Grace Leo-Andrieu's high-design hotels have one thing in common: Each is unique. Fresh from the launch of new properties in Lisbon and London, she reflects on the art of reinvention and gives insider guides to six favorite destinations.

"Lisbon—I love it," says hotelier Grace Leo-Andrieu, explaining why she decided to open her latest property, the luxurious Bairro Alto, in Portugal's capital. "It's one of the last European cities to be discovered. It's really coming up solidly, like Dublin was in 1996 when I did the Clarence and some parts of the city were still slightly seedy. Lisbon is at exactly the same moment right now."

We should listen when Leo-Andrieu makes a pronouncement like that. It's not only that her career history is a catalog of successes, but also that she's quietly been setting the standard and the style of the haute-small-hotel world since the first project she took on with her newly formed hotel-management company in 1990: overseeing the design, management and launch of the Montalembert on Paris's Left Bank. Her work there attracted the attention of U2 lead singer Bono, owner of the Clarence in Dublin, who put her in charge of developing and launching the hotel. With the relaunch of Lisbon's Bairro Alto in November and the Cadogan in London this past spring, Leo-Andrieu and her company, Grace Leo-Andrieu International (GLA), will have been involved in the design, management, marketing or ownership of a total of 32 hotels around the world. GLA's portfolio includes properties in France, England, Portugal, Italy, Cyprus, the Seychelles, India, St. Bart's and Mustique. Each hotel is vastly different from the others, each features exquisitely sensitive service, and each is much-imitated. Usually poorly.

In these days of ubiquitous wenge wood, it's hard to comprehend that when Leo-Andrieu opened the cool and sexy Montalembert, it was honestly shocking. Paris had never seen pin-striped carpets and angular sofas paired with Louis-Philippe armoires before. It was an instant hit, especially with the fashion crowd, and it sparked a boutique revolution.

Leo-Andrieu, who embodies impeccable style herself, always looking enviably put-together in a Céline or Chanel suit, was one of the visionary handful of hoteliers who changed the industry's starchy image. Not only are GLA hotels redesigned regularly to keep their look current, but each one is also distinguished by its own particular style rather than conforming to some signature company-wide look. Leo-Andrieu prefers the epithet couture to the terms boutique and designer, which have been used for hotels with an easily reproducible style.

The Bairro Alto is a perfect example of Leo-Andrieu's individualistic approach. The lobby of the 55-room mid-18th-century building, which overlooks Lisbon's Camões Square and the Tagus River, has a terrazzo floor inlaid with a marble globe, a nod to Portugal's great era of exploration. The restaurant's walls are adorned with the familiar local azulejo tiles, but they're updated ones made for GLA, featuring more bottle green and ocher than azul.

The bar, meanwhile, is done in a cheeky '70s style, with Italian sofas and a see-through dumbwaiter for watching people's room-service orders ascend. Bedrooms with hand-painted wood panels are juxtaposed with polished marble bathrooms, and folk-meets-luxe woven bedspreads contrast with tailored leather headboards that have visible stitching.

The unifying factor in the GLA hotels' vastly divergent design schemes is la patronne's unerring eye. She is equally conversant in the languages of Edwardian London, the jet-set French Riviera, the tropical-colonial Caribbean and the 19th-century Parisian hôtel particulier—or, respectively, the Cadogan, the Royal Riviera in Nice, the Cotton House in Mustique and the Lancaster. The Cadogan has a not-unexpected black-and-white tile floor, wood paneling and a wrought-iron elevator, but the bedrooms have rather froufrou bedcovers of Chanel-like tweed edged in crimson velvet and handmade wall panels of a deconstructed paisley. At the Lancaster—a divine little Parisian palace that Leo-Andrieu rescued from mediocrity in 1996, and the only hotel she owns outright—Louis XVI furniture and pieces from the '30s meet rose damasks, ormolu clocks and Chinoiserie, an 18th-century fashion Leo-Andrieu loves and has taken to new lengths, hiring a feng shui master to arrange the Chinese art. The hotel's exceptional style extends to the restaurant, La Table du Lancaster, which is furnished with bright orange banquettes and decorated with 19th-century-style Chinese paintings and a Baccarat chandelier. The restaurant's French menu was created by world-renowned chef Michel Troisgros.

