It Takes A Village
James Tufenkian, Clodagh, and local artisans join forces to boost high-end tourism in Armenia
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 1/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Never mind the jaw-dropping mountain landscapes, the old-world romance, and the spellbinding early Christian ruins— few world travelers think of Armenia as a destination. A dearth of luxury accommodations has been partly to blame. But that's now changing, thanks to a group of properties reinvented by two of New York's design notables.
Tufenkian Heritage Hotels is the brainchild of owner James Tufenkian. An Armenian by descent and a social crusader by nature, he's best known as the founder and head designer of Tufenkian Carpets. Since rediscovering his impoverished ancestral homeland after its 1991 'independence from the Soviet Union, he has embarked on a range of ventures to boost the country's economic development. His plan includes not only new rug-making facilities but also a tourism initiative.
Of the five hotels he envisions, three have already opened: Avan Villa Yerevan, Avan Dzoraget, and Avan Marak Tsapatagh. (Avan means village in Armenian.) The fourth hotel, currently under construction, is in the Areni winemaking region; the fifth is in Dilijan, an old resort town where Tufenkian is also developing art galleries, crafts shops, and restaurants.
"Everything we build has to be contemporary and comfortable but still reflect the character of the country," he says. "I see Armenia as exotic and high-end. The lodgings are geared to that."
Avan Villa Yerevan, located in Armenia's capital city, is a former residence set on a hillside facing the snowcapped peak of Mount Aragats. Two hours north of Yerevan, Avan Dzoraget sits between the Debed River and a panorama of towering rock formations, not far from two 10th-century monasteries. Avan Marak Tsapatagh, two hours northeast of the capital, rises from the foundations of an old stone barn on the shore of pristine Lake Sevan. All are robust stone structures, influenced by the area's early ' Christian and vernacular architecture and informed by the contemporary serenity of furnishings designed and fabricated under the supervision of Tufenkian and Clodagh.
"I've always supported working with local artisans," says Clodagh, whose Armenian-made rugs for Tufenkian can be found throughout the three properties. "For the hotels, James really enlisted the community." Indeed, his Yerevan-based design team capitalized on the country's diverse geography and indigenous craft traditions—for results as rich as they are different. Armenians are especially deft in stonemasonry and ironwork as well as rug-making, and each hotel reflects that.
At Avan Marak Tsapatagh, a long, gabled fieldstone building, the 34 guest rooms feature simple tables and desks in wrought iron and local basalt. Substantial wooden door frames, Clodagh says, "add visual weight." To create a continuous sight line from the lake at one end of the building to the Caucasus Mountains on the other, she added windows to the front facade.
The hotel's freestanding restaurant, Zanazan, is modeled after an Armenian 19th-century dining hall. A cathedral ceiling caps the double-height space, which derives its rustic flavor from exposed beams, fieldstone walls, arched doorways, and an open oven for baking lavash, a native flatbread. By contrast, the locally fabricated steel furniture might remind design-conscious visitors of Parsons tables or Jean Prouvé chairs.
A satellite facility of a very different provenance, a Soviet-era bomb shelter is being transformed into a bar at Avan Dzoraget. Public areas in the ' main building include a second-floor lounge where chunky upholstered armchairs and coordinating Armenian handwoven wool rugs gather round a freestanding octagonal hearth. A grand staircase rises through this soaring volume to reach a spacious third-floor mezzanine. The hotel's 34 rooms and apartmentlike suites lie here and on the floor below.
At the urban Avan Villa Yerevan, the walls of the dining hall are faced in unpolished white travertine. Local ironworkers made the drum-shape chandeliers and the high-backed chairs—medieval in inspiration, as is the communal walnut table.
Avan Villa Yerevan has only 14 guest rooms, but they share many similarities with the more numerous accommodations at the two other Tufenkian properties. Bathrooms are finished in fieldstone, granite, or marble, lightened by glass shower enclosures and additional windows. "Novel concepts for Armenia," Clodagh explains. Tufenkian rugs and wall hangings appoint the bedrooms. Bedspreads—all in hand-spun, hand-dyed wool—are the work of the Armenian Knitting Ladies.
Founded at Christmas four years ago to give temporary income to 30 indigent craftswomen, Tufenkian's program has grown to employ a group of 200, year-round. It's just one more example of design's power to endure and inspire.