Lifelong philanthropist and billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has shaken up traditional industries with his adventurous spirit and design sensibility. His companies encompass everything from banking stem cells and future space travel to an entire island in the British Virgin Islands. While most of us probably can’t make the minimum seven-night stay at the private Necker Island compound anytime soon, Branson’s latest foray is a quite accessible 250-room hotel in Chicago—the first of what is to be many Virgin Hotels. Joining a crowded hotel scene in downtown Chicago, Virgin Hotels decided to take up residence in the Art Deco-style Old Dearborn Bank building for their first location, infusing history with contemporary design. We were present for last weekend’s grand opening, which came complete with Branson dancing on a float in the style of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and A-Trak and Ryan Hemsworth christening the bars with their tunes.
“I think that the fact that [Branson] took so long to start a hotel brand like this, is that he was really contemplating hotels from his point of view and how they were really not bringing anything new to the global traveler experience,” Diego Gronda (Managing & Creative Director of design firm Rockwell Group Europe) tells CH on their collaboration with Virgin Hotels. “Virgin didn’t come with a very specific design brief—they were very specific on what they wanted to accomplish, rather than how they wanted to accomplish it. I think that’s always very refreshing; they gave us a lot of freedom.”
It was a “true collaborative experience” that’s resulted in playful rooms that feel far from corporate: with custom-made beds (co-created by the Virgin Hotels design team and Rockwell Group Europe) and vanities, beautiful (and “expensive”) Poltrona Frau leather chairs, with splashes of signature Virgin red spread throughout the space. “The wallpaper—we designed that felt wallpaper with Maya Romanoff; they did it specifically for this project,” says Gronda. “It was really about craftsmanship—the subtlety of the red in the stitching—but most importantly, the warmth.”
The most memorable feature, however, is that the room feels surprisingly spacious, never cramped. There’s even sliding privacy doors between the bedroom and the rest of the space that includes two closets, European-style separate toilet and shower rooms, a makeup desk and more.
While the room is nicely put together, we couldn’t help thinking that a few details were rushed. Pieces like the white plastic hotel phone (which makes their high-tech Virgin Hotels app feel more repetitive than special) and standard alarm clock clash with the quirky, high-end design furniture. Another aspect is that the L train makes sharp turns right in front of the Virgin Hotel. A pair of earplugs on the pillow is their subtle and thoughtful way of acknowledging the noise. It’s bearable at night, when the trains run on a limited schedule, but be prepared to wake up to the sound of trains passing during rush hour. It’s best to let the concierge know if you’re a really light sleeper.
Those minor flaws quickly fade as soon as you don the ultra-soft microfiber bathrobes: a true moment of comfort. It attests to the theme of this weekend’s hotel stay—being surprised at every turn, be it just plain cute (the squishy lamb toy waiting for you in the shower, the yoga mat in the closet) or practical (the minibar prices are on par with what you would find at the convenience store) to even the mind-blowing (the hotel has its own bright candy red Tesla Model S P85D for escorting guests to locations).
Virgin’s main selling point is that these rooms come at a cheaper price than the other hotels in the same area. They also don’t tack on extra fees for amenities such as WiFi or last-minute cancellations. “This is an honest hotel,” Gronda says. “Let’s face it, it’s a hotel that’s charging a rate way below the W or any other hotel.” Virgin Hotels also ups its accessibility by not branding itself as a hotel for a specific demographic (as is currently the direction in the industry), and instead, channeling a “for all” democratic vibe. “I think that is the interesting thing: that you will have all kinds of people—like Richard, young at heart 65-year-olds or millennials, it doesn’t really matter,” says Gronda.
Gronda also emphasizes the message that Virgin wanted to give to the Chicago community: they’re not here to be an imposing tower looming over the city like a billboard but want to be a useful place of service for food, entertainment and design. “70% of the perimeter of the building [is dedicated to] two food and beverage outlets that are catering not only to hotel guests but to [locals] who want a cup of coffee in the morning, a burger at lunchtime, in a place that looks different to any other diner or any other coffee shop,” he says of Miss Ricky’s diner and Two Zero Three coffee shop (turned wine bar when the sun sets). “They have a little attitude, and they don’t have little Virgin tags attached. We purposely didn’t repeat any single element from the hotel in those two spaces.”
What’s not visible from the street is also Virgin’s most promising highlight—their rooftop bar Cerise. The indoor/outdoor space is the creation of Italian designer Paola Navone, who is known for her Southeast Asian influences after having spent years there (and whose recent work we spotted in Paris). From the hexagonal blue tiles to the gigantic jewel-like bugs on the wall, the “Trophy Room” section of the bar is a conversation starter in itself—so you can skip the small talk about the weather. The rooftop bar officially opens to the public this weekend and the in-house spa will open later this year.
Room rates start from around $250 at Virgin Hotels Chicago; Virgin Hotels’ next locations are set to open in Nashville (2016) and New York (2017).
Images by Nara Shin