Hospitality Interiors: The Relais Henley

This article was written for the industry title Hospitality Interiors and first published in the January / February 2002 issue.


In conceptualising a new hotel, it is perhaps most challenging to articulate the fundamental quality that both compels guests to visit and encourages them to return. This demands a richness and a complexity that does not come from a single creative impulse or design, but rather, especially in the context of a historic building, from myriad ideas and elements that together combine to create a unique experience; a story that unfolds from arrival and is co-authored by guests who progressively write a narrative of their stay that is meaningful to them. This is the almost alchemical quality of authenticity sought by guests and prized by hoteliers and is something that is almost impossible to contrive.


The refurbishment of the Relais Henley, formerly known as the Red Lion Hotel, in Henley-on-Thames, has been a far more ambitious undertaking than it might appear at first glance. The task we set ourselves, as client and design team, was to refurbish the building to a condition appropriate to its location in the picturesque market town of Henley-on-Thames as well as its historical status, but this came with a series of complex challenges and was delivered on a relatively fast-track programme. The hotel is the first of a series of waterside properties developed by Grace Leo and her co-investor Tim Hartnoll. Nicholas de Klerk and Sze Wei Lee of Translation Architecture led the architecture and planning of the project, while the interiors were designed by Paris-based Pascal Allaman in close collaboration with Leo.


The Grade II Listed building is what heritage professionals refer to as a multi-phase development. The timber frame of the west range has been accurately dated to 1462 through a process known as dendro-dating, while the remainder of the complex has been subject to multiple extensions and alterations in the intervening 560 years. It has been a form of lodging accommodation for much of that time. The elegant red brick façade dates to the late eighteenth century and unites a series of independent buildings of various ages. It also benefits from very generous publics areas in proportion to the number of guestrooms the hotel has, with a bar, two bars, a sixty-cover restaurant and a deli. The Palm Court, which was originally designed as a series of extensive coffee lounges during the Victorian temperance era, has been refurbished to take advantage of a dramatically increased appetite for remote and co-working.


Our approach included the reversal of some recent insensitive and unconsented alterations, using a major 1897 Victorian renovation as a benchmark. This included the reinstating the double height volume in the restaurant and the corridor that connected it to the main reception which was itself restored to its earlier size. Bedrooms were stripped out and redecorated, and for the first time in the building’s history, provided with air conditioning. This required detailed coordination with planners and conservation officers, setting out principles and routes for pipe runs (in many cases using existing notches in floor beams). Extensive repairs were also undertaken by specialists to the historic building fabric, including lath and plaster ceilings and internal and external lime render, alongside upgrades to the building services infrastructure.


The interior design concept draws on several influences, including the history of the building itself, Temple Island in the Thames as well as the rowing history of Henley-on-Thames. These influences are seen in the selection of furniture and fabrics, including the bold striped carpets and upholstered headboards, while the surrounding verdant countryside finds its way into the interior in elements such as the bespoke armoires finished in botanical paper as well as an array of beautiful wallcoverings. Bespoke joinery, in the form of banquettes, desks, console tables and cabinets, were designed and made specifically for the hotel. Antique furniture in the existing hotel, including four poster beds and armchairs, was fully restored and reupholstered while artworks, including portraits of previous guests Charles I and the Duke of Marlborough, bought with the hotel, have been retained as part of the hotel’s collection. A wide selection of objet, artworks and ceramics, personally selected by Leo and Allaman are positioned throughout the public areas and add texture, detail and interest to the interior spaces.


The experience that has been crafted is rich and complex without being intimidating while comfort, luxury and accessibility has been prioritised at every turn. This investment has extended the lifespan of the building for another generation and perhaps more and, as a team, we feel privileged to have become part of the story of this building and a few of many, many hands that have shaped it over the centuries.

Hospitality Interiors: The Relais Henley

8 Feb 2022

Nicholas de Klerk

The Relais Henley: Historical layers and the Charles I wall painting

The site of The Relais at The Red Lion (Henley) includes architectural elements that extend from the fifteenth century through to the present day. The construction of the Chantry House, situated between St Mary’s Church in Hart Street and the Thameside courtyard of The Relais, has been dated to 1461 by means of dendrochronology. Historical layering is also evident in a wall painting which dates to 1632, during the reign of Charles I, and is in fact the monarch’s coat of arms.

The Relais Henley: Historical layers and the Charles I wall painting