Think of the most Instagrammable swimming pools in the world — chances are that Jean-Michel Gathy will have designed them.
We all want to be remembered for something, and designing the world’s most show-stopping swimming pools is one of the more tempting career choices one can make. But unfortunately for any aspiring luxury designers out there, that accolade has already been taken by Jean-Michel Gathy — a man famous for working wonders with water.
You may not know him by name, but click on an article about the prettiest pools in the world and Gathy probably designed most of them. In fact, think of the most Instagrammable swim you have ever had and the chances are that this suave, Belgian-born designer is behind it.
“I am the father of these swimming pools,” he says, with great authority. “The hotel management, they are the babysitters, but I am their father and I take them very seriously. The pools are everything in my properties. I am a man who loves charisma, emotion and drama, and water embodies all of those things.”
Since the 1993 opening of his first hotel, Amanvana in Indonesia, Gathy has been highly sought after by the world’s top-tier hospitality brands; he now counts Aman Resorts, the One & Only, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and Park Hyatt Hotels among his many clients. His architectural firm, Denniston International, is based in Kuala Lumpur and employs 150 of the brightest and best designers in the world.
In the course of his career, Gathy has become increasingly more famous for his work with water. He pioneered the use of private plunge pools, practically invented rooftop infinity pools, and, along the way, has even transformed the aesthetic of major brands — the reflective pools at his Aman properties, for example, have become some of the hotel group’s most iconic designs.
And some of his creations feel almost too beautiful to swim in. The pool in St Regis Lhasa in Tibet is lined in glazed gold plate and shimmers in the light; the Amanyara pool in Turks and Caicos is made from black volcanic rock; The Setai in Miami Beach has three parallel 30m lakes; and everybody knows Singapore’s Instagram favourite — the rooftop pool of the Marina Bay Sands.
“I’m obsessed with water,” he says. “The reason I like water in hotel designs is that it’s so peaceful and relaxing. There is nobody in the world who doesn’t like lakes or rivers. Think how you feel when you’re by water — calmer, right? Well, that’s why I try to incorporate water into all my designs. It soothes the mind. For me, a hotel without water is boring. Of course, I’m talking about resort hotels — but if I can put water in a business hotel, I do. It’s the most powerful element in a building.”
So who better to ask about designing a pool of one’s own than the man who rebuilt his own house in Kuala Lumpur just so he could see his vast slate-grey pool from his bedroom each morning? “People often forget that water is the best way to portray lighting, colours and softness,” he says. “Water is my secret to making everything look beautiful.”
His first tip is to ensure that you respect the culture of whichever country you are in. “Asia is silky, Africa is gutsy, Europe is correct and I try to ensure all my designs follow those concepts. The sense of place is very important, even in a swimming pool.”
Next is the view. The owners of Marina Bay Sands wanted their iconic pool to look over the sea, but Gathy switched it around to face the city as he believed that was the more interesting visual. “There is something spectacular about sitting in water looking at an urban landscape,” he says.
Gathy also knows that water is the best way to ensure your house is as picturesque by night as it is by day. “If you choose a beautiful site, you see the sea or a mountain in the day, but if you look at the same view at night, it is a black hole. But my pools, they are my night-time décor because they reflect the trees, the hills, the lights and the house itself. So it is important to position a pool somewhere you can see it at night.”
Finally, if there is any sort of ambient noise that you would rather not hear then add a water feature to your pool. “It is incredible how any sort of moving water breaks the noise,” he says. “Making a beautiful swimming pool is like orchestrating a dance. There are many components, but when it works, it is magical.”