Radisson Sonya Hotel, St Petersburg
Stylt Trampoli’s unique ‘storytelling’ approach to interior design has not only played a major role in making the Radisson Sonya Hotel one of the most popular in St. Petersburg, but seen it become a focal point for appreciation of the city’s favourite literary son, the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his masterpiece, Crime & Punishment.
We were originally called in by Reval Hotels, a prominent hotel chain in the Baltic area, who had been looking for a suitable property with which to debut in the Russian market. Reval is owned by Norwegian property developer Linstow AS, who subsequently awarded the management of all their hotels to Radisson, including the one they finally acquired in St. Petersburg, a 176-room property located just five minutes from the famous Hermitage Museum. Our brief from Reval was to help them make this hotel stand out in the market, since it was a little smaller in terms of room count than the average both in their own chain, and in the city.
Our first step was to visit St. Petersburg, to see what made the city tick. We were looking for a tourist guide book to the city and a friendly chef told us that the best one was Crime and Punishment! As we came to understand, this was a typically Russian comment, as he meant that it was the best guide to the psyche of the people of St. Petersburg. Russians are very proud of the city, which is the nation’s cultural capital, and are sad to know that many people in the West think of their countrymen as tacky nouveau riches! How ironic, then, that we found St. Petersburg full of Hilton and Sheraton ‘lookalikes’ and ‘wannabees.’
Russians are also extremely proud of Crime and Punishment, a shocking and gripping story of murder, remorse and ultimate redemption, which is so reflective of their national character. We realized that this great epic novel, acknowledged as one of the 50 most influential books ever written, represented a global brand that could be leveraged to stunning effect in the design and positioning of Reval’s hotel. Put how to pitch to this self-confessedly conservative hotel company the proposal that their hotel should be themed on the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, who begins by murdering two women – one of them an old lady - and is finally saved from descending into a moral abyss (but not from prison) by Sophia “Sonya” Semenova, a good middle class girl who has been forced into prostitution to save her family from bankruptcy? To use this apparently dark and negative plot as the basis for designing a hotel – let alone to name it after a whore - seemed to go against all the rules of marketing. And yet after a tense meeting with our client in Riga, Reval swallowed hard and agreed to take our advice – together with all the commercial risk implied. But they need not have worried, as the hotel’s subsequent success has proven.
As in other Stylt projects, the interiors of the Sonya can be enjoyed both superficially and in depth. A quick tour through the hotel gives an impression of bright contemporary design with many Russian references. But take one of the hotel staff aside (each is issued with a crib sheet to brief them about the historical references), and they’ll talk you though the underlying philosophy of the design features, which is where our designers’ genius really shines.
Entering the lobby, you will feel you are entering Dostoyevsky’s own studio. Book shelves on one side boast no less than 80 copies of Crime & Punishment in different editions and languages, mixed with piles of manuscript paper, as though the great author himself were about to emerge from the bar to resume writing. The reception desk, which appears to float on air, is supported by a group of inverted black Matrioshka dolls, with a solitary tiny colored doll at the bottom seeming to bear the weight of the entire structure (just as the saintly Sonya bore the burdens of Raskolnikov’s tortured life). Nearby, a giant Russian lacquer box serves as a comfortable sofa, one of several pieces we commissioned from local artists (considered the best in Russia for lacquer work), who pride themselves on their ability to encapsulate entire stories in their lacquer illustrations – the plot of Crime & Punishment was quite a challenge, even for them!
Down the corridor in the Metamorfos Restaurant & Bar, more symbolism is at work. We asked one of our staff to summarize the entire story of Crime and Punishment, firstly in four pages, then in five sentences and finally in one word – metamorphosis. Raskolikoff’s transformation from a murderer into a good man was largely thanks to the sweet solicitations of his great love Sonya, who despite her enforced profession, typifies many of the qualities of the Virgin Mary – a comparison that Russian readers can easily understand. Dostoyevsky was fascinated with Rafael’s painting called the Sistine Virgin, which he went to see five times in a museum in Dresden. In the Metamorfos outlet, you will see images of the Virgin, morphing into Dostoyevsky and then into Rafael. As the hotel’s general manager commented in the press conference to launch the property: “If you only see Sonya as a prostitute, then you don’t know Dostoyevsky.”
The guest rooms also feature images of the Virgin, while in the Ego Suite, there are paintings of Napoleon, who Raskolikov compared himself to as the archetype of the ‘superman’, a human being able to take the lives of others for the better good of society (a view he subsequently found to be false). Each of the guest room doors features a plaque with a quotation from the novel, in Russian and English, while the writing desks are contemporary replicas of Dostoyevsky’s own desk. The carpets in the room corridors are patterned with further text from the book, while the walls feature photos from specific landmarks in St. Petersburg named in the novel, that Raskolnikov passed by during his famous feverish walk when he decides to murder the old lady pawn broker, and initiates his spiral into delirium.
The hotel offers many other references, overt and subtle, for those guests who are keen to discover more insight about the book and its author in this innovative fashion.
So successful has this approach been that it has received two important endorsements, from people close to the continuing saga of Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky’s own great-grandson, Dimitri, is now a regular visitor to the hotel. A tram driver by trade but an interior designer by training (this was before he was drafted into the army), this warm and bearded figure is often seen chatting with guests about his famous forebear, as well as his own fascinating life history. Asked how he would have designed the hotel, if he had been given the chance, he told us that he would have done it “just like this”!
Another fan of the property is the lady mayor of St. Petersburg, reputedly one of the most powerful people in Russia, who is generally not one to take an interest in such trivial matters as hotels. She arrived unannounced one day with a flotilla of journalists, as well as the manageress of the city’s famous Dostoyevsky Museum, bearing a ‘certificate of collaboration’ between the hotel and the museum.
The support of these two key figures reflects the general popularity of the hotel, among guests and tour operators, journalists and history lovers alike. They all agree that Stylt’s vision for the hotel was just what the property and the city needed, injecting a new vitality to the St. Petersburg lodging sector that reflects the pride and achievements of the real new Russia, as well as celebrating its past and the nation’s profound and often turbulent emotional life.