With South Africa holding firmly onto its reputation as one of the world’s most diverse safari destinations, the list of top hotels scattered throughout the country is lengthy.
To counter this conundrum of how to construct your perfect itinerary, Liz Biden and her family have developed four divine properties empowering guests to experience the best of the city, sea, wine region, and, of course, the bush.
As the Founder and visionary behind The Royal Portfolio, Liz’s genius approach to curating exquisite spaces is at the heart of each property. After selling her fashion business, it seems as though channeling her passion for luxury hospitality into the creation of a brand with international credibility was fated. Her signature maximalist style welcomes guests into warm and inviting spaces in which they are transported from the quotidian into environments that feel truly exceptional.
How did you get into interior design?
Well, I had been retired for about two days when I looked at my husband, Phil, and said, “What about just turning our private homes into private hotels?” He looked at me like I was mad, but we started with Royal Malewane [in the bush] and we enjoyed it so much and it went so well that then, we went to our beach house [in Hermanus] and turned it into Birkenhead House. And then, Phil and his friend had a little wine farm – that became La Residence. So those three were our holiday homes. But, The Silo is different.
We thought we had to add the city to the collection – we looked for property for about ten years before The Silo came about. It’s in a wonderful position on the V&A Waterfront. I’ve always loved traveling and I just put together everything that I’ve loved in that hotel. I think when you see my properties, you can see that nothing is particularly planned – every room is completely different.
What is your design philosophy?
To me, it’s very important that you have comfort. It’s all very well to have some designer couch, but if you can’t sit in it, what’s the point? So that’s always first in my mind. Before I buy a bath, I lie in it. Before I buy a chair or a couch, I sit in it. So, it’s important to me that not only does it look nice but that it has to be comfortable. And I love a little bit of magic. To me, I can’t do anything beige and white. To create a little bit of theatre is important. And to have a bit of fun.
I love my guests to think, “Ah, that’s entertaining” or, “That’s unusual.” And then of course, I like it to be destination specific. For instance, if you look at Birkenhead House, it’s light and breezy; it belongs at the sea. And you compare that to La Residence, which is where the French Huguenots started our wine industry – it’s much more opulent and much more dramatic with the furnishings. Royal Malewane is thatch and everything is outdoors whereas The Silo is hip and art focused.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I do maximalism, not minimalism; I love so many things and putting them all together. No matter where we go, I’m always looking and collecting things – I drive my husband completely mad! We’ll be coming home from Florence with twenty-four glasses in a packet. But those little things, to me, add interest. I’ve been very influenced by travels to the East as well as Morocco and India. I find the colours there very exciting. I don’t really do any research on places to shop, but it sort of just happens by accident.
What makes The Royal Portfolio so special?
Our staff make it very special. We have a really strong culture; everyone has a little card on them at all times and they can recite the Royal Portfolio culture and philosophy. I think during these very hard times this past year, it’s kept us together. My brother looks after this area of the business and we’ve spent a lot of time doing hospitality training. He encourages everyone to be the best they can be – whether that’s while cleaning the windows or baking a cake. We have a lot of return guests who love to see the same faces, so having loyal staff makes a difference.
Talk us through one of your favourite hotel/ room projects?
I couldn’t tell you, because I change my ideas every time I stay in one of our rooms. I love all of our rooms, every single one – we have over one hundred cumulatively even though our properties are so tiny. But if someone moves something and I go back to the property, I know. We have lots of laughs together about that.
Where do you get your inspiration?
A lot from travelling, but also watching Netflix! Of course, Instagram as well – looking. You get inspiration everywhere you are, everywhere you go you’ll be inspired if you’re that sort of person.
How important is ‘local’ to your work?
Especially in Africa, where there are so many people trying to make a living, it’s very important. I learned a very good lesson at Royal Malewane right in the beginning. I had an important French guest – he owned half of Bordeaux – who sat down to have dinner in the dining room. I had to produce the wine list and I went over saying “I’m sorry, I don’t have many wines from your area.” He taught me such a good lesson, he said, “When I come to your country, I don’t want to drink my wine, I want to drink your wine.”
It taught me a jolly good lesson. When people come here, they want to see what we can make and what we can do. Especially at The Silo, nearly everything is made locally in Cape Town, or within South Africa. All the art is African. I’ve always adored art – when I walk into a room, it’s the first thing I look at. We are above Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) so I just thought to myself, we can’t have any overseas artists, we’ve got to go local. I started going to every single art fair and auction; I spoke to the curator of MOCAA and he steered me in certain directions and boy, I got so into it. We’ve got over 300 pieces at The Silo; it’s so lovely to see guests come back from their art tour at the museum and they’ll say “Oh, we saw Cyrus [Kabiru]” and I’ve got nine pieces of his at the hotel. It’s lovely how it flows.
What are your go-to local interiors brands?
Well, that’s a difficult one because just about everything we design ourselves. I will go to our manufacturer and say, “I want a chair that looks like this,” and we’ll develop that together. Practically everything comes from local manufacturers. I always enjoy looking at people like DOKTER AND MISSES. I’ll go to auctions and pick up pieces and adjust them; it’s all haphazardly done by me, I’m afraid.
What other hotels do you really admire (in terms of style)?
Kit Kemp has a very similar philosophy to me – there’s always a bit of fun and colour. She does her own thing, which I admire. When I’m in New York, I love The Whitby and Crosby Street Hotel. I was always a Carlyle fan, too; you feel grand when you walk in there, whether it’s for tea or breakfast or a stay. And, of course, I always love going to Soho House hotels because they are so relaxed and make you feel at home; their property in the Cotswolds is lovely.
How does travelling influence your designs and tastes?
Every year we go to Marrakech and I always come back with more colour ideas, natural wall colourings or tile ideas. If you look at the house we’ve moved into now, you can see all the walls are these mad colours and I’m sure a lot of that has been stored away from my visits to Marrakech. I think travel definitely opens your eyes and influences you in whatever you do.
For our readers, what tips can you share vis-à-vis bringing a touch of Liz Biden magic into their homes?
Well I would say you have to be brave. Buy something you like, not because you’ve seen it elsewhere. A designer friend of mine once said, “If you buy something good, you can put it next to anything that’s good.” Don’t take things too seriously; use colour. Any colour goes together. Look at your favourite scarf, drape it in your lounge and you’ll be amazed at the colours you can put together – pinks and oranges and greens and blues. Make it your own style; people don’t want to see someone else’s style; they want to see yours.
And for a touch of The Royal Portfolio at home, we’ve just started our Emporium. We’re still working on it and deciding what to put on, but we’ve just started with simple things like these lovely handmade silk cushions with hand embroidered braids and some of our pottery. We have local designers who paint this pottery and we use it in all the cupboards of the rooms. And of course, our gowns and our linens which are made especially for us. Finally, there’s the book, A Perfect Stay, which is a collection of our favourite things.