19 Nov 2018 • Lauren Grace Morris
In Hamburg, the Sir Nikolai hotel makes a strong case for storytelling
The drive in to Hamburg from the airport in the early fall is a beauty to be reckoned with: voluptuous trees with their changing colours line the roads, and, when it’s sunny, the Inner Alster lake glistens. Despite it being a major port city, it still carries a sort of non-metropolitan charm that’s enviable for big-city visitors. A turn onto the Nikolaifleet canal, just past the red brick warehouses of the Speicherstadt and in the heart of the city’s old town takes you to an unassuming, yet sleek façade: the Sir Nikolai hotel.
Sir Nikolai is the second chapter of the Sir Hotels’ story in Germany: when it opened in the summer of 2017, it followed Sir Savigny in Berlin. The boutique hotel collection was founded in 2013, in Amsterdam, with the opening of Sir Albert on Albert Cuypstraat. Sir Savigny was the second outpost, and the third, a second Amsterdam location in the A’Dam tower. In Ibiza, Sir Joan opened in accordance with Sir Nikolai, and next year, the group will set roots in Barcelona. Even as each hotel grows and the colllection expands, utmost priority is given to establishing a unique individuality, entirely location-based. The celebrated hotelier Liran Wizman, who founded Europe Hotels Private Collection, selects a different designer for every hotel – in Hamburg, Colin Finnegan, founder and owner of Amsterdam-based FG Stijl, took that role.
When Finnegan began the project, the revitalization of the harbour neighbourhood was beginning to gain traction already, but the jewel of Hamburg – the Elbphilharmonie – had not opened yet. When designing Sir Nikolai, Finnegan’s mission was to connect the city with the harbour through the location. Honouring the history of each city is an essential aspect of each Sir hotel, which bleeds over into the hyper-local touches implemented into the guest experience and the overall narrative of the brand. Even still, the design does not rely on claustrophobic formality or recreate old-world grandeur to establish itself – the interpretations are decidedly up-to-date.
In the Sir boutique rooms, a cluster of eccentric framed prints and photographs adorn the walls. A Marshall speaker sits on the bedside table and the vanity lights up as you sit down – the cutout in the desk offers a mini-library of classic novels in German. Rich tones, like mustard yellow and deep turquoise, give one an insight into the aesthetic preferences of this elusive Sir Nikolai. And with the impossibly fluffy beds – which are exclusive to Sir Hotels – it’s a wonder that anyone ever makes it outside at all. But when they do, the group offers Sir Explore tours which stray far away from tourism walk-arounds of the past. The team recruits beloved locals to show their city as it should be – in Hamburg, you can do everything from an immersive art walk with a local artist to a gourmet schnitzel class with an Austrian chef.
For Finnegan, this is a well-oiled orchestration on the behalf of Sir Nikolai himself – with comfort, connection and warmth trumping all else.
So, who is Sir Nikolai, and what is his place in a city like Hamburg?
COLIN FINNEGAN: If you look at Hamburg, it is certainly a city of great contrasts: you have the harbour area, and then you have the very wealthy area, which, of course, came from the harbour and the barons. We wanted to create a fictional story centred on a harbour baron – one whose home was still in that court of the city.
The key thing about Sir Nikolai is that he is a really fun character – named after the Nikolaifleet – and with him, it’s always a good time. Because the warehouses used to be old trading houses, you very often had the great trading families who had offices downstairs and lived upstairs. That’s why it’s such a big house – it used to be his great-great-grandfather’s. He’s really into the Orient – that’s why there’s a Japanese [and South American fusion] restaurant [Izakaya] with great food. That’s where the goods would have come through, so it would have been logical to have a restaurant there.
In the rooms, Sir Nikolai is ever-present – unfortunately, you just missed him this time, but you’re sure you’ll catch him next time. You’re happy though, because his home is your home and the staff is there to tend to all your needs. That’s critical when we travel – we want to be welcomed into people’s open arms.
But you don’t want to be hugged too tightly.
