Hôtel Americano - A Home Away from Home

 

 

Carlos Couturier, co-founder and creative mind behind the Mexican boutique hotel chain "Grupo Habito" sets a prime example. Triggered by a casual remark, he followed through rigorously with hard work – and achieved miraculous results.

You can sense Carlos Couturier before you see him. His presence creates an energy field that is tangible even when he is not in eyeshot. First you sense a low-key buzzing. Or, for the more esoteric among us, a far-reaching aura can be discerned – well, at least you hear him. His voice is deep, raspy, one-of-a-kind. Seated in a black Bertoia patio chair on the terrace of the "Hôtel Americano" in Chelsea, New York's artist and gallery district, Couturier reigns over his select, ever-growing hotel empire. With a jovial handshake here, a sotto voce instruction to a waiter there, Carlos Couturier is the new "King of Boutique Hotels", positioned just behind genre-defining Ian Schrager and luxury boutique hotelier André Balazs. And this initially without plan or intention.

You feel our Latin American culture in all the details. The service, the cuisine and the music. Wherever we are, we remain true to our roots.

He is running late. Something to do with conflicting appointments and a plane to Mexico City that leaves in three hours. Yet, ever the caballero, Carlos Couturier, remains courteous and relaxed under time pressure. Not once does he so much as glance at his watch. "Naturally, I was nervous about this project," he says about Hôtel Americano, his eleventh hotel and the first one outside of Mexico. "New Yorkers are very critical, they have no patience and they don't give you a second chance. Either you do it right or they dump you." But following the opening, US glossy publications reported enthusiastically about the "Design Revolution" and attested Couturier's "Grupo Habita" an "impressively high design sensitivity", placing the Mexican newcomer right at the top of their Hot Lists. "I think Hôtel Americano works because it's honest, we deliver what we believe in," says Couturier. "We don't want to pretend to be something we're not." By this he's referring to the fact that as a passionate collector of contemporary art, Chelsea is the perfect habitat for him. And yet, the interior design of the hotel is intentionally minimalistic, almost cold, like an empty art gallery. "It is an art-free hotel, because the art surrounds us. Gagosian. Paul Kasmin. Whatever you do would be an imposition on someone’s mind." Also, though his taste for sophisticated architecture and first-class design fits in well with New York, he doesn't hide his Latin American background and zest for life, integrating these aspects equally as a matter of course.

We don’t copy. We are no trendsetters. We are going our own way.

Couturier comes from a family of citrus farmers, and spent the first years of his life in San Rafael, Veracruz by the Gulf of Mexico on the family orange plantation. His grandparents came to Mexico from France, and their 19th century finca has meanwhile been incorporated into Couturier's hotel chain. The "Maison Couturier" is a hotel straight out of a picture book – a city dweller’s come-to-life fantasy of the simple, yet luxurious country life. Later on ("I was probably seven") the Couturier family moved to Puebla, a picturesque 16th-century town about 130 km south of Mexico City. Out of an erstwhile 19th-century water purification installation there, Couturier created the hotel "La Purificadora" in the old center of the colonial town. It is a fusion of modern design: the meanwhile deceased architect and Barragán scholar Ricardo Legorreta meets historical industrial construction. The soul of the individual "Grupo Habita" hotels results from Couturier’s almost personal relationship with each of his projects. "Hotels are like a family," he says. "Every hotel is like a new baby. You have to take care of all your babies, and there is always a drama."

We make sure that architecture is part of the soul of the hotel. Not only Interior Design, the whole space. The aesthetics, architecture, graphic design and the music. In a way that is unique and special and most of all authentic.

The idea to build is hotel was based on coincidence more than anything else. "Initially I was looking for office space for our citrus business in Mexico City," Couturier relates, looking very tanned and sleek in immaculate white trousers, a white T-shirt, and white sneakers contrasted by an indigo-blue blazer. A friend from college, Moises Micha, then an investment banker, helped him look. "And before I knew it I owned this beautiful old house in the Polanco district." Others soon followed as Micha and Couturier built up a real estate portfolio. The houses were renovated and rented out to foreign businesspeople. "The economy had just opened up in this time and they were flowing into Mexico looking for business opportunities," Couturier recalls. And the tenants appeared to be delighted with the stylishly renovated houses. "Many asked us, don't you have something similar, like a hotel, where our friends and business visitors could stay. So Moises and I built one."

Image is very important. You have to stay very focused. A bad waiter might screw up the whole experience we're trying to create.

"Hotel Habita" – short for 'habitación', the word for room in Spanish – was opened in Polanco in the year 2000. A floating glass box with 36 rooms designed by the noted Mexican architect Enrique Norten. "It was quite romantic as an experience," Couturier reminisces – still not restless despite the length of our conversation. "We wanted to build a home away from home. A place we would like as a customer in a Latin American city." What the newcomers hadn't factored in was that they couldn't find an external hotel management service to operate the new boutique hotel. "Nobody wanted to do it because we were so small," Couturier recalls the refusals. "So we did it ourselves." At that time there was not one single boutique hotel in Mexico, in all of Latin America. "Mexico City was perceived by the world as being polluted, chaotic. Our hotel was to be an oasis, a place you could enjoy and feel safe. A place were visitors could interact with locals." That it would develop into a hub for creative people to hang out was not planned: "We built the first one out of passion. We did it out of instinct."

With Habita the press ignored us. And then suddenly we were on the cover of "Condé Nast Traveler" and called "The Mexican Miracle".

A good idea at the right moment can trigger a chain reaction. The opening of the "Hotel Habita" coincided with the period in which Mexican movie directors such as Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) and their stars Gabriel García Bernal and Diego Luna were attracting international attention. Add to this an innovative art scene with artists like Gabriel Orozco and gallery owners such as Monica Manzutto. An upbeat mood had taken hold in Mexico City and "Hotel Habita" was at the center of the action. "We were so successful that we immediately built a second city hotel, the 'Condesa df' in the Condesa district and our first beach resort 'Bàsico' in Playa del Carmen," Couturier tells us. Today the group comprises 13 hotels – two more are in planning stage – a colorful combination of urban hangouts and relaxed beach resorts that have received innumerable design awards. Different though they may be, they all boast the same attention to quality that ranges from the architecture and the interior design on to the guest service.

Each of our hotels is an extension of its neighborhood. We want to create authenticity. With Boca Chica in Acapulco it was about recreating what was happening in the 50s.

Only two hours left until take-off – and the trip to the airport will take at least an hour. Unperturbed, Carlos Couturier lets us direct him to the roof terrace, in front of the entrance and to the lobby to have some pictures taken. He poses for the camera, writes a few text messages, tells us about the opening of the Habita eco-friendly cabin resort "Endémico" in Baja California, that's "easy to reach by car from Los Angeles." And then, all of a sudden, he's gone. A vigorous handshake and, in an instant, he disappears as if by magic. Dynamic Couturier vibes linger behind in the lobby, fusing with the Bossa Nova rhythms in the background.

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