St Regis Cairo Hotel, located at the north end of the Nile Corniche, has a spectacular waterside presence with breathtaking views. The six-star, new-build hotel has been designed inside and out by US multidisciplinary practice, Michael Graves Architecture and Design, and stands at the heart of Cairo in a neighbourhood steeped in history, just north of the cosmopolitan, upscale district, Garden City.
Guests are all too aware of the hotel’s culturally rich location. The main lobby generates a sense of privacy on the secluded fifth floor, evoking the tradition of the majlis, “a place where friends and families congregate to discuss ideas and life”, explains interior designer Julie Yurasek, who was working for Michael Graves and oversaw the interior.
“It’s furnished with mashrayiba (carved wood latticework screens) and areas with curtains to provide intimate spaces that contrast with more monumental areas. And views into guest rooms and suites are as circuitous as possible, limiting views from public into private spaces.”
Julie designed bespoke murals made of papyrus in a ‘sandy peach’ shade, referencing Cairo’s deserts for the reception and all guest rooms. These were handmade by Maya Romanoff, a US manufacturer of handcrafted wallcoverings. “Through illustrative murals, carved woodwork, gilding, exquisite fabrics and locally sourced Egyptian chandeliers made of etched or punched metal, I tried to emulate the grandness most people associate with Egypt,” says Julie, who, by way of research, visited the temples at Karnak and pharaohs’ tombs in the Valley of the Kings while on a Nile cruise.
“With an almost limitless budget, we could give free rein to our imagination and create a spectacular hotel inspired by the Astors’ grand hotel – although St Regis Cairo is layered with Arab and Egyptian elements”
The project is decidedly European in feel too, with lighting courtesy of UK-based firm Porta Romana and Swarovski, which supplied a showstopping chandelier – a star-shaped design dripping with 250,000 crystals.
The developer behind St Regis Cairo – a new addition to St Regis Hotels & Resorts, part of hotel group Marriott International – is Qatari Diar Real Estate Company, which invested more than $1b in the project. The hotel, which opened in January 2021, is part of a 9360m2 mixed-use development.
It comprises the 28-storey South Tower – with 226 guest rooms, 60 suites and 80 luxury serviced apartments – and the 29-storey North Tower – housing 100 high-end rental apartments. An additional seven-storey tower contains further amenities – restaurants, lounges, a ballroom, health centre and swimming pools.
The hotel’s interior maintains the same calibre of bespoke interiors established by the first St Regis hotel in New York City, built by John Jacob Astor IV, which opened in 1904. “With an almost limitless budget, we could give free rein to our imagination and create a spectacular hotel inspired by the Astors’ grand hotel – although St Regis Cairo is layered with Arab and Egyptian elements”, says Julie.
Her use of the word ‘we’ is key here. The project was a hugely collaborative endeavour, co-ordinated by a close-knit team of international experts from different fields. Julie liaised closely with: John Durnion, Qatari Diar’s delivery director for international projects, who worked at the time in Doha; British-born, US-based furniture designer and manufacturer Alastair Graham, who supplied all freestanding furniture for the guest rooms, suites and serviced apartments; and UK-based procurement manager, Chris Turner, responsible for FF&E and OS&E.
“Qatari Diar’s inspiration was to create a premium luxury property,” says John Durnion. “Its objective was achieved – St Regis Cairo is Cairo’s most luxurious hotel by a long way – but not without overcoming numerous obstacles.”
The hotel’s impressive presence today belies the fact that it was beset by major challenges – not least by seismic regional politics. Progress on the project was stalled first by the Egyptian Revolution of 2011– part of the Arab Spring, resulting in the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak – then by tensions arising from Egypt’s blockade of goods into the bordering Gaza Strip in 2013.
“A major challenge was maintaining the schedule,” John recalls. “Numerous issues led to schedule overruns. One very significant obstacle was the [2017-21] political stand-off between Qatar and Egypt, which held up the hotel’s opening for almost two years, despite it being fully operational.” This embargo saw Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain sever diplomatic relations with Qatar, and banned Qatari planes and ships from using their air space and sea routes.