Finding Young-and-Hungry Talent

One of Leo-Andrieu's favorite parts of launching a hotel is the chance to discover promising, often untried talent. The Montalembert's original decor was the work of a then-unknown designer Leo-Andrieu discovered refurbishing her bankers' offices, a young man named Christian Liaigre, who has gone on to win international recognition with high-profile projects like the Mercer Hotel in New York City and the restaurant at the Ocean Club in the Bahamas. Leo-Andrieu is always looking for up-and-coming designers "who have great potential and a fresh approach—and who listen." The Bairro Alto, for instance, is the work of a pair of young designers from Porto, José Pedro Vieira and Diogo Rosa Lã, who impressed the hotelier not only with their talent, but also with their enthusiasm. "They were so hungry, they put in so much effort, then they worked so hard to make the project a success," she says. And they didn't disappoint. Being Portuguese, they were fluent in the local aesthetic, and being young, they were happy to mess with it.

Leo-Andrieu has used the same strategy to find chefs for many of the restaurants at her hotels. For the Cadogan in London, she found a young woman from New Zealand named Angela Taylor, who was at the London Ritz, to head its restaurant, Mes'anges. At the Royal Riviera in Nice, she hired Bruno Le Bolch, a chef she discovered at the K Club in Barbuda, West Indies.

To the Hotel Born

Leo-Andrieu has been training for her career since she was a child growing up in Hong Kong. Her Indonesian-born Chinese father owned the 150-room Astor Hotel, then the best property in the city. "I always liked to observe the people coming and going in the lobby area, all the glamour of it," she remembers. "A child is so impressed to see all these foreigners milling about." She and her brother and sister were raised by their ammas. They saw their parents only for dinner, which was a cosmopolitan affair: rijsttafel one night, steak au poivre at the hotel the next, then Cantonese food. "I was always exposed to many cultures," Leo-Andrieu says. "But I had no idea I was going to go into the business. As a child I dreamed of being a princess in Europe. I went on my own to the Alliance Française to learn French." She laughs. "I must have known something."

As the middle child, forever trailing her academically brilliant sister, Leo-Andrieu wasn't particularly expected to succeed. In high school she majored in domestic science: "My parents said, 'Great, she'll get married to the right man and be a hausfrau.' Little did they know!" She went on to major in economics and drama at California's Stanford University, but then transferred to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, at the suggestion of a cousin, an alumnus of its prestigious hotel school. She thoroughly enjoyed the program, and by her third job after graduation, was turning loser hotels around as vice president of Warwick International. "I would go to a hotel and fire everyone who needed to be fired and hire everyone who needed to be hired, and then I would put together a renovation program." She was 26 years old.

It wasn't only drive and talent that got her so far so fast—it was charm, which Leo-Andrieu has in abundance. She needed all those qualities when, in 1986, after five years at Warwick, she quit. "Everyone said, 'You're crazy! It's career suicide!' But I wanted to do something on my own." Switching from the power position to asking for assignments was "a huge lesson in humility," but Leo-Andrieu built her consulting business one hotel at a time, with ambitions to revamp not only the looks of a property, but also its service. "This is my heritage, coming from Asia, where service is the best in the world," she explains. "In Europe you have the savoir faire, but you don't have the same mentality. In Paris you have a 35-hour work week, so running a hotel with service 24/7 can be a real battle."

Leo-Andrieu's big break came in 1986, when she was asked to open Hotel Guanahani on St. Bart's. The next year, she got another kind of break when she met her husband, real estate developer Stéphane Andrieu, "through my banker. Very romantic!" They married in 1988 and, a year later, bought the future Montalembert.

The Leo-Andrieus also like to practice the art of reinvention at home. Recently they moved—with their 12-year-old daughter, Cérès—from a 17th-century château outside Paris to "a 21st-century town house" in the suburb of Neuilly; it has a 1940s limestone and brick facade and a renovated interior with charme-wood parquet floors and mid-century furniture. "My taste ranges from period mansions to clean-lines functional," Leo-Andrieu says, laughing. "When we've finished one house, we're usually thinking, Hmm—what shall we do next?"

In the future, there will certainly be more hotels, since Leo-Andrieu would like to operate several additional properties in Europe. For now, she's busy with her two most recent openings and her frequent trips to check on her various properties around the world and to visit family and friends in Hong Kong. And on her travels, she always makes time to discover great little shops and restaurants—exciting new places or older ones known only to clued-in locals—in search of inspiration for her home, wardrobe or next big job.