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The Anatomy of Good Design

Here is how inspiration, teamwork and smart thinking come together to create amazing hospitality design.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013
Caryn Eve Murray
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The most dynamic, eclectically furnished and, to some degree malleable room in any hotel is not any granite-garbed, spa-style bathroom, high-tech revolving restaurant or wood-paneled lobby embraced by a towering atrium: It is the largely unseen room that houses the imagination of the hotel’s design team as it synergizes form and function with brand standards and, ultimately, even budget.

It is a room marked by careful beginnings and well-planned endings among architects, interior designers and engineers.

For artist Janet Van Arsdale, a veteran in custom wall coverings, art and architectural finishes, the design process for a project often begins with her own home-grown database of a half-million high-resolution, texture-rich photographs, everything from old doors with peeling paint in the American South to the manhole covers of Poland, all taken during her travels.

“We go for feeling and texture,” she said. Photographs, frequently altered by collage, computer art, watercolor or texture, form the basis for framed art, wall covering and other treatments. All of that is transformed, in collaboration with a designer who has crafted an overall vision, whether it is a regional one or thematic.

In one Atlanta hotel, she said, the design team envisioned a library theme that would define the central elegant, tall atrium. Photographs played a larger-than-life role in that.

“There was an atrium from which all the floors were visible,” she said. “It was just beautiful. We made it so you could see floor-to-ceiling books, some on their side, some standing up. It was our theme.” The design’s raw material came from law-library photos she had taken during one of her travels, photos sparkling with gold-leaf detail on the pages and imprints on the covers. It was, she said, true design collaboration.

That interpretive element is, in fact, the hallmark of her company. She said. “How we are different is that we can work with blueprints or a take a designer’s vision and make art out of it,” she said. “We are attached to the designer. We give the designer what they want so the finished product, our piece of artwork, fits exactly into their scheme, every single thing. We don’t just make it a picture on the wall, we make sure it is an integral part of the design.”

Toby Schermerhorn of Cauhaus Design mines a rich library too, one that largely comprises books and research in many forms. “Every single project for me is an opportunity to go shopping,” she said. And her safari frequently takes her in search of images and texture.

“From the design side,” she said, “the first thing I do is research.” Books on South Asian pottery and blankets helped shape a project in southern India some years ago, and another project, in Edmonton, Canada, bore the influence of Canadian Native imagery. For a project in New Orleans, she said, she sought accuracy in flavor from an even more unusual source: “I bought cookbooks,” she said.

“Once we start designing and have gotten the pragmatic things out of the way, and the space planning and relationship of spaces are correct, we start to layer in the texture. It is programmatically driven…It is much more about the end user and the space itself than it is about us.” A St. Louis project embraced the theme of an industrial warehouse. In New Orleans, she said, she is creating a theme of “bordello chic.” The Edmonton project is “Mid-Century Modern.” All the while, she said, it is important to keep in mind that “this is a functioning space, not a gallery or big free-for-all. It is a functioning space with some criteria.”

In Atlanta, she partnered with Van Arsdale on the library-stacked atrium and recalled how, she said, “when I was standing in that atrium looking from left to right it reminded me of library stacks when you are in those monumental libraries and you can look up and see all the books.”

That, she said, is the essence of teamwork. “We like working with people who GET us, it just makes it easier. … What we find is that about half the time is an our inspiration from an artwork standpoint and half the time it is working with a partner vendor who might really have a good idea too.”

Oftentimes, she said, another rallying point for everyone can be the design tool of a mood board. She said it proves to be a helpful central gathering spot for team members, as they refer to words and imagery that guide their respective processes in furniture, lighting and fabric design.

“It helps us to all be on the same page,” she said. “Where it comes in really really handy is when you have so many people working on a project, engineers and architects and you might have multiple designers in different areas, guest rooms and public spaces.”

Designer Brian G. Thornton believes in the lessons drawn from listening to the client. “This is humans designing for humans,” he said. “So if you are not listening to what your client is asking for out of the gate, you have missed a huge opportunity to make an inroad in a successful project.” Much of those insights are drawn from his extensive work in residential design which, he called the most invasive form of design.

