Shanghai in the 1930s was an expat hedonist's playground. Douglas Fairbanks called it "the most colorful, interesting, and progressive" city in the world, and for Shanghailanders — as the expat party set was known — their nexus was the Cathay Hotel. Built on the Bund by industrialist Victor Sassoon in the 1920s, it hosted George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin; Noël Coward wrote Private Lives in the penthouse.
This month, after a three- year revamp led by Singapore-based Hirsch Bedner Associates principal Ian Carr, the landmark formally relaunches as the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Carr's team found inspiration in hundreds of letters sent to the hotel over the years: "They helped us understand the people, the Shanghainese culture, and what the hotel was all about," he says. They led HBA to restore the hotel's original art-deco treasures, including priceless Lalique chandeliers and doors, and put millions into a new annex and interiors. Carr told us about a few other objects that inspired and enabled the project.
1. MacBook Pro and iPhone
"My lifelines," Carr says. "I use them to share ideas, review drawings, connect with my colleagues, my clients, and my family." The constant traveler's most valuable app: Kayak's Travel Planner, which he credits with "helping me get where I have to be." (MacBook and iPhone, from $1,199 and $499, apple.com; Kayak app, free, kayak.com/trips)
2. Marble Desk
Carr's desk, big enough for his team to meet around, is a custom-cut slab of Italian Arabescato marble. "It adds a visual and tactile pleasure to the vagaries of working in a design office," he says.
3. Pilot Pens and PrismaColor Pencils
"Throw that clichéd image of a designer sketching with a gilt pen out the window," Carr says. In design sessions, "ideas come fast and furious. To capture these, there is nothing better than Pilot Fineliners and Prismacolor Col-Erase pencils — simple tools capturing exuberant designs." (Fineliners, $1.19, and Col-Erase pencils, $6.69 for 12, dickblick.com)
4. Ruhlmann: Master of Art Deco
Florence Camard's book on furniture designer Jacques-émile Ruhlmann "was a great source of inspiration" for the hotel interiors. Carr says Ruhlmann's work is "infused with an innate elegance" that the team sought to re-create in the hotel. ($295, amazon.com)
5. IWC Big Pilot Watch
"A constant reminder of the balance that needs to be struck in our work: Fantastic designs must be supported by a core functionality." ($13,500, iwc.com)
6. Louis Vuitton Messenger Bag
A gift that's been "well used and abused," Carr's bag "embodies how we hope guests will feel after walking through the hotel's historic doors." How so? "It's imbued with memories of relationships, of travel, of trials, tribulations, and a wonderful depth of history." ($2,350, louisvuitton.com)
A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.