Taxidermy and Victoriana at the hottest new hotel in town

Timothy Barber
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IN a candle-lit, antique-filled dining room, by a grand table decked out in gleaming china, fine glass, antique candelabras and an assembly of strange bronze figurines, stands a kangaroo. An old example of the taxidermist’s art, it stares out glassily at the ancient urns and other objets that cram the room.

Round the corner, in a low-lit sitting room crowded with lived-in leather armchairs, sprawling sofas and thick oriental rugs, a glass-topped coffee table displays all manner of archaic bric-a-brac beneath its surface – Victorian matchboxes, rare shells, snuff boxes, postcards. Beyond, looking down on a rickety gramophone player, a parrot – also stuffed – perches on the elaborate frame of an oil painting, hung slightly askew.

Welcome to the Zetter Townhouse – not, in fact, the home of some eccentric hoarder of ageing odds and ends, but arguably the most interesting and atmospheric hotel that will open in London this year. Upstairs, the gorgeous – and, make no mistake, indubitably luxurious – bedrooms contain reclaimed four-posters, wardrobes found in antiques auctions, even a couple of headboards from an old circus hoarding. One room is decked out in Union Jack bunting and flags.

Occupying a converted Georgian house in Clerkenwell, where it faces its fashionable big brother, the Zetter hotel, across St John’s Square, the Townhouse is its own little world of oddball antiquarian fun, with a games room (including table tennis) in the basement and a cocktail bar run by the folk behind Islington’s 69 Colebrooke Row.

The clever clogs designer behind this gloriously arcane sanctum is interiors maestro Russell Sage, and he seems to be having a bit of a moment. His recent high-profile projects include the thrillingly handsome Art Deco redesign of Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill restaurant (indeed, Sage is Ramsay’s regular collaborator), the “charitable members lounge” at Soho Square’s House of St Barnabus for luxury group Quintessentially, and the conversion of the top floor of Belgravia’s venerable Goring hotel into a Royal Suite fit for… well, let’s just note that the Middleton family has reportedly booked out the entire hotel for four days around the Royal wedding. “I really can’t say anything at all about it,” Sage murmurs, his eyes twinkling.

Sage is not someone who would identify with a particular style or look, but he has fast become the go-to man for those seeking something more considered and esoteric than what’s on offer from his more fashionably glamorous peers – especially where luxury is expressed through ever more costly, exclusive materials. He’s proud of the fact that, in a hotel refurbishment that cost hundreds of millions, he did the sumptuous-looking Savoy Grill on a shoestring budget.

“Interior designers tend to forget that they’re not the main event in a place,” he says. “The point of being an interior designer is to avoid what’s fashionable at all cost – something needs to work in five years, not just right now, and the fact that what you’re using is very valuable does not change that.”

In fact, Sage is a model of pragmatism: seeing no reason to own a home when he spends all his time working, he says he’s lived in his studio for the past four years, sleeping on a mattress.

If that suggests a rather ascetic approach, his design work is anything but. Having dealt in antiques since the age of 12, and made his name as a fashion designer before returning to his first love of interiors, he’s an aesthete through and through, with a particular affinity for old-fashioned English design.

“I love the authenticity of true, English historical ways of doing things,” he enthuses, and it’s this sensibility he’s been able to indulge at the Zetter Townhouse. Working with the hotel’s owners Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyam, Sage developed a narrative of a 250-year-old building reflecting an antiquated version of the main Zetter’s own retro-chic ethos. A portrait in the living room even depicts the imaginary, well-travelled lady of the house, Wilhemina.

“I thought, what would happen if we did up the hotel like it’s the lost, forgotten bedroom of a country house?” says Sage, one of who’s biggest projects has been the complete restoration of Stapleford Park, a stately home and hotel in Leicestershire. “How do you add more and more colour and weirdness, but with antiques?”

What’s been created at the Zetter Townhouse is a glorious lost world – one that never existed, but that most people will recognise, particularly if they’ve ever been near an antiques shop.

“I love that chaotic atmosphere you get from those shops, with everything stacked and disordered,” Sage says. “You don’t always want everything laid out perfectly – you can get tonnes of really brilliant stuff chucked in and all of a sudden it’s magical.”