“People sometimes cannot communicate,” he said, so he breaks down the barriers there by asking them to provide him with images, photos, magazine pages, and the like. Hotel design, really, is no different, he said.

“When I am doing hotels, it is all about listening. Commercial clients are a little more sophisticated, they will come to you with a design brief or a property improvement plan, an official document saying this is what the brand requires,” he said.

But every creative process affected by the codes and the laws, and he does his homework here as well. “The client will respect me for guiding them,” he said. “It is all a part of the educational process. You are educating your clients, hopefully.”

He said a current project, a 1928 building in Boston with an Art Deco style, needs refreshing. “My job is to edit. There is an opportunity to keep it fresh and make it look 21st century. I have to make it comfortable and safe and make sure the materials we are using are legal. I have never worked in Boston before and the fire codes are the most stringent. It is making me rethink every textile….every fabric has to be tested, every liner, every frame.”

For Thornton it is safety first, aesthetics second – certainly with regard to the Boston project.

The same process applies across the board with all projects too: “We draw well, we listen well, we read everything,” he said. He learns the brand standards of the hotel he is working for and he works carefully with companies that are rebranding to new standards, taking his cue from all elements in the environment – including a restaurant menu, as was the case for one redesign for a Midwestern casino’s steakhouse.

“The menu drove the design of the restaurant,” he said. “It was a sort of Midwestern style grill, it is definitely Midwestern architecture, prairie style, wooden plank floors. So we used chocolate browns, oranges, colors you find in cooked meat at different temperatures. It should be an experience to sit in this.”

And he is always researching, whether he is on the job or off, so he takes copious notes during his own personal travels. “Whenever I check into a hotel I walk the entire property, before I unpack my suitcase. I photograph the room. I come in as a hotel guest and not a designer. I am looking at the artwork, the headboards, the carpet; the textures that help make this a good guest experience for me. I am in the bathroom looking at the layout, are things working properly? And I draw from inspiration: I am staying in a mountain lodge and the art work relates to the Rocky Mountains, a lot of things relate to nature, those things play in.”

Guided by architectural code, space needs and brand requirements, Jun Chun of The Gettys Group said it all comes down to menus in another literal sense: lists of what’s being ordered by the client.

“The client tells us let’s create this and eliminate this, they present a really long document in creating their brand standard. It is really thick and they create the programming for this project. You have the standard and you have an architectural plan and you have a PIP….At that point we have the basic ingredients so now it is ‘how are you going to cook this, how are we going to be inspired?’ ”

With this guidance and input from the management company, he turns to magazines, photographs and books -- and oftentimes it is history books – to create something tasteful and appropriate, but also fitting with the practical, architectural reality.

“We are not inventing design all the time, we are always looking back,” he said. “That is why we study architecture history. There are a lot of layers of thoughts by designers. So I am always going back to history elements. That doesn’t mean traditional though. We try to revitalize and then balance in a contemporary way.”

At one top Chicago restaurant, for instance, he found himself balancing spatial experience of the restaurant with the client’s desire for space to display the food properly, to seat the customers comfortably and also to create mood lighting as well as lighting to spotlight the surroundings.

“We had to talk to the management company, we had to talk to F&B, it was a multi-layer process,” he said.

Whether at a restaurant or a hotel, oftentimes a lighting consultant and a sustainability consultant are added to the mix, along with a mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineer “and it will impact design later,” he said. “Wall thickness will affect the type of finishes you use. You need to know if there are going to be big ugly electrical panels” and whether they can – or should – be hidden.

Coordination is key, and also confidence-building.

“We need to remember the client is buying our expertise, they want our advice and we have to educate these guys. The client hires us because they don’t know what to do,” he said.

Schermerhorn adds one final challenge, which sums up the joy of the job: “My biggest challenge is editing,” she said. “I want everything! I want to be one of those people who have seven houses and every one is different.”
Credit
Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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