DES GUNEWARDENA & DAVID LOEWI
- UNITED KINGDOM
SCENE TEAM OF THE CITY
With such iconic London restaurants as Quaglino’s, Le Pont de la Tour, and Coq d’Argent in their portfolio, Des Gunewardena and David Loewi are old hands at the game-changing art of transformation, their specialty to convert rundown buildings into world-class eateries. Indeed, the substantial shift these destination restaurants created ...
“My passion is for the details. I’m interested in every room, every corridor, every doorknob. That, for me, is the fun of creating a hotel from scratch.”
... in the city's hospitality scene is matched only by the hotel revolution brought about by Ian Schrager, when he pioneered the boutique concept in 1990s New York.
Now Gunewardena and Loewi have turned their Midas-like attentions to the hotel world, opening their first, South Place, in London’s business and banking district, the City of London (known to Londoners as simply “the City”.)
Situated between Moorgate and Liverpool Street, its location a final white-collar frontier before the hipper shores of Old Street and Hoxton beyond, it’s an exciting part of town, says Gunewardena, the CEO in his and Loewi’s D&D London partnership. “It’s somewhere big City sharks can mingle with their fashionable East End neighbors,” he says. “It captures a newer, more modern mood here.”
On the site of what was once an unremarkable office building, the newly-built South Place reflects the City streetscape with its glass and metal columns; its glazed frontage at street-level – like the glimpse of a stocking -- suggests the building’s true, more playful function. Eighty bedrooms, a bustling diner, and an elegant rooftop restaurant are all decked out in classic-cool furniture and contemporary art.
Strictly speaking this is their second hotel, the pair having worked together on the Great Eastern, in nearby Liverpool Street, in 2000. But they were part of UK design giant Sir Terence Conran’s empire then (they bought out the restaurant side of his business in 2006). With South Place they feel they’ve really perfected their art. “It’s a very indulgent hotel” says Gunewardena, “for us as much as our guests. There is more of David and me in this hotel than anything we’ve done before. We have an in-house DJ and a ‘spy’ theme–all the meeting rooms are named after secret agents and our member’s club is called Le Chiffre, after the James Bond bad guy. We’ve been a bit like boys let loose in a sweet shop!”
The pair came to the hospitality industry from very different directions. As a young financier striking global property deals in the 1980s, Sri-Lanka born Des Gunewardena had a flat full of Habitat furniture and a keen sense of style, but it wasn’t until 1989 that he met Sir Terence Conran (who founded homeware store Habitat in 1964) when he joined the then Conran Holdings as CEO and began the epic journey that would see him take a starring role in the transformation of London’s restaurant scene during the 1990s. Turning out success after success during his time with Conran–helping mastermind such iconic restaurants as Bluebird, Quaglino’s, Mezzo, and Coq d’Argent, as well as the high-end homeware emporium the Conran Shop–his ambition was always to create a truly great restaurant and hotel business.
Hotels were in the blood for David Loewi, his father a scientist who traveled the world and his mother, a culinary star of the Lausanne Hotel School, in Switzerland. “It was wonderful to travel abroad back then, the food was so much better than in the UK in those days.” He recalls the joy of eating lemon cake with his father in Swiss bakeries, and the immaculate service ethic of the great Swiss ski hotels. “It seemed like a fabulous sort of life” he says. And one he was quick to sign up for when it came to choosing a career path. A thoroughbred training followed, his education completed in Switzerland, followed by time at Claridges in London and Hong Kong, the Savoy, the Wolseley, and even the cruise liners. “It was a lot of fun for a year,” he says. “People were fed incredibly well in huge numbers–witnessing the organization that that took was quite something.”
The result of their collaboration is a genuine warmth and energetic spirit that looks set to catalyze the City of London district, where South Place is located, says Loewi. “Being on this axis point, with the City on the right and Hoxton to the left, there’s a real collision between traditional and cool, and work and play, that just gives it such a buzz.”