A Movable East
Asian investors and visitors are transforming luxury hotels
Gretchen Kelly and Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 10/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
At the Heritage House, a vine-covered 1877 lodge on California's Mendocino coast, the front door has long been Nancy Reagan red. The renovated suites, meanwhile, are unexpectedly spare, with an earthy palette and rain showers recalling the subtropical chic popularized by Amanresorts International. In fact, the project, completed by Jaya & Associates, was initiated by Aman founder Adrian Zecha's General Hotels Management.
Also commissioned by Zecha, Denniston International Architects & Planners principal Jean-Michel Gathy has completed four Aman locations as well as bringing mellow teak and salvaged Shanghai deco bricks to a Miami Beach hotel for its reincarnation as the Setai. Gathy tracks current global attitudes in exotic hospitality to experiments undertaken during the last decade in Asia. "Customers have started seeing hotels in a new context, lifestyle as opposed to lodging," he says. "If you want to impress, go for indirect lighting and the intense emotion in natural materials like bronze and wood."
As hospitality designers scrape away popcorn ceilings and rip up wall-to-wall, it's increasingly investors from the Middle and Far East who are footing the bill. In this respect, rapidly expanding companies such as Jumeirah and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts are following in the outsize footsteps of the Hilton Hotels Corporation in the mid-20th century. Asian luxury brands making inroads into Europe and North America are working with star Western designers to translate Eastern cultural values into the guest experience.
This year, a controlling stake in Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts passed into the hands of His Royal Highness Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, via his Kingdom Hotels International. Four Seasons vice president of design and construction Dana Kalczak says that she sometimes recommends deferring to the Middle East's customs and enthusiasm for opulence. Chandeliers dripping with cut crystal, hand-knotted silk rugs, and mirrored walls are always very much in evidence. The ratio of suites is higher, she says, because "an affluent clientele tends to travel in larger groups."
Working with Pierre-Yves Rochon's firm on interiors at the Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria at San Stefano, Egypt, Kalczak was especially conscious of sight lines. "Tea lounges where guests can be seen by their friends and extended family are very big," she explains. At Jordan's Four Seasons Amman, she and Richmond International edited large columns out of the initial design to improve views into and out of the lobby.
A $90 million renovation by HBA/Hirsch Bedner Associates saw Jumeirah, the new owner of New York's Essex House, situate a tea lounge in the 1932 hotel's lobby. Built-in semicircular sofas at the back are convenient for visitors sensitive about being seen drinking alcohol. "We are very conscious that we are an Arab-owned hotel," general manager Scott Dawson says.
Upstairs, guests with Middle Eastern–sounding names automatically get "prayer packs" complete with a small rug and a compass that points to Mecca. "No one named Smith gets one," Dawson says. Then there's the fruit plate that VIPs from the region receive: Dawson imports dates from Saudi Arabia, gilds them in 24-karat leaf, and serves them on custom Nikko bone china in black and burgundy, the colors of the lobby's marble columns and satin drapery.
It can be tricky to evoke a generalized Asianness. In contrast to the Middle East, where green is prized as the color of Islam, designers observe preferences in the Far East for gold, dark blue, and red. Opinions may differ on the subject of black. The Japanese are singular fans. Shangri-La, on the other hand, avoids black entirely. There's also a company-wide ban on Buddhas and calligraphy, even for properties under development in London and New York.
New York's recently announced Shangri-La is being built by Foster + Partners, with interiors by Gathy's Denniston. Interior Design Hall of Fