Dorsoduro. Set away from the glamour of St. Mark’s square the neighbourhood holds its own kind of old-school glamour. It’s the zone of Peggy Guggenheim and the Galleria dell’Academia, where Gondoliers come to have their boats fixed, where – most recently – a Venetian news kiosk was swept away into the canal by the Acqua Alta. It’s the kind of place where the community raised funds to bring it back in just a day.
It’s this community spirit that gives Dorsoduro a special ability to balance high art and culture with a local practicality: antique vendors sit by tobacconists, local osterias rub shoulders with specialist stationary shops. Domains overlap. Set on the main island of Venice it is also the area which faces outward to the south, its northern plane grazes the clutter of the Grand Canal, while its southern bank gazes across to the Guidecca. It is at once both a part and apart from the central hum of the floating city.
The Experimental Group’s latest venture is set here: Il Palazzo Experimental. To stride off the grand walkway of the Fondamenta Zattere Al Ponte Lungo and into the newly renovated hotel becomes a means of slipping seamlessly into a hidden world. It begins with the floor. One step away from the bank-side flagstones, through the central entrance door and you find yourself walking on ornate marble terrazzo, a style inspired by Venetian native designer Carlo Scarpa. Such a feature might seem a natural staple for the grand canal-side Palazzo. This is just the first of many elements commissioned and created specifically for the space by French designer Dorothée Meilichzon. On visiting the hotel manager proudly produces images of the construction process: workmen laid flat out upon carefully erected scaffolds to position each piece of rectangular cut marble in organised lines and curves. Each piece was laid down by hand before the molten medley – a composite featuring chips of granite and marble – was poured around them to set. The next stage? A tireless process of sanding until the entire surface was polished down to reveal the elegant marble arrangements.
To enter the Palazzo is to be instantly wrapped in the warmth of shades taken from Venice’s sunsets. The blushed pink tone on the walls also present a continuation of the rustic colours of the neighbourhood houses: all russet reds and deep umbers. Directly to your right the doorway to Cristina Celestino’s cocktail club calls with its custom-built baldachin over the counter, an addition that recalls those of Venetian churches, covered in Rubelli fabrics it inspires a different kind of worship. Under foot? A lush multi-coloured inlaid carpet with a regimental motif – also assembled by craftsmen on site.
The shapes of Venice are to be seen throughout the hotel through Meilichzon and Celestino’s cunning designs, with furnishing and fixtures – all in varying degrees – paying homage to their surroundings. Meilichzon fosters the arches of the traditional Venetian windows and the Palladian curves that proliferate the city, allowing them to manifest in details throughout the space: not one shape in this hotel is a coincidence: sofa backs are arched, nooks are domed, corner tables curved. Stucco-style walls add depth and an additional elegance to the long entrance corridor. It’s an effect that cuts the length of the building into dynamic sections, each arch a new centre, a backdrop or echo. Small seating areas are situated within each, plush velvet upholstering and oval marble tables an immediate invitation for guests to linger. The sequence of dipped sofas in dark wood become reminiscent of the interiors of a gondola, the sweeping arch of the sofa’s arms an echo of a prow.
Everything about the space urges you to look closer, to enter deeper into the belly of the building. Those who venture forward are rewarded, rather than a wall or door the alternate end of the hallway features a glass gate with iron details. It’s a design that not only lets light stream into the large corridor, but invites those within to look out to the spacious private garden, complete with iron green patio furniture, rustic sculptures, and palm trees.
Yet within the warmth of the ground floor a cool sophistication also takes hold. The plaster or stucco of the Marmorino Veneziano walls is finished with various techniques to create matte walls in some areas and a satin-like sheen in others. The aesthetic identity of materials is pushed to the fore, with different textures and colours central characters within the scenes Meilichzon composes. Take the rows of hollow steel pipes which have been used to form the small door of a corner cupboard in the restaurant bar. Turn around and the same piping appears in front of you on the wall, arranged into a high wall-covering with a curved top. Classic Italian terracotta ceiling tiles, usually reserved for rooftops, are reborn as an elegant base for a bar, a bold contrast to its dark marble top. Marble too features in a variety of ways, from the Breccia Capraia marble accents with their veined patterning at the base of the booth-style seats in the restaurant, to the uniform regimented lines within the Terrazzo floor. Not only is the reuse of materials ecologically conscious, it also allows Meilichzon to recast these chosen elements in innovative ways.
