"Thoughtful quirk" might sound like a character in a novel but they're pretty much the two best words to describe what's going on in the 359-room Mondrian London, a swish new upmarket boutique hotel in the British capital.
How else would you describe 3D spacemen in the elevator, giant blue anchor-style chain links in the foyer and a general ambience that's akin to a stylised 1920s cruise ship? It's as if the Titanic had crashed into Dr Who's Tardis and created a mesmerising melange of the old, the new, the weird and the wonderful.
Part of the United States giant Morgans Hotel Group, the Mondrian London opened in September in part of the old Sea Containers building on the South Bank of the Thames in increasingly sexy Southwark.
Built in the late 1970s it was originally conceived as a luxury hotel (for anyone with a loose grasp of geography it's right next to the iconic OXO tower) until commercial concerns forced a change of use to office space. This was mostly taken up by Sea Containers, the transport and container leasing company which went bankrupt in 2006.
After a period in the doldrums, the building was more or less handed over to renowned British designer Tom Dixon. Given carte blanche on his first-ever hotel project Dixon, who designed the iconic S chair and was awarded an OBE in 2001, created an immersive artwork which pays respectful homage to the building's history while simultaneously dragging it, giggling all the time, into the 21st century.
It also works quite well as a hotel.
From the oceanic sweep of the copper-panelled wall in the foyer down to the subterranean glamour of the Agua bathhouse and spa and up to the rooftop Rumpus Room bar with its in-your-face view of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, the Mondrian is a cheeky, wry, idiosyncratic feast for the senses.
You've got to admire the chutzpah, for instance, in the decision not to have any signage at the front entrance. Instead, a curving metallic wall of copper plate, reminiscent of a ship's hull, curves from outside and seems to pass through the building's glass exterior wall before continuing inside.
An artwork of huge, interlinked blue chains – another homage to the building's maritime past – dominates the foyer. Behind this, the reception desk is simply an elegantly round-edged opening in the impressive sweep of the copper wall, which flows off around the corner towards the hotel's dining room.
In every area of the hotel there are reminders that this isn't just any old place to lay your head. In the elevators as the doors open you're confronted by two funky 3D figures on the far wall. The pairings – tattooed rocker with Tudor queen, blonde bimbo with bowler-hatted gent, NASA spaceman with pearly king – playfully toy with pre-conceived ideas of America and Britain. The helmeted spaceman, by the way, is designer Tom Dixon himself.
The bathrooms here would put the first-class cabins on any glamorous art deco ocean liner to shame.
This use of parts of the original building to pay tribute to its history is most striking in the spa. According to one member of staff the occasional visitor, coming for a sticky-beak at what's been done to this London landmark, recognises the reception desk there as the one that used to greet visitors in the old foyer.
The spa itself, which is two floors down and under the Thames waterline, is a startlingly white oasis of tranquillity. There is a smallish gym, steam rooms, treatment rooms where you can get "billion dollar eyebrows", an equivalent of a Turkish hamam called the Mud Room (not Thames mud, you'll be pleased to know) and a relaxation room which boasts an amazing teardrop-shaped sculpture that looks, to my mind, like a golden trumpet.
Even if you don't stay at the hotel it's worth checking out its eclectic downstairs bar, Dandelyan, which has cocktail wunderkind Ryan Chetiyawardana at the helm. Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan) has a successful, iceless cocktail bar, The White Lyan, in the East End's increasingly trendy Hoxton district but has turned his herbal hand to designing the cocktail list here.
It's a list that's divided up into cereal, vegetal, mineral and floral sections. Pull up a stool at the beautiful green marble bar and try the Defrutum, a botanical cocktail of vodka, Tio Pepe sherry, Peychaud bitters and clay. Yes, clay.
As for the rooms, they're designed to within an inch of their lives – but in a good way. The light switches next to the bed are large and easy to use. If like Tom Dixon, you ever spent too much time in a hotel room trying to work out which combination of flicks and switches turns the lights off, you'll appreciate the gesture.
Well-appointed and comfortable, with a bright colour palette, each room features a drip wall painting by Dixon as well as his signature wingback chair. Try to get a room overlooking the river as some of the others face a bit of Southwark that isn't sexy – not yet at least.
The writer was a guest of VisitEngland and Morgans Hotel Group.
20 Upper Ground, London, SE1 9PD
Rooms at the Mondrian range from standard through to riverview deluxe and up to loft suites, balcony suites and Riverview Apartments and cost from ($380) a night, twin share. See mondrianlondon.com.