The Cullen

May 20, 2010

Rowena Robertson visits the first of the Art Series hotels, The Cullen Hotel in Melbourne, to experience the art of the hotel.

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The idea of an ‘art hotel’ has been explored to some extent in the past: there have been various hotels around the world to feature in-house art collections such as the Mondrian in Los Angeles named for that artist and once featuring a nine-storey homage to his work on its exterior. However, Australian developer Asian Pacific’s first Art Series hotel, The Cullen in Prahran, may be the only hotel in the world to revolve solely around the work of one artist, in this case the 2000 Archibald Prize winner Adam Cullen.

Cullen is renowned for his frequently disturbing, brash, ‘punk’ style. His central contribution to the hotel that bears his name is a series of paintings depicting the story of the Kelly Gang. The lurid colours, drips and runs for which the artist has become known are present here, as is the confronting subject matter – this version of the Kelly Gang story incorporates cross-dressing, bisexuality and drug use. The bold contemporariness of the pieces, however, allows them to work in the boutique hotel context. Each of the 115 rooms includes at least two Cullen Kelly Gang prints, all individually and painstakingly lit, and the artist’s work is also present in all common lobbies, lifts and hallways.

Given that the artwork is the main focus, it was crucial that the interior design complement rather than compete with the art. Several interior designers contributed to the project, including Asian Pacific’s Gina Paul (with David Deague and Will Deague, chair and CEO of the company respectively, having the final say on everything down to the towel rails). The result is a mainly monochromatic colour scheme. The penthouse suite is the purest expression of this aesthetic, eschewing the homely splashes of orange provided by the cushions and throw rugs seen in the other rooms in favour of an edgier, rock ‘n’ roll feel. The suite converts into a meeting room, and features an extendable dining table that can seat 12 people. The room also has a feature fireplace, two king-size beds and two bathrooms, along with sofas, chairs, lamps and fittings that are also present in the majority of the other rooms.

Most of the furniture chosen for The Cullen takes its inspiration from iconic contemporary designs – notably Philippe Starck’s Louis Ghost chair and Eero Saarinen’s Tulip table. The asymmetrical bookshelves featured in some rooms were inspired by Cattelan’s XiX design and heave with art books to inspire the visitor; there are also stools that recall Kartell’s Stone stool and, appropriately, powder-coated steel paint drip coat hooks inspired by the Pulpo Drop coat rack.

The fully equipped kitchenettes are fitted with stainless steel appliances and CaesarStone benchtops from Mosaici Carbone. The bathrooms are a study in clean lines, with polished chrome fittings, custom towel rails and black polished and honed tiles by Beaumont Tiles. The focal point of every bathroom is an extraordinary frosted glass wall that bears a huge Adam Cullen ‘watermark’ – either an image of a horse in drag or Ned Kelly pointing a gun. The effect is stencil-like, though the images were actually created using an EPS file of the artwork that was printed onto film and then transferred to glass. One enthusiastic guest has already attempted to ‘colour in’ a glass wall in one of the rooms using a complimentary paints set given out at an opening event.

The communal spaces of the hotel feel both comfortable and vibrant. The monochromatic rooftop function area features white Leura chairs and bar stools, and brushed aluminium artichoke lights, along with spectacular views. A central void/light shaft in the hotel, originally intended to house a stairwell, is dominated by a custom-made chandelier inspired by a Vesoi light. The fitting comprises 61 drops of imported red flex cord of varying length, and clustered compact fluorescent energy-saving lamps in brushed aluminium holders that are fixed to the skylight mullion above by a custom-made channel. The longest of the chandelier cords drops to 22 metres, with clusters of globes at every floor. The red wallpaper used in this area was imported from Mirabilis Textiles in the US and glistens when the sun hits it; a grey version of the same wallpaper is used in the passageways.

The hotel’s foyer is a riot of cheekiness and bombast, with a silver fibreglass cow by Adam Cullen, bearing such slogans as “Endurance is more important than truth”, greeting the visitor on entry, and walls filled with imposing, garish (in the best possible way) Cullen originals featuring campy animals, rainbows and lolly-coloured backdrops.

The intermingling of art with life – The Cullen can be read as a gallery space within which the normal undulations of everyday existence (purposeful movement, eating, drinking, sleeping, communicating) occur – is what makes this such an inspired concept. That concept will be further explored this year with the opening of the next two Art Series hotels, The Olsen in South Yarra and The Blackman in St Kilda Road.

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