In the relatively open-plan ground floor half way down the entrance hall a turn to the left opens up into the Ristorante Adriatica restaurant, an area delineated through a sudden shift from the warm colour-pallet of rich reds and pinks at the entrance to a cooler lagoon green. The reds from the entrance hall are now secluded, dipped into the soft cushion furnishing for the white curved body of a metal bench. Again divisions work to create a stratified but unified whole: arched partitions, marble dining tables, striped pillars, there’s even ornate scenic wallpaper hidden round a corner. You might think such a juxtaposition of rich forest imagery would be a departure from the Venetian scene and yet somehow its inclusion in the medley works. Just as Dosoduro presents an amalgamation of styles Meilichzon isn’t afraid to mix and match her inspirations. The bright colours and playful curves of Ettore Sottsass’s Memphis design movement of the 1980s set a scene within which Art Deco inspired touches, such as vintage ginkgo leaf lights, are set on the walls alongside gold-framed mirrors, a homage to Scarpa’s collaborations with Venini from the 1930s.
History has its own part to play in the hotel, after all, the building has a story to tell all of its own. Originally named the Palazzo Molin, as the ornate mosaic of the word ‘Adriatica’ on its façade attests, the space was once a headquarters for the Adriatic Naval Company, and owned by the Stucky family. The shipping company was based there for many years, architecturally the high ceilings, the spacious rooms and stunning views over the Guidecca and canal are part and parcel of its original design. With her modern renovations Meilichzon has been able to cleverly build and develop on this rich oceanic history.
The colours of the laguna are ever-present in a palette of deep sea greens and light blues. Even walking up and down the stairs small curved embellishments on the edge of each step hold the same arched curve of the gondola’s prow. In these staircases the effect of the laguna colouring makes the shapes reminiscent of cresting waves guiding you back down to the water’s edge. Nautical stripes also make an appearance throughout, a homage by Meilichzon to the unofficial uniform of the Venetian gondoliers. The designs, stripped from the backs of the gondoliers, lend a vibrant contrast of white and turquoise strips, or white and deep crimson to establish a playful aspect to the colour-coded interiors, which change on every floor. The stripes also establish themselves as a quasi-homage to the classical lines of a Lido beach tent. On the upper floor a spacious corridor remains devoid of clutter, left empty the view at either end of the cavernous liminal area from the original mock-gothic Palazzo windows speaks for itself: this sight requires no adornment or distraction. Other than these stunning views the focus rests on the entrance to the guest-rooms, each door framed by a pair of vertically striped shutters at its side, a device which centres each entrance with additional emphasis. The numbers are matched to the same font as those stamped across entranceways of Venice. Two bulbous round lamps just above each doorframe crown the compositions and light the way.
Step inside to a spacious bedroom and once again the dedication to specific forms is clear. Custom-carpentry is to thank for domed wooden headboards, a shape that recalls both Palladian curves and Venetian cupolas in one swoop. It’s in small tableaux such as this that Meilichzon’s talent for creating unique viewpoints throughout the hotel in unexpected places becomes clear. Another example in the tiled bathroom sees a spherical window frame the shower in its cubicle. Down in the restaurant a similar shape hollowed out in the right position gives diners in the restaurant a porthole into the world of the kitchen – framing the fridge and a pile of saucepans. The forms of life, the shapes that underpin our experiences are set centre stage within the Palazzo. It is not merely what lies within this Experimental hotel that catches the eye, it is how you end up engaging with the elements within it that lingers: how you look at things and how you interact with them changes under Meilichzon’s careful guidance. The key to a good stay in Venice? The answer’s clear: don’t be afraid to experiment.
Fondamenta Zattere Al Ponte Lungo, 1411,
30123 Venezia VE