There’s an instant quiet as I turn the corner from the hectic din of Boulevard de Sébastopol and onto Rue du Bourg l’Abbé in the heart of the Marais quartier in Paris. It’s so quiet, in fact, that I double check the address to verify that this tiny side street is the right one. I catch sight of a looming archway prefaced by a set of stone steps, and above the keystone of the arch is a single word etched in gold, confirming I’m indeed in the right place: BAINS.
As is often the case in Paris, Les Bains hotel doesn’t so much announce its presence, but reveals it slowly, giving little away as to what might lie behind its facade. The only thing that is certain is that this building has a story to tell, which, from the moment I’ve checked in, I slowly begin to uncover through the hotel’s thoughtful, elegant design.
The building’s intricate tale began in 1885, when it came to life as the famous Le Bains Guerbois – a thermal bath house and spa that was frequented by bohemians of the Belle Époque era including Émile Zola and Marcel Proust. It was then revived in the seventies as Les Bains Douches, the Parisian equivalent to Studio 54, frequented by the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Yves Saint Laurent, Mick Jagger and Jean-Michel Basquiat. After the nightclub closed in 2010, the dilapidated building became a haven for street artists, before relaunching earlier this year as a 39-room boutique hotel.
There are glimpses of the building’s past incarnations throughout every inch of the space. Marble and brushed-concrete surfaces (and complimentary loofahs) hark back to the original baths. Downstairs in the hotel’s basement sits a slightly smaller replica of the original nightclub (including the swimming pool), which was designed by icon Philippe Starck who was only a fledgling designer at the time. The story goes that he was on such a tight budget that he used kitchen tiles to create the checkerboard pattern on the dance floor. But since most other dance floors of the disco era were of a garish, psychedelic palette, his design quickly became iconic.
Wandering through the hotel, I begin to notice the subtle nods to that iconic design, as tiles in varying sizes and shapes adorn all manner of surfaces. A small-scale version of the dance-floor pattern even embellishes the door of the mini-bar fridges in each room. Other aesthetic nods to pop-culture icons also make appearances throughout the decor – in many of the rooms sits a replica of Andy Warhol’s famous couch from The Factory, while the hallway carpet is of the very same design found in Serge Gainsbourg’s abode on Rue de Verneuil in Paris’s seventh arrondissement. In tribute to the artistic soul of Les Bains, art perches on walls throughout, including rare pieces by Futura and Basquiat.
It’s hard not to be inspired by all the creative souls who have occupied this hallowed space during the past century. I imagine Marcel Proust concocting epic tales while enjoying a steam bath, or Yves Saint Laurent deep in conversation with David Bowie. But among the many stories this building already has to tell, there’s likely hundreds of other hedonistic tales that remain the shared secrets of those who spent time here. And no doubt, there are plenty more to come.
Les Bains is a member of Design Hotels.