Exactly! At Sir Nikolai, you have the luxury of someone’s private, local space, without having too much private time. This idea of intimacy is really a sign of our times – everybody wants to have more contact with each other, but still, in a limited way.
With the interiors, where did you begin?
It had to start with a beautiful entrance. We extended the entrance arch to create a barrel feeling. If you take a left, it leads to an oval table that is actually based on old-fashioned estate tables, where the tenants of the estate would come to the main house to pay their rent. It was a more interesting concept than a reception desk – who needs a reception desk anymore? It’s more of a communications desk.
In Europe, you have quite a lot of galleries – it feels quite easy to walk through one. Our idea for the restaurant and the bar was to give the idea you were walking through a gallery to get to it instead of a hotel. It gave us a chance to change the atmosphere. It’s why we have mirrors inside of the corridors with different portraits, and the tattoo photograph story by Patricia Steur.
People want to stay in a place that’s designed for locals, not just travellers
Hyper-locality is an increasingly important buzzword in the hospitality sector. Why do you think it’s especially important to the travellers of today?
It’s because of the amount that people travel. The world is now used to jumping in a plane, or a train, and going somewhere for a weekend, or for a business trip. The public and private life are mixing. People are thinking that they want to be somewhere really central so that they can be part of a local community. It’s critical, when designing a hotel, to also design hotels for the local community to come in, and their extended visitors. Everybody who travels wants to speak to people from that city. We want people to say, ‘If you’re coming into town, then Sir Nikolai is great…’. A lot of people don’t have guest rooms now. When people visit, they also want their own private space, maybe down the street from their friends – close, but not too connected.
And that has a direct relationship with our relationship with technology. And at Sir Nikolai, it’s nice, because the technology is not too affronting. It makes the amenities of the room more accessible, like the touch-screen room control panels, but it doesn’t overly boast. It’s more intuitive.
Yes – too much explanation isn’t always a good thing. Before, it was an old office – a really boring one. It was quite complicated to make it into a hotel. In terms of the views from the room, you have some people looking into the courtyard, some onto the water, and some onto the street. So, we had to ask: How do we give life to these rooms? In the courtyards, we installed shutters outside. If you think about little piazzas, they all have shutters – it’s because people lived quite close to each other with large windows and it was a little bit too communal. But it’s nice, because when you look out, you have something to see, and then there is the glass roof of the restaurant when you look down. In the summertime, the roof actually opens. Because who wants to sit inside in the summer? In this way, it does become someone’s home.
What strategy did you take on for the rooms? How are these concepts of privacy and intimacy achieved by the layout?
In the rooms, we wanted to show guests as many square metres as possible – so not to have a completely closed bathroom. In life, you don’t need to know too much about people. So, the bathroom is concealed a bit, and it becomes a room of its own, not just a toilet. We also designed a nook where there is a space to enjoy some goodies, which was predominately because there was a massive column going through the whole building. You get an office building and think oh my god, what are we going to do? By having the bathroom slightly hidden by the column, the person in the bed still has privacy. I like the idea of having open bathrooms, but if you’re getting washed up or getting dressed, a bit of privacy is also good.
A lot of business is very social – you need a setting to reflect that
It is quite interesting, the shift from office building to hotel: you’ve changed the whole energy of the space.
A lot of people go to business hotels because they’re there for business. But, if you’re in a relaxed place, you can say to the people you’re going to see that they can actually come there to talk, to have a business meeting, to have a drink. It then becomes the opposite of a robotic process in a boring environment. A lot of business is very social – you need a setting to reflect that.
It’s all about making things as stress-free as possible. This whole atmosphere is about a socialized environment: it’s for people to meet and greet. And it goes back to the storytelling – if you’re inside, you must be a great person, because you’ve been invited into the home of Sir Nikolai. Obviously, everyone around you must be interesting, because they too have been invited.
This interview was edited & condensed for clarity.
Frame's coverage on Sir Nikolai was part of a sponsored press trip to the location in October 2018.