A massive ship’s hull welcomes the guests to the Mondrian, the new luxury ‘Titanic’ building on South Bank. It looks like a cruise liner which has just docked in London,  rather than one of the capital’s hottest five star hotels. One of the unique design features of this venue is the material used to decorate its interiors — copper.

Metallics have always been popular among designers, with gold and silver topping the the past decades; they represent success, achievement, prosperity, luxury, value and elegance. Yet, the history of copper is quite different; it was never adopted as a premium material before the 21st century. Copper is considered to be one of the first metals to be used by humans, also known as the initial non-precious alloy employed by the Sumerians and Chaldeans of Mesopotamia. These early individuals developed considerable skill in fabricating copper; these rudimental centres of craftsmanship spread to the river-dwelling people of Egypt, where it continued to flourish for thousands of years — long after their own civilisation had degenerated.

At the beginning of the 19th century the world’s annual demand for copper was around half a million tons. The global economic expansion of the mid-2000s brought about an incredible increase in the production of this metal and its alloys. Today the annual consumption is more than nine times as large. As a result, the prices raised by over 400 percent between 2003 and 2008 reaching £3000 a ton. By then, some designers such as Tom Dixon started furnishing luxury hotels, shopping centre, restaurants, cafe and members club with this non-precious metal.


The design of the Mondrian was inspired by the ‘Cutty Sark,’ which was once the most famous fast sailing ship of the 19th century and traversed the world’s major trading routes. The huge copper wall at the entrance of the hotel was taken from this iconic ship. In the 18th century, the Royal Navy started a search for a sheathing that would protect the hull of a ship from the teredo worms, which are a species of saltwater clams, notorious for boring into wood structures such as piers, docks, and ships  that are  immersed in sea water. Originally, the only protection to the hull had been a thin layer of plank laid on a coating of tar and hair, but this covering itself was susceptible to the teredo worm. Keeping the hull clean faced the problem of corrosion by the galvanic action of the copper on the iron bolts which, in turn, secured the main frame and the planking. In 1783, orders went out for copper and zinc bolts to replace iron bolts and copper sheathing. This was an important technological innovation — the copper protected against the teredo worm and also kept ships relatively free from weed which improved their sailing performance.

As a result of the aforementioned, copper is becoming the metal of luxury. According to the Financial Times, its prices are rising — as one of the world’s largest copper mines in Chile, Collahuasi, will be cut by 30,000 tonnes due to current market conditions. The mine, owned by Anglo-American and Glencore, produced 470,000 tons of copper in 2014, which is roughly 2% of global output. In September, Glencore announced it would remove more than 400,000 tons from the market. For smaller countries the effect can be catastrophic. According to government statistics, Zambia’s currency, the kwacha, has fallen by 35 percent against the U.S. dollar over the past 18 months. In this country, copper accounts for 85% of the country’s exports. In the 17th century this metal was worth a maximum of £170 per ton, today it has reached £3400 per ton.


The Mondrian Hotel in London depicts the most recent example of how copper is being used in modern day luxury. Design Research Studio, partnered with Tom Dixon to create the interiors for the hotel with 359 bedrooms, two bars, one restaurant, a spa and a cinema. This is Design Research Studio’s biggest project to date and has allowed the studio to explore a wide range of environments.

Mr. Dixon explains:

‘For us, a hotel is a dream job – it allows us to work in so many different typologies – spas and bars, restaurants and bedrooms, conference rooms and corridors. The idea that we can create a complete universe that people can live in for a night or a week, what’s not to like?’

The building itself was designed by American architect, Warren Platner, in the 1970s. Originally designed as a luxury hotel, the building’s brief was never fulfilled, instead, it was occupied as office space. Among the offices was a shipping company ‘Sea Container’ from which the building now draws its name. This maritime history and the Anglo-American relationship between Design Research Studio and Morgan’s Hotel Group, form the design inspiration for the project. Drawing on the theme of a transatlantic cruise liner for inspiration, Tom touched on the inspiration behind the hotel:

‘We thought that the transatlantic liners of the golden period of cruisers was a fitting departure point. We wanted the rooms to have a feeling of a cabin, with everything fitted, compact and properly thought through. We made a massive intervention to the arrival sequence with a massive structure — inspired by a ship’s hull piercing through from the outside canopy into the lobby and right through past the elevators into the restaurant, all clad with copper.’


The most stunning design in the Mondrian hotel is the spa, which is located in the subterranean. The design is all about the late 1970’s influenced ’Glamrock’ A seasonally developed soundtrack plays in the background to represent the spa’s retro vibe. The striking floor-to-ceiling copper teardrop installation reflects Roman water vessels, which boasts an expansive, custom-designed sofa that fills  an entire corner of the room, mimicking rippled watermarks over sand. This allows guests to lounge, lie or sit, either alone or in groups. Additional Roman touches can be found throughout agua at Mondrian London, including the risqué Tom Dixon-commissioned nude ‘Renaissance Man’ sculpture. Based on a Neo-Classical Roman bust, the wood-sculpted nude is the personification of agua’s new ‘rebellious’ playground concept: relaxed, body-confident, professional, yet spirited.


Designers like Tom Dixon are changing the way society views these materials. Utilising copper to decorate a five star hotel ultimately changes the trend, giving it a touch of exclusivity. With its industrial aesthetic cast iron base, minimal metallic shade and classical proportions, Base is one of the lights used to decorate the Sea Container’s restaurant. Traditional matt textured cast iron makes up the Base Light’s robust body with a spun copper shade — highly polished to create a super-reflective and alluring shine. Sea Containers restaurant is so called after the original name for the landmark building on the South Bank. It sits on the ground floor of Mondrian London, with an open kitchen and visible wood-fired oven that offers delicate and natural smoky flavours that are so characteristic to Culinary Director Seamus Mullen’s cooking.

The copper furniture used by Tom Dixon to decorate the hotel make its atmosphere unique. It is amazing to see the contrast of modern and antique, especially in the lobby and the restaurant where there is a big copper wall on one side, and modern lights, chairs and tables on the other. When something is seen repetitively in culture, it loses its sophistication and notoriety. Luxury is relative. The deluxe version of an object is only recognisable as such by comparison to standard models. It is important to focus on luxury as a social process rather than on the individual items that might be recognised as luxurious. In this process, the goods are valued in proportion to their relative inaccessibility outside the social circle that is employing them.


This transatlantic journey of this iconic hotel comes to a glamorous finale on the rooftop, with the Rumpus Room. The indoor-outdoor space on the 12th floor of the historic Sea Containers building is luxurious in shimmering gold, copper and plum, with raspberry banquets and armchairs. The high-energy and dramatic brass bar sits within a glass box, offering 360-degree views of the city, with an outside terrace shows London’s romantic skyline from the South Bank. Since its launch late last year, the rooftop has welcomed style makers from the worlds of fashion, film and music. Rumpus Room is not a member’s bar, nor does it have a strict, outdated door policy; rather this is a lounge where guests can enjoy live music, leading DJs, creative cocktails from resident bar impresario Ryan ‘Mr Lyan’ Chetiyawardana, as well as Champagne and light bites.

What would life be like without copper? The layman does not spend much time thinking about this. However, without this basic element, the world would not have running water, phones, computers nor electricity. In this manner, copper appears to be a luxury in every shape and form.

Image credits: Niall Clutton  |  Words: Alberto Negro


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