21 May, 2024

Experiencing art befits the new age of luxury

Tianwu in the entrance hall of Hotel St. George remains the world’s only display of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s work in a public space, let alone at a hotel. This exceptional achievement epitomises the way Mirkku Kullberg, the curator of St. George’s art collection, works and operates. “I always come up with ideas that others think are impossible,” she says.

When Mirkku Kullberg was asked to create the concept for a hotel of international luxury standards in 2015, she immediately thought of art.

“I wanted to redefine the concept of luxury by creating a space where guests feel genuinely comfortable. New luxury is all about silence, privacy, and security. Experiencing art fits this puzzle perfectly," she explains.

A total work of art is a sum of its details

Having worked at the forefront of international fashion, architecture, and design, Kullberg has travelled hundreds of days per year and seen a vast array of hotels.

"The hotel world has evolved tremendously over the past decades. In 1993, the launch of Design Hotels by Peter Schweitzer and Claus Sendlinger sparked a change where hotel collections have set themselves apart from traditional hotel chains," she says.

According to Kullberg, the key difference between a chain and a collection lies in meticulous curation. Whereas chain hotels repeat a uniform concept, the unique and heterogenous spaces of a collection are destinations in their own right.

"I’m fascinated by total works of art, and I saw tremendous potential in Hotel St. George. In my mind, I envisaged a hotel where design, art, and architecture come together," Kullberg states.

Bold curation without compromise

When it came to Hotel St. George, Kullberg set out with a principle of no compromises.

“I see bold curation as a mark of respect for hotel guests. I prefer to do things in surprising and challenging ways, because tepid compromises are devoid of emotion or impact," she says.

Her acquisition of Ai Weiwei's sculpture Tianwu is a prime example of this. Kullberg fell in love with Ai's art at the Helsinki Art Museum HAM in 2015, and the following spring, she was deeply impressed by his installation Er Xi, Air de Jeu at Le Bon Marché department store in Paris.

“In the Paris installation, Tianwu was one of several huge silk and bamboo kites hanging from the ceiling. When I saw it again at Helsinki's Galleria Forsblom, I knew it would be perfect for Hotel St. George.”

Making the impossible possible

The former board of Kämp Collection Hotels initially deemed the suggestion of Tianwu as impossible, quoting both budgetary restraints and practical concerns, such as the artwork's natural materials. Kullberg was tasked with personally investigating how the sculpture would withstand the test of time.

Persistent contact requests to studios paid off, and soon Kullberg found herself drinking coffee at Ai Weiwei's home in Berlin. Ai gave her his personal assurance of Tianwu's durability. He pointed out that silk is one of the world's oldest materials, while bamboo is an elastic and flexible grass plant. Tianwu would essentially be eternal and would not require the hotel to take any special measures.

“Known as an activist as well as artist, Ai was also fascinated by the hotel's concept and shared my ideas about shaking up the concept of luxury. We were both equally driven to change the world.”

The final obstacle was overcome when Kullberg committed a portion of the hotel's launch budget to the acquisition of the artwork. Tianwu was installed in the entrance hall, where it proved an impeccable match in both size and aesthetic.

“Some things in life are meant to go a certain way, as long as you have optimism and courage. This was one of those,” Kullberg says.

A collection of nearly 400 works of art

Art is present everywhere at Hotel St. George, down to individual hotel rooms. The criteria for curating the hotel’s nearly 400 artworks included the interplay of art, architecture, and design, as well as exceptional craftsmanship and overall harmony.

Lightnings in Tiger Woods, designer Klaus Haapaniemi's enchanting tapestry in Hotel St. George's glass-roofed Wintergarden, is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, with its colours and themes that reflect the hotel's location in Helsinki’s historic Peacock block. All the 153 hotel rooms are unique in their layout and interior design. Geometric abstract works by acclaimed Finnish modernists such as Juhana Blomstedt and Lars-Gunnar Nordström counterbalance their heavy textiles, muted tones, and robust Art Nouveau architecture.

Leveraging the contacts of her husband, photography artist Ola Kolehmainen, Kullberg sought out the framing services for the artworks directly from his hometown, Berlin.

“Out of respect for the art, I wanted to use the world's best framers. In a five-star hotel, the details are supremely important, even if they complicate the journey somewhat. Fortunately, St. George was the kind of project in which everyone wanted to partake.”

The art of interior design

As the former CEO of Vitra and Artek, Kullberg was in her element choosing designer furniture for her total work of art. Creations by top names like Charlotte Perriand, Charles Eames, and Gerrit Rietveld were placed next to anonymous and classical pieces to grant them the space they needed.

Kullberg sourced the hotel's handmade rugs herself from Turkey and Georgia. Accompanied by Georgian design hotel director Oto Berishvili, whom she’d met in Tbilisi, she travelled to local bazaars and markets. In the end, she sent over a hundred unique kilim rugs back to Finland.

"Ever since I was a child, I've always done a bit more than required. If I was asked to write 10 lines at school, I’d write 15," Kullberg claims.

Inspired by 20th century salons

When conceiving Hotel St. George, Kullberg was inspired by Gertrude Stein's literary salon in early 20th-century Paris and its Finnish counterpart in the same period, the group of expressionist writers and poets Tulenkantajat (“The torchbearers”). She hopes that, in the future, Hotel St. George’s Wintergarden will become a similar meeting place for Helsinki artists and lovers of art.

"I can already imagine how art comes to life in the vast open space of Wintergarden, with endlessly flowing conversation. This communal lounge, open to all of Helsinki, will host reading groups, insightful talks on the art scene, and intimate concerts.”

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