Salvador Dali, one of the most famous artists of the 20th century, was never shy about his love of luxury. “Liking money like I like it is nothing less than a mysticism,” he said in a quote from a New York Times article about his life at the age of 80. “Money is a glory.”
Four years later, at the age of 84, Dali was severely injured in a fire in his castle in Spain and died soon after of his injuries in the mansion that now serves as a museum to his life. To afford his extravagant lifestyle while he was alive, Dali not only sold his paintings, but also appeared in advertisements for brands such as Braniff International Airways and Alka-Seltzer. He also reputedly signed his name on thousands of sheets of blank paper so that they could later be printed with lithographs and sold for income.
It is easy to imagine Dali’s ghost drifting with the trade winds from Spain to Texas, and stopping for his favorite cocktail, the Casanova, at Babou’s, a nightclub in the bottom floor of Hôtel Swexan, a 134-room boutique hotel that recently opened in Dallas. Named after Dali’s pet ocelot, whom he famously called an ordinary cat “painted over in an op art design,” Babou’s is appropriately swathed in a leopard print rug. It has the feel of a place where a mega-star like Taylor Swift would hang out with her entourage after playing a sold out show at the nearby AT&T Stadium. (Dali’s ghost, it goes without saying, would ask for a photograph with her.) Adorned with black and white photographs of Dali in front of artworks, and hanging out with celebrities of his time, the space is stuffed with red leather couches, gilded frames, velvet drapes and even a room full of bookshelves, but it doesn’t feel overdone. Instead, it feels like pure luxury. Or, as Dali would have said, like glory.
Babou’s is one of five hospitality concepts in Hôtel Swexan, the latest offering from Harwood International, the family-owned real estate group that has developed 19 city blocks in the heart of uptown Dallas. Designed by Kengo Kuma, the Japanese architect who also created the Tokyo Olympics Stadium, the hotel is meant to serve as “a bustling block in New York City turned vertically,” says Melinda Clark, the design director at Harwood International. Each space, she added, “is perfectly designed to take you on a journey that you never want to leave.” The name, which is a moniker of “Swiss meets Texas,” embodies many dualities. In the design, lush materials are used with tasteful restraint; indoor spaces seamlessly combine with outdoor terraces designed to look out over city gardens; each space embodies an entirely different mood, ranging from old Hollywood glamour to English teahouse to Moroccan souck. “We create food and environments that take you from Dallas and make you feel you are in another place and time,” says Clark of the Harwood district, of which Hôtel Swexan is the most recent addition.
As a freelance art writer, I had to give up on the concept that money is a glory very long ago — I do not want to go crazy. But as a guest at Hôtel Swexan, where rooms start at $625 a night, I did feel like I was privy to the sort of lifestyle that Dali spent his lifetime attaining.
Everything from the brass fixtures on the lights in my room, to the rose quartz countertops in a restroom off the ballroom, to the hand-made Moroccan tiles that enclosed the pool on the rooftop, to the massive 17th century French limestone fireplace in the lobby, to the shimmering sheets of chain metal that swayed in the breeze underneath the ceiling of the porte-cochère next to the entrance, spoke to the sort of high-quality materials and good taste only those with unlimited resources can afford. “It’s true, I don’t ever want to leave,” I told Clark as she walked me around, showing off the beautiful objects she had handpicked from myriad sources like the owner’s private collection, 1stDibs, Artist Uprising and Chairish to adorn the property’s restaurants, lounges, guestrooms and eight suites, all of which have different themes. (My favorite was the Japanese suite, which featured a gold-leaf printed Japanese screen that had been unfolded to hang as a painting above the living area.)
Luxury is at the heart of the Harwood District, which began with a Rolex office building in 1984, and has since expanded to include ten office towers, two condominium towers, 16 restaurants and Hôtel Swexan. But so is walkability and natural beauty. Dallas is not a city known for either. (My driver from the airport, who moved from Dallas by way of Ethiopia and Virginia, said that a lack of both was the main thing that was missing from a city that he otherwise loves.)
The Harwood District in oasis amidst the freeways. It is a place where you can leave your car and walk through a public garden full of ponds to grab a bite at a quaint French café or Italian gelateria. This is because the owner of the real estate group, Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, who was born in Geneva, initially bemoaned the dearth of good espresso when he moved to Dallas in the late 1970s to marry his wife, Ann, a Texas native. He was determined to change that. At the heart of the towering skyscrapers, therefore, is not a core of steel; but instead, a decent cappuccino.
At the heart of Hôtel Swexan, on the other hand, is an eclectic art collection consisting of painted Japanese screens, original watercolors by Swiss artist Uwe Wittwer and a fluorescent bulb sculpture of a cowboy, among many other carefully curated objects. Art enhances the aesthetic experience, but also makes the interior spaces feel more like a home. “The story of the artwork in the hotel began over a century ago with the first of what is now four generations of avid art collectors,” says Jessica Liu Beasley, the curator of art at the Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum: The Samurai Collection, which is housed in a former school across the street from the hotel. “Across these generations, the interiors of the family homes are always impressive, filled with exquisite art from around the world, but at the same time comfortable, providing interaction with the works in an inviting, relaxed environment.”
A highlight the Harwood District is the Samurai armor collected by Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller for the past three decades. The 1,000 piece collection, which is one of the largest of such objects outside of Japan, is mainly housed in the Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum: The Samurai Collection, which is free and open to the public. Parts of the collection have traveled to myriad locations, including the High Museum in Atlanta; 140 objects will next travel to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in an exhibition that will open on April 20, 2024.
Mannequins wearing Samurai armor from the collection are also installed throughout the many public lobbies and restaurants in the Harwood District. Their presence adds visual continuity throughout the district’s many public and private spaces — and perhaps serve as a warning to visitors not to engage in any funny business. In Harwood 14, for example, four Samurai in full regalia seemingly stand in wait on the staircase for visitors checking in at the security desk. A world-class collection of Samurai armor is perhaps not what you would expect in a contemporary mixed-use district that houses many banks and law firms; but this is, after all, Dallas, where eccentricity and bold taste is celebrated, especially if it’s bigger and better than anywhere else.
I never did get to have a drink with Dali’s ghost at Babou’s — as the mother to two young children, I can’t keep my eyes open much past 10pm. But I did live in glory at Hôtel Swexan with Dali as my inspiration, bathing in a tub that had a spigot that streamed from the ceiling; lying in a crisp, white King bed, looking out over the Harwood District, and beyond, the Dallas Arts District; lounging in a cabana by the Moroccan pool; washing my hands in a rose quartz sink; enjoying a perfectly cooked HWD filet mignon at Stillwell’s, the property’s traditional Texas steakhouse; and of course, admiring the exquisite craftsmanship of the Samurai armor.
Staying alone in the Hôtel Swexan was a form of aesthetic appreciation that as a working mother with almost no time to myself, I could really appreciate; worth more than the money it cost. A form of glory in itself.