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Montreal's Hôtel Chez Swann: loaded with lush design

A room at Montreal's arty boutique Hotel Chez Swann.

Hôtel Chez Swann 1444 Drummond St., Montreal; 514-842-7070; 23 guest rooms, including 11 suites. From $150. No eco-rating.

Montreal was ahead of the curve in the boutique-hotel phenomenon, with bijou properties sprouting up, especially in Old Montreal, over the past decade, if not longer. Is there room for more? Well, one that purports to be as influenced by modern psychology as modern design is intriguing. The Swann (named for Marcel Proust's alter ego in his magnum opus, Remembrance of Things Past), tries to jog involuntary memory through unexpected designs mostly by Mary Moegenburg, an American designer and some-time Montreal resident who has worked with Bruce Mau. That idea may sound convoluted and gimmicky, but it does give a kind of narrative to the hotel with whimsical effect. The hotel's own past is complicated. Before its rethink as arty bolthole, it housed a garment-manufacturing business, an Irish pub and tailor shop. Its exterior, though, hasn't changed: a 1919 Tudor style house that is an anomaly in a downtown block crowded with office towers and pricey condos.


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Enter through a long corridor with a bold skylight that is bathed in dramatic blue light after dark. Along the way, you pass a neon green framed blackboard with love notes and the odd maxim chalked by staff and guests. By the time you arrive in the lobby, you're ready for the onslaught of art. Front-desk staff stand behind a carved wood piece by Quebec's Marc Pelletier. To their right and left are art installations, including several by Moegenburg. One called Stool Band with Fortuny-style pleats covering a series of stools stands out. In the centre of the room is an S-shaped snakeskin-patterned ottoman. "Curated" films that "go with the idea of the hotel," as a staffer told me, are projected onto a wall in the lobby at night. These run from Chinese erotica to Visconti's Death in Venice.


My good-sized room is spotless, as is the entire hotel. It feels part boudoir, part Milan furniture fair, and seems like something an effete shut-in like Proust would have approved of. A living area comprises a tree-trunk coffee table between modernized Italian wing chairs on a grass-green shag rug. (It's like a little yard in your room.) The bed sits in the middle of the room and has a baroque headboard with swirls of black on brown, with tree-trunk end tables on either side, and Venetian-style chandeliers from Italy's Lume hang overhead. Everything is unexpected enough to create a slight sense of disorientation and contribute to the overall theme.

Another feature stands out: a long window alcove covered in a claret-coloured fabric with a pile of matching throw pillows, a real love-in-the-afternoon feature. Large windows let in light and allows a view onto downtown streets. That guests can be cosseted on a crimson velvet alcove while worker bees scurry outside adds to the languid sensuality of the room. This area can also be closed off with heavy damask curtains. Similar curtains cover, or not, a glass-windowed shower that separates the bedroom and bathroom. The peep-show shower has become a design hotel cliché, but it seems fitting here. The stellar bathrooms are large, with French château white and black tiled floors, and bold black swirls painted over chunky modern vanities with double sinks. The shower is worth a paragraph all its own, with a rain-forest head or the option of jets that shoot water the length of your body.


Co-owner Richard Lavallée, a local boy, says the hotel is positioned for a younger niche, in the manner of Mama Shelter, a lower priced Philippe Starck-designed Paris hotel with street cred. The Swann's reasonable rates reflect that. But this also means the hotel is not a great fit for the business crowd, despite its prime downtown location. For the moment, there are no meeting facilities, although a small one is in the works. (The gym, too, is tiny.) In my room, I was inspired to dig out my laptop, what with the hovering ghost of Proust and that cozy alcove. Luckily I was writing, and not Googling, as the Internet connection was slow. Thankfully, Wi-Fi is free. The phone is on a desk tucked away in a corner, where you'll also find an iPod docking station, and the 40-inch flat-screen TV offers premium cable channels. Guests with cars can use an indoor parking lot on the same street and get a $3.50 discount.


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The staff is international and multilingual. One front-desk attendant was from Brazil, another from Brittany. All were courteous, solicitous and well-intentioned, if not always terribly informed. One hadn't heard of Outremont, let alone how to get there, explaining that she had just moved to Montreal a few weeks ago. But she insisted on studying a map until she found it. Instead of a chocolate on the pillow, the weekend I was there guests found a jar of artisanal jam in their rooms, a cross-promotion with La Diabla, a chic new food store in town.


The owners have plans to buy and transform Le Pois Penché, the restaurant next door, though right now they are mum about details. At the moment, food and beverage possibilities consist of Nespresso-generated cappuccinos and delicious Viennoiseries served in the lobby in the morning: pains au chocolat, croissants and brioches, including an almond croissant that is reason enough to book a room. There is a good juice bar next door to offset empty calories, and some of the city's best bar and restaurants are an easy walk from the front door.


Its prime downtown location puts it close to museums, restaurants and shopping, not to mention universities for visiting parents. It may not help those searching for lost memories, but its whimsy and sensuality could certainly help to create new ones.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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