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Rooted in History

Herdfordshire, UK

Architecture and design collective Red Deer has designed the interiors for Birch, a listed manor house turned hotel that's a playground for urban escapees

Close enough to London that it can be visited on a day-trip, but far enough away that it feels like a genuine escape, Birch is a hotel with benefits. Conceived by Chris Penn, former managing director of London’s Ace Hotel, and entrepreneur Chris King, it builds on the trend for hotels to be much more than just a place to lay your head. Work spaces, fitness and wellness spaces, screening rooms and art studios sit alongside its 140 rooms, supported by a culture and events programme.

Opening in April, Birch is sited just outside the northern reaches of the M25 in Cheshunt, and was formerly a by-numbers conference hotel that did sterling work on the wedding circuit. Thanks to an overhaul by architecture and design collective Red Deer, it’s now anything but standard. It helps that the practice had some excellent raw material to play with: a Grade-II* listed Georgian manor house, complete with grand staircase, ornate panelled rooms and elaborate fenestration.

“Any changes to the interior or exterior were subject to permission. This challenge allowed us to deconstruct how a hotel should perform and create spaces for guests without pre-defined restrictions or a set of rules,” says Ciarán O’Brien, co-founder of Red Deer. “The brief was to tear up the brief, and take an incredibly in-depth collaborative view of how the hotel should work.

“We know that the typical hotel guest is changing and our search for a hotel is not just based upon a set of facilities. We wanted to design a less formal space where guests feel relaxed and free to rest, learn, play or work.”

Block colour is a feature of the communal spaces, whether a deep green-black that coats the walls and ceiling of the library – punchy orange upholstered seating standing out against it – or terracotta in one of the dining spaces. The reception desk is wonderfully incongruous against its backdrop of elaborate panelling, a circular structure of faceted green mirror that jaggedly reflects the room in its fractured surface.

The brief was to tear up the brief, and take an incredibly in-depth collaborative view of how the hotel should work

“We wanted to take a light touch on the existing features and celebrate the Georgian building,” says O’Brien. “The building created a really strong backdrop, so we looked at each space from the point of what already existed. Any intervention within a space needed to work with that, and once you build that design story it allows us to imagine how that room will operate.”

The hotel rooms are stripped back and uncluttered, reflecting Birch’s mission to provide a space for total relaxation – that means no desks, and no TV. Each room has an idiosyncratic valet stand that’s been created with the input of several makers: Charlotte Kidger, Emma Louise Payne, Lucie Naujalis and Jan Hendzel.

Red Deer’s aforementioned “light touch” includes reusing and repairing as much of the fabric as possible. “The floorboards underneath the carpet were numbered in white paint from a previous renovation, to ensure they all went back in the same location,” says O’Brien. “We knew that we could expose these floorboards and celebrate this evolution… the painted numbers become part of the decorative features in the room.”

Taking inspiration from the Japanese craft of kintsugi, where broken pottery is highly visibly repaired using gold-dusted lacquer, the plan going forward is to carry through the same philosophy to anything that can be mended: “As something breaks, it can be fixed rather than replaced, and this tells a new story that wasn’t previously there.”

Birch’s 55 acres include land that will be farmed to serve the hotel, with Robin Gill and Ben Rand helming the food and drink offering (two restaurants plus an “interactive” bakery where guests can get involved should they wish).

As for whether O’Brien has a favourite space, “that’s a very hard question to answer. One moment it’s the private dining room housed within the old gunroom, and other times it’s the lounges. I don’t think we could select one room, and that’s the best part of designing a space where you want to spend time in all of it.”

The place’s full title is Birch (handle.silk.comet). This isn’t an affectation but a reference to the What3words system, which breaks down every location in the world in to three-square-metre parcels identified by three unique words. Presumably as Birch lays some expansion plans, other outposts will get their own predetermined name.

Chris Penn explains the reasoning behind why he wanted to create an escape from the urban chaos: “We are more conditioned today than ever before. Told to work harder and do more if we want to be happy. It’s led to an obsession with productivity, improvement and always being ‘on’. Believing we need to keep up to date with everything and everyone, then feeling guilty when we don’t.” The danger with Birch might be, zipping between a pottery class, yoga, a bakery workshop and a woodland foraging lesson, a stay might end up being just as full-on as real life. Leisure burnout, anyone?