“Also impacting on our schedule was the protracted bureaucracy we encountered around importing specialist fixtures and fittings and, to a lesser extent, furniture,” John continues.
“Through illustrative murals, carved woodwork, gilding, exquisite fabrics and locally sourced Egyptian chandeliers made of etched or punched metal, I tried to emulate the grandness most people associate with Egypt”
But, as Alastair Graham points out, the advantages of experienced experts closely collaborating when working under such pressure became abundantly clear: “As a group who got on, it was easier to pull through the various crises. The communication between us was so good that we could talk through and resolve our problems as they arose.”
A bond existed already between Alastair and Julie, who met in 2006 when he was commissioned to develop furniture for a couple of palaces owned by one of her Qatari clients. “We had our first meetings about the hotel in 2011,” remembers Alastair. Julie introduced Chris Turner, who had already been hired by Qatari Diar, to Alastair in 2013, and the two hit it off.
In 2015, once Julie had dreamt up her overall look for the hotel, the three convened in Egypt to create the model rooms – full-scale mock-ups of rooms, containing all its pieces. For these, Graham created bespoke versions of the required pieces, which included one of his classic designs – his Tara dining table – made of American black walnut and brass.
“Alastair did a wonderful job,” notes John. “His designs were of the highest quality and he efficiently oversaw the streamlined management of his supply chain, meeting all deadlines.”
The model-room reviews were an important litmus test for the project – an opportunity for the trio to check and approve all the furniture, along with Qatari Diar and Starwood (the hotel management company involved prior to Marriott). “It’s an audition – a chance to try out the furniture,” explains Alastair. This stage proved a high point. “The rooms were very well received, and only a few adjustments needed to be made,” recalls Chris. Another memory the trio hold dear were visits they made to the factories where Alastair’s furniture is made.
“Overall, this project was the biggest I’d ever worked on,” remembers Chris, who oversaw 66 individual tender packages and tendered to around five companies per product category – anything from lighting to upholstery. This process began with pre-qualification, which entails assessing the suitability of suppliers in terms of their ability to deliver high-quality goods in the right volume within the allocated budget. On receipt of all tenders and prices from the suppliers, the items were selected, then recommended to the client in the form of reports. “Some reports needed up to 10 revisions before they were approved,” says Chris.
Then came the highly disruptive Qatar/Egypt stand-off. “This caused big delays,” recalls Julie. “So the construction management said, ‘If you want to make changes to the interior, now is the time to do so’. In fact, some furnishing selections made in 2012 needed a refresh, so these were redesigned.”
That said, her original concept still focused on Cairo’s heritage, including Garden City – a neighbourhood established in 1905 and modelled on European town planning. But her redesign pivoted, she says, towards a “more sophisticated, well-travelled, forward-thinking experience”.
Even so, ancient Egypt is still summoned up, she says, by such features as “a rosy taupe surface shot through with sparkling white-gold leaf, designed to convey the fertile banks of the Nile.
“The expectations of a luxurious bespoke end product for Qatari Diar remained our main aim, so working with Alastair we really pushed this, developing pieces using a variety of very specialised materials, from copper-cerused oak to fumed eucalyptus, inlaid mother-of-pearl, onyx, bronze and lacquer. It was very exciting working with finishes and materials that you rarely see in hotels”.
Yet 21st-century requirements have not been overlooked: “I’ve stayed in many hotels where the only place to style and dry hair was at the desk,” she says. “But for St Regis Cairo we developed dressing tables with full-length oval mirrors, framed and illuminated by a loop of warm light. The tables are unique since they integrate USB and electric sockets, allowing guests to groom their hair and feel beautiful and pampered, while performing other tasks.”
For the team, the entire process was an opportunity to achieve and exceed their goals collectively, despite all the hurdles they had to overcome.