Many designers call themselves storytellers. But Tristan Auer takes the notion further than most. The Paris-based designer often begins his projects with a deep exploration of the history and lore of a place. After signing on to tackle the Paris hotel Les Bains a few years ago, he interviewed 80 denizens of the legendary nightclub Les Bains-Douches, which once raged on the site. “It’s funny because memories are not linear,” he says, chatting in his showcase Art Nouveau office in the city’s 8th arrondissement. “When I asked people what the front space—which would become the lobby—was like, I had, like, 80 different answers. And when all these people came back after the renovation, they said, ‘All right, yes, it was like that.’ It was the best compliment I could get.”
After completing his first round of research, Auer immerses himself in the space he’s working on. “I go there day and night, sleep in the place, feel the volume, see where the light is coming, the impact,” he says. Then he often turns to cinematic sources to flesh out his design narrative. Before beginning his update of the Hotel Carlton in Cannes, where renovations have just begun, Auer interviewed its regular patrons and watched Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. The film was shot on the property in the 1950s, and the hotel is as much of a star as are Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. “I prefer to reference movies,” Auer says. “You have all the elements, rather than just images on a mood board—the sights, the sounds, the smells. It’s a very big responsibility for me, when I redesign iconic places, to keep the soul of the place.”
His immersive bespoke approach has helped make him one of the world’s most in-demand hospitality designers, with more than 16 new projects brewing for almost as many hotel brands, in London, Paris, Hong Kong, and Dubai. “It scares me when I think about how many there are,” he says.
He also runs two busy Paris design studios, overseeing his own team of 22 and a second group, as principal of the Paris office of global design firm Wilson Associates. For the latter, he’s nearing completion of his most cinematic project to date: a revival, for the French hotel group Accor, of the Orient Express brand, whose first hotel opens later this year atop one of Bangkok’s tallest buildings, the 78-story King Power MahaNakhon.
As the original Orient Express train, immortalized by Agatha Christie, traversed Europe more than a century ago, its onboard experience—the food, the music—would change with the landscape. “Everybody knows the coach, the train,” Auer says, “but the Orient Express is about going from one place to another, and changing all the time.” Accordingly, the hotel’s public spaces, clad in lacquered wood and Lalique crystal panels, can be altered to reflect a particular mood, culture, or time of day. At night in the restaurant, a waiter with lanterns will slide back panels to transform the environment. Auer has brought the hermetic pleasures of high-end train travel into a contemporary context, channeling the experience of being enveloped in dark wood and rich fabrics while cutting across borders. The hotel will be the first of many for the new Orient Express brand, and Auer has signed on to oversee whatever comes next. “Each hotel will be different,” he says. “A reflection of the place.”
A native of Aix-en-Provence, Auer began his career in Paris, working for Christian Liaigre and then Philippe Starck before launching his own studio, originally out of his apartment, in 2002. From Liaigre he learned the bespoke approach that he’d later integrate into his own residential work, forging lasting bonds with high-profile clients like fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and rocker Bryan Adams, for whom he designed a home on Mustique. From the famously demanding Starck, with whom he spent four years before eventually being fired (“Four years is a miracle,” he says), he absorbed the “grand theatricality” that’s served him so well in his own hospitality work.
Auer’s pivotal hotel project arrived in 2013, when he began redesigning the public spaces in Paris’s landmark Hotel de Crillon. His work on the century-old palace hotel, which reopened in 2017, brought Auer new recognition on a global scale and a sudden flood of big projects. That year, he won Designer of the Year at Maison&Objet in Paris, and unveiled a new side business in custom auto interiors.
Auer’s attachment to history manifests in a personal passion for classic cars. His car-tailoring business, as he calls it, began organically, when he upgraded his own ride, a 1978 Ferrari Dino 308 GT4. “The color was wrong,” he says of the car in its original shape. “The interior was very tired.” He swapped in his own custom fabrics and leather, and fellow aficionados soon began asking him to make over their cars, too. So far, Auer has tackled a dozen or so vintage cars, including two courtesy cars—Citroën sedans—for the Hotel de Crillon. For private clients, each personalized vehicle comes with its own matching accessories: handmade Italian umbrellas, Scottish wool blankets, overnight bags perfectly proportioned to fit the passenger seat—all of them embossed with the car’s chassis number. “Every object belongs to the car,” Auer says.
Now showcased on his Instagram and his new website, CarTailoring.com, the car projects have opened up a new world of transportation design for Auer’s studios. Commissions have included yacht interiors, private-jet cabins, and one luxury train, the Royal Scotsman, whose wood-paneled dining cars and rolling spa cut across the Scottish Highlands from Edinburgh.
In spite of his increasingly global reach, Auer says he has no intention of opening a satellite office abroad. Paris remains his biggest source of inspiration. “To live here is to live in an open-air museum,” he says. “We’re surrounded by such richness of culture —you can’t help but absorb it.”
This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.