Set on a 200-acre estate close to London, Birch (Selsdon) invites guests to reconnect with nature, and themselves, without travelling too far – and A-nrd's design for the hotel brings an earthy naturalness to the Victorian grandeur
South Croydon sounds like an unlikely destination for an escape from London – comfortably within the M25, it is technically still part of the capital. But hospitality brand Birch is becoming known for finding properties that are historical nuggets in bucolic settings, only a short hop from the hustle and bustle, where people can find a sense of retreat without having to travel too far.
The first Birch, in Hertfordshire, opened in 2020, and the second in Selsdon is currently in its soft-launch stage. Charged with turning the imposing 19th-century manor house into something fit for purpose were Alessio Nardi and Lukas Persakovas of A-nrd studio, in their first hotel design project. “The brief was very open, to create a very calming home-away-from-home environment that was also joyful and full of warmth,” says Nardi.
“It’s fair to say that over the years, in its previous incarnations, Selsdon has had numerous modifications to modernise it that weren’t very sympathetic with the history of the building. Despite it still functioning as a hotel, it was quite run down and in need of some TLC,” he continues. “One of the first exercises we did with the builders was to peel off the years of bad refurbs and try recover the original fabric of the building and in doing so we found some wonderful features.
“We managed to restore some of the old wooden floors including a mosaic parquet floor with small rectangular tassels, which is on one of the main corridors of the buildings and some function rooms. We also uncovered a beautiful round bay niche in the main restaurant area, where we installed a sweeping booth seating following the architecture. The front of the estate was fully covered by a concrete canopy which we had to carefully detach from the building to bring back to life the old decorative stone facade.”
A confusing maze-like layout has been streamlined and the different areas are now better connected; each has been given its own distinct feel while staying coherent with a tightly edited palette of colours and materials. “We wanted to bring that connection to nature, that calmness and sense of tranquillity indoors so that guests feel instantly at home and relaxed. The colour palette is also very much inspired by nature: lots of soft sunny yellows, sage greens, earthy terracotta, and natural tones. We have used natural, sustainable and recycled materials wherever possible,” says Nardi.
The building’s Victorian architecture also provided some design cues, such as the checkerboard flooring, while elsewhere there are dramatic contrasts between old and new, with a bespoke eight-metre-long neon light sculpture sitting next to an ornate stained glass window and surrounded by dark panelled walls.
Like Birch’s sister hotel, Selsdon offers tons of life-enhancing things to do on site: the concept is about finding or reconnecting with yourself and others – but within the confines of the hotel rather than touring the local area. Facilities include a pottery studio and screen-printing workshop, screening room, outdoor pool (opening over summer) and wellness suite with gym, studios and treatment rooms, plus communal areas for meeting and working.
The hotel’s 200-acre park makes the hotel feel much more rural than the south London location would suggest: formerly a golf course, Birch now describes it as “one of London’s largest rewilding projects” as manicured greens and bunkers are replaced by something that encourages greater biodiversity, a process that is being overseen by furniture designer, maker and environmentalist Sebastian Cox. Cox has also contributed furniture for the hotel, made from timber from the estate, including reception desks clad in timber shakes, rough-swan timber on the booth seating in the all-day dining room, co-working sharing tables and bedside tables for the 181 rooms and suites.
As well as working with Cox, Nardi and Persakovas have collaborated with many other makers to make Birch Selsdon unique. Glassmaker Michael Ruh Studio made the bedroom wall lights, inspired by the vintage Murano light fittings used in the reception area, while marquetry specialist Chelsea Vivash created the details on the wardrobes. Art curator Despina Wotton sourced work including two specially commissioned abstract pieces by Olly Fathers (who also uses marquetry techniques) for the reception lobby, which take inspiration from the room’s hand painted bas-relief ceiling.
Birch Selsdon is huge, and A-nrd’s largest project to date – so, where would the designers most like to hang out a weekend urban escape? “The orangery,” says Persakovas. “I really like the centrepiece sofa we designed, it’s a very sculptural and bold piece but really works in the space. The room also has fantastic light which comes in through the original leaded windows.” For Nardi, it’s the hotel’s snug: “It has a different look and feel – still very calm and relaxed, like the other communal areas, but it feels richer and moodier thanks to its darker palette.”