Embracing the Surreal at The Frenchmen Hotel

Denver design firm FAM Design creates a female-forward, dreamlike atmosphere at the The Frenchmen Hotel with Italian surrealist Leonor Fini as their muse.

On any given day New Orleans can elicit the surreal. Just watch a cruise liner float by on the Mississippi from street level, the massive hull at a height well above your head; witness alligators sunbathing on the interstate; or find yourself in a traffic jam because a Mardi Gras Indian tribe is facing off with rivals in all their intricately-beaded and feathered glory.

So when FAM Design’s Megan Freckelton and Frank Mataipule chose surrealist artist Leonor Fini as inspiration for The Frenchmen Hotel’s new aesthetic, it just seemed like a perfect fit. “She struck us as someone who embodied the creativity and all of the interesting things that have happened on Frenchmen Street,” says Freckelton. “The fact that she loved entertaining, the fact that she was fairly eccentric, she had this flamboyant style . . . she just felt like a natural muse for this property.”

A charismatic, fiercely independent artist and entertainer, Leonor Fini was a creative soul who defied categorization, living and working on her own terms. She was constantly “in character,” a quality which enabled her to work with and, often inspire other artists such as legendary director Federico Fellini, famed photographer Man Ray, and Salvador Dalí, an artist who is quite literally synonymous with the surrealist movement.

Fini’s own work, often playing second-fiddle to her flamboyant personality, seems mostly an enigmatic reflection of herself, exploring ideas of femininity, sexuality and power. “When you read about the surrealist movement in France you always hear about Salvador Dali and a handful of other men,” says Freckelton. “She [Fini] isn’t really talked about too often, but she was right there with all of them.”

Translating the Fini-esque feel to the funky clutch of buildings located near the Esplanade end of Frenchmen Street entailed lots of dramatic, and sometimes unexpected color combinations. “She [Fini] actually had her hair dyed every color of the rainbow throughout her life, it was really expressive thing for her to do, especially at that time.” says Freckelton. “We took that as a sort of jumping off point using really vibrant colors throughout the hotel.” The colorful finishes, art and furniture placement all play their part to surrealistically alter your perspective.

In keeping with Fini’s feminist and rebellious nature, FAM’s design also focuses on “the feminine and the mysterious,” featuring art by female artists frequently depicting the female form, a design concept acting in direct opposition to the name of the hotel, as well as its sordid history. “Each room features at least one female portrait, and all the other work is surrealist, fantastical or strange in subject,” says Freckelton. “We have so many female portraits throughout the entire property, we wanted to make sure, with that brothel connection, that it was a celebration of women.”

A mighty roster of female artists from around the globe, including Fini herself, are representing at the little Marigny hotel, from Italian ceramist Paola Paronetto’s hand-crafted paper-clay pendant lights to native Chicagoan Laura Berger’s interconnected female forms frolicking in the lobby stairwell. A cluster of uncanny-looking candle holders made by Australian artist Kerryn Levy rest upon a mantled mirror in the lobby, while Argentinian artist Sofia Bonati’s large scale, female portraits dominate the upper corridor.

New Orleans herself hasn’t been left out of this femme-fete. Local artist and art teacher Rachel Loyacono painted a mural above the hotel’s courtyard pool featuring bright, colorful renderings of native plants. “It was funny, we were talking about the mural and her mother had pointed out that she [Loyacono] had actually used a couple of poisonous plants,” mused Freckelton. “But I said it works! It’s kind of nod to Fini’s rebellious ways.”

As it turns out, Fini was also a bonafide “cat lady” who cared for over fifty felines during the course of her life, furry characters who also often became subjects of her artwork. Guests will discover a cat hook on the back of their bathroom door, a brass cat sculpture who watches over the lobby and many other gamboling cats hidden about the premises.

Hospitality veteran Robert Thompson, founder and CEO of Angevin & Co., purchased The Frenchmen Hotel in 2021 and during the renovation contributed a lot of his own ideas to create The Frenchmen’s unique atmosphere. “He was fully integrated into the creative process. He is definitely a big part of our design team” says Freckelton.

The original 1860’s character of The Frenchmen remain, from ceiling medallions and hardwood floors, to exposed brick walls and crown molding. “This building had the most incredible bones.” says Freckelton. “It really was mostly a cosmetic renovation, you know? All the rooms are highly colorful, the upper floors have wood flooring, the bottom ones have new tile, fully renovated bathrooms.”

In describing her aesthetic strategy, Leonor Fini once said “I strike it, stalk it, try to make it obey me. Then in its disobedience, it forms things I like.” By rebelling against its very name, The Frenchmen Hotel has been transformed into an avant garde respite for both visitors and locals in the heart of one of New Orleans most bohemian of neighborhoods.

*Article originally published in The French Quarter Journal

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