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The Chairs at Clift

A San Francisco hotel lobby houses a curious collection of furniture

by Karen Day in Design on 15 November 2011

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Hotels may play to the boutique experience by furnishing the public areas with a sturdy mix of handsome tables and chairs culled from high-end shops like Design Within Reach, but few go as far as San Francisco's Clift. The motley collection of designer furniture gracing the hotel's immense lobby would more likely be found in a museum or private home than a stopping place for hundreds of travelers, wheeling their luggage with kids in tow. As Clift's Vice President of Design Mari Balestrazzi explains, high-end furnishings are an important part of the hotel's distinct charm. "We're like an interactive museum," she says. "The pieces are real and some are quite expensive but it would take the fun out of it if we didn't allow our guests to really use the spaces."

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Conceived by Philippe Starck ten years ago, the diverse range of lobby furniture is not only intriguing to the eye, but it also keeps the space fresh from a design perspective. Upon entering the hotel, guests come across Roberto Matta's homage to surrealist artist René Magritte—a stool posed as a green apple in a black bowler hat—and to their right they'll find William Sawaya's octopus-like Darwish chair, a bronze four-seater custom-crafted for the hotel.

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Salvador Dali's Leda table unites a cluster of chairs in the main area, including Michel Haillard's Horn Sofa and a plexiglass and bronze side chair, designed by Starck and developed by the famed French atelier Thierry Goux (now known as Rinck). A few feet away sits Crystal Farm's "Elk Gentleman's Chair," a rustic piece more traditionally placed in a cabin in the woods, but in a swanky hotel, manages to round out the lobby's warm vibes.

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To the right of Gerard Garouste's 18-foot bronze fireplace, along the Brazilian cherry back wall, a gold-hued chaise perfectly juxtaposes a slightly gruesome Bronze Chair chair sculpted by Sawaya & Moroni.

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Starck's aptly named Big Arm chair—the focus of a city-wide scavenger hunt and a piece of furniture guests are encouraged to climb on or crawl under to see a "childish" design surprise—serves as a perfect contrast to the hotel's "Angel Chair." Though sitting in that chair isn't forbidden, the "Angel Chair" is the only furnishing with a slight "do-not-touch" vibe. Vice President of Guest Experience Dave Freiberger explains that the beautifully ornate chair—positioned by itself near the lobby elevators—is the only one remaining from the original Clift lobby, designed in 1918. The leather chair features gargoyle-like lions and a cherubic boy carved into each wooden arm, recalling the hotel's formerly lavish Italian Renaissance decor.

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Home to one of California's most expensive and unique collections of designer furniture, Clift stands out for staying authentic to its boutique hotel atmosphere despite its 300 rooms. Balestrazzi speaks to the choice in luxury over durability, stating simply, "We want our guests to feel engaged by their surroundings."

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