celebrates outstanding local ingredients and Italian cuisine, while fusing flavours from around the world. It’s a modern and creative dining concept. Gourmet dishes are coupled with charming service in an intimate and laid-back atmosphere, where hotel guests and locals are all welcome.
Puglia is known for its interesting architecture, such as its trulli houses, did this heritage have an influence?
The architecture and heritage of Puglia were certainly an influence. The building itself is completely influenced by the local area, as it tells the story of Ostuni’s past, from the 17th century to present day.
This has been a difficult year for many, how has Covid affected you and the hotel?
Paragon 700 Boutique Hotel & Spa was due to open just as Covid-19 arrived, so the timing could not have been worse for us. Like everyone in the hospitality and travel industry we have been badly affected, but on the positive side we managed to open our doors and welcome guests throughout the summer months. We have been blown away with the glowing feedback from our guests and if we can make a success of a hotel opening during a global pandemic, we can do anything!
Do you think the pandemic will change the way we will travel in the future?
I think people will look for destinations that are not overcrowded. The need for space and to reconnect, with people, nature and culture, will be even more important than ever.
What is the biggest draw for guests coming to the hotel?
Apart from staying somewhere that really is a beautiful piece of history and culture, I think the destination of Puglia itself is unrivalled. You have everything – the food, culture, people, history, countryside and sea! With only 11 guest rooms, we are able to offer guests an insider experience to all of this. From burrata-making to motorbike tours or trips out on our boat, Dragonfly, guests will really get a feel for this stunning part of the world.
What is next for the hotel and for you?
We have just launched a new online Instagram gift list, including some of the eclectic décor, furniture and amenities from the hotel. This means we can continue to offer a little magic from Paragon to those who are not able to visit Italy. I’m looking forward to a positive 2021– welcoming guests to the hotel from around the world. We also hope to be able to put on some fun events, like alfresco art exhibitions and open-air cinema nights. I may also have another project on the horizon, but it’s too soon to say!