Unconventional Wisdom: The Making of St. George

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Mirkku Kullberg, creative director of the Hotel St. George. All images by Stephanie Füsenich.

It’s a clear day in September, and Mirkku Kullberg is looking out over Vanha kirkkopuisto, a leafy park in the center of Helsinki, from one of the luxury suite balconies of the still-unfinished Hotel St. George, a new ambitious property set to open its doors several months from now, in the first weeks of 2018.

“It is so exciting for me that something I was just imagining a few months ago now exists,” says Kullberg, the project’s creative director and guiding force, turning back to survey a room filled with construction workers and equipment. “There used to be nothing here.”

Kullberg, who has large expressive eyes and usually dresses in flowing black, is new to the hotel industry. After almost a decade heading Artek, the iconic Finnish furniture brand co-founded in 1935 by design legend Alvar Aalto, she walked away from the company. She began work on the St. George in 2016, at that point a project still in its infancy.

Building a world-class hotel is, unsurprisingly, a remarkably complex endeavor. It requires the ability to unite countless different elements—design, food, wellness—under one central concept. And even by those standards, the St. George is an especially daunting project. The building is a historical landmark that once housed the presses for Finland’s first newspaper and the Finnish Literature Society. Its oldest section dates back to the 1840s, while the rest was designed at the end of the 19th century by noted Finnish architect Onni Tarjanne. And the hotel is emerging at a moment when Helsinki is coming into its own as a tourist destination.

The city, which is nestled in a scenic archipelago of bays, inlets, and forested islands, is known for its high quality of life, innovative Nordic cuisine, and passion for sleek, avant-garde design, including by Alvar Aalto. Its central boulevard, the Esplanadi, is lined by elegant, streamlined architecture, including by Alvar Aalto, and although the city remains a more under-the-radar destination than other Nordic capitals, that seems likely to change. In the past decade, the number of annual overnight visitors to the city has risen by almost one million. In 2018, Helsinki will be opening a daring new art museum, the Amos Rex, as well as a new central library that aims to reinvent the concept of the library for the 21st century and looks like an elegantly warped coffee table.

“It’s becoming Helsinki’s time,” says Laura Aalto, the CEO of Helsinki Marketing (no relation to Alvar). “This is the most exciting period for the city.” But what makes St. George truly extraordinary is the unconventional way it’s been created—not by a team of seasoned hoteliers, but by an eccentric group of visionaries with no experience in hotels—guided, in part, by an esoteric wellness concept called Hintsa Performance.

The story begins, though, when Laura Tarkka, the CEO of Kämp Collection Hotels, Finland’s most reputable luxury hotel group, took the first step outside the box by tapping Kullberg for the project. The St. George was already in its planning stages, but they wanted someone to take a more ambitious approach. Kullberg had never considered working in hospitality, she says, but the opportunity was too good to resist: a historic building on a historic square and the opportunity to assemble her dream team for the project.

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Tianwu, a three-dimensional bamboo-and-silk construction by the internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
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Guestrooms  feature individualized local artworks and textiles.
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Mirkku Kullberg’s desk.

 

It also marked a natural progression from Kullberg’s years at Artek, a company known for its minimalist, forward-thinking ethos. Under her direction, the company embarked on projects that bridged the gap between art, architecture, and sustainability, such as a 2007 pavilion designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, made of recycled waste material from a Finnish paper company. A similarly ambitious, boundary-blurring sensibility has driven the creation of the Hotel St. George—as well as its rigorous cultural approach. “I thought, if we bring in art, we need to do it properly,” she says. “Artek wouldn’t have existed without art.” Partly because of her years of work with Artek, Kullberg seems to know almost everybody in the art, design, food, and fashion worlds of Helsinki. “Mirkku has a lot of energy, a lot of ideas, and, unlike other people who just talk, she actually does things!” says Maija Tanninen-Mattila, the director of the Helsinki Art Museum. “I almost feel like making this hotel has been a culmination of my lifetime of connections and friends,” says Kullberg.

In just 20 days, she came up with a new concept for the hotel, based around the changing nature of luxury, and aimed at a new generation of travelers interested in high-end, design-led hospitality that eschews traditional five-star trappings in favor of a more personalized, holistic experience. “It’s clean air; it’s beauty,” she says. “It’s the four elements, which I call solitude, serenity, silence, and security.” Kullberg climbs up some stairs in the construction site and looks over the monumental lobby space, which is currently still a hulk of bare concrete dotted with rolls of electrical cabling, but will soon become the hotel’s soaring entryway and home to its most iconic piece of art…

The preceding is excerpted from an article by Thomas Rogers in the 2018 edition of Directions, the magazine by Design Hotels—more than 200 pages of vividly illustrated travel content by leading writers, photographers, illustrators, and designers. This year’s ‘Transformation Issue’ looks at various movements underway in the world of art, design, food, wellness, and fashion and how they are changing the way we travel. It also contains our popular Locator, an at-a-glance tool that enables readers to navigate the entire worldwide collection of more than 280 independent, design-driven properties. Buy it here for €10 or get a complimentary copy when you order the 2018 Design Hotels Book.

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018