First, a word on underwear. If black is your shade of choice for your smalls, you might want to be mindful of where you lay your lingerie when you turn in for the night at Mama Shelter. The combination of designer - that is, not very bright - lighting and black carpet against a background of black walls and a grey concrete ceiling can make retrieving your intimate garments from the night before somewhat challenging of a morning. (On a less racy note, this is also true of black socks. You have been warned.) On the plus side, there are scribbles and fragments of text woven into the carpet, so you'll have plenty to read while you're down there. Yes, these are interiors by Philippe Starck, and he's determined to win you over whether you're standing in the lobby or the shower or indeed crawling around on your hands and knees looking for the undies at large under the bed.
Starck's fingerprints are all over this, Paris's most talked about new hotel, but for once his involvement is not the most interesting aspect of the operation. What sets Mama Shelter apart is its core concept: it's a boutique hotel designed to do more for less - less cash, that is. It's an idea that has been catching on for a while now in the UK and US among other places, but in Paris, traditionally one of the most wallet-scorching cities of the world, it's a new and exciting thing.
The idea, says co-founder Serge Trigano, was a simple one. "In Europe, the cities have a lot of big luxury hotels that few people can afford and then a lot of very simple hotels, cheap but very boring - sad, even - and not much in between, and so we saw that we could create a new place." Trigano is no hospitality greenhorn. His father founded Club Med, he was a president, and now he runs Mama Shelter with his son Jeremie. "The idea was more to create a place to live than a classical hotel. A place where people could spend a day, two days with good atmosphere, good-looking people, but nice people."
The hotel's location is both one of the keys to its success and one of its liabilities. You're about six kilometres and €15 or €20 ($26-$35) by taxi from the centre of the city, so this might not be the best option for total Paris virgins, but it's not an especially arduous trip, either, and a bus runs from Rue de Bagnolet right past the Louvre. Rue de Bagnolet is a long street rich in kebab shops. It snakes through the 20th, an arrondissement itself best known for being home to the Père Lachaise, France's most famous boneyard and final resting place of Molière, Colette, Proust, Morrison, Wilde, Bizet, Rossini and Stéphane Grappelli. It's what amateur demographers call an "emerging" neighbourhood, reasonably well served by the Métro, though by no means a short walk from, say, the Louvre. Sitting between the markedly groovy Bastille neighbourhood (home to the Musée du Fumeur, the museum of smoking) and the very hip Belleville, it's a neighbourhood tagged with graffiti that speaks more of energy than of danger. The weekend market is patronised by people doing their shopping, not rubberneckers, and there's a vibrant after-dark scene anchored by live music venues such as Flèche d'Or (also owned by the Triganos). It's not all shawarmas and Monoprix at any rate, and the hotel seems primed to become the nucleus of something more.
"To be honest, it took a long time to get this one off the ground because a lot of people didn't think it was a good idea to be in this part of Paris and a lot of people didn't buy the concept," Trigano says. Other banks told him and his partners that they would finance a hotel with rooms but that the bar and restaurant wouldn't work, especially in this part of the city. "All the experts were wrong."
The key players, Trigano says, have each imposed their personalities on the former multi-storey car park to make it what it is. "We put together a team of people: my partner, Cyril Aouizerate, who is a funny guy more from the mix of real estate and philosophy, and Philippe Starck, who I'd been in contact with for years - he thought this was a great neighbourhood in which to create a hotel. Roland Castro was the architect and for the food we had different ideas but we ended up working with Alain Senderens, who is in my mind a very interesting man. We put all these people together and we created Mama Shelter."
Step into the lobby and you're left with no doubt that this is an aggressively hip place. In a nod to the urban setting, the ceiling is chalked with graffiti of the sort you might find adorning a bilingual teenage girl's pencil case. A row of cast ceramic tree-trunks divides the room. To your right are casually uniformed, uniformly good-looking young receptionists. The wall to your left is lined with glass cases filled with a preciously curated assortment of oddities and essentials: Kiehl's lotions on the one hand and candles cast in the shape of Barack Obama's head on the other. There are Napoleon hats and copies of Alison Jackon Confidential, The Big Penis Book and other Taschen-style art-porn hardbacks for the seriously out-of-control impulse buyers of the world. Then there are the masks of popular figures of fiction: Shrek and Superman, Darth Vader and Batman. And Asterix, naturally. More on them later.
The rest of the ground floor is occupied by a sprawling restaurant and lounge which serves guests and locals from breakfast through to the wee hours. The consultant on the food is Alain Senderens, the nouvelle cuisinier who made his reputation at Lucas Carton before famously slashing his prices and handing back his stars in 2005 with the intention of serving good food for less money. Here, it's all about comfort eating, Paris-style: steak frites, duck Parmentier and the like. "We are here in Paris, so we didn't want Asian food or fusion food, we wanted something French and something which is good and affordable," Trigano says. The "Mama Shelter" concept is articulated through home-style sharing dishes and large tables which cater well to families, business meetings and other groups of eight to 10 or so diners. Quirky touches such as the chalked ceilings and lamps trapped in bird cages marry with a photo booth wired to screens around the room, table soccer and live music several days a week to make for an atmosphere quite unlike that at any other Paris hotel. "We don't pretend to serve the best food in Paris, we serve the food that we would love ourselves to have when we travel," says Trigano. "You can have lunch for 20 euros, dinner for 35, 40 euro. It's not cheap, but it's not expensive."
The kookiness continues as you make your way up to your room. The lifts are papered floor to ceiling in a Barbara Krugeresque barrage of unnecessary knowledge ("It would take 1.2 million mosquitoes biting you simultaneously to drain all your blood. Walt Disney was afraid of mice"), English in one of them, French in the other. It gives you something to pretend to look at while you covertly eye-off the models of indeterminate nationality and gender staying on the fourth floor, or the Senegalese rappers on six. It's that sort of place.
The rooms aren't big, but the use of space is generally very clever. The beds are a good size and, crucially, comfortable and kitted out in quality linen. A 24-inch iMac on the wall functions as TV, DVD player, stereo and, if you fork out for the deposit for the wireless keyboard, computer and high-speed internet connection (which, unlike many of its foolish, foolish competitors, Mama Shelter provides for free). The bathroom is small without being annoyingly poky, and the Kiehl's products are a welcome touch. The cupboards are all open; oddly there's no natural place to put a suitcase of any size. The inclusion of a microwave and kettle is surprising (something to do with a "kitchenette" providing a planning loophole), but the absence of usable space in the bar fridge seriously limits their utility, and there's no room service.
Oddly, there's no overhead lighting. When you're looking for that stray bra, you're best off doing so in the daytime and pulling the curtains open. At night, the room is mostly lit by fluorescent tubes of the kind you'd see hanging in a garage covered with the very same masks sold in the lobby. Aesthetically speaking, they're Starck's genius at its finest, inventively combining two cheap elements to make a cool new statement; Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne's alter-egos will burn bright in your memory, even if they're not so great for reading by.
The big thing with Mama Shelter, ultimately, is price. For a basic single room, you're looking at €79 (around $140), which, for Paris, is pretty much unbeatable, unless you'd prefer to stay somewhere with stairs and a more, ahem, traditionally European approach to plumbing. Serge Trigano and his friends have wagered that today's switched-on traveller doesn't "necessarily need the big, big, big rooms with gold and diamonds". "The rooms here are small - they could be bigger - but at least here we find everything we believe we want and it is comfortable," he says. "Everything is conceived for the better experience of our customers at a good price. That's a trend we believe will outlast this recession. This kind of place with this kind of mix of price and atmosphere - I believe it's something that people have wanted for a long time."
More for less? Hotels designed for the comfort of guests and delivered at a good price? It's a crazy idea, but it might just take off. Expect a Mama Shelter coming to a city near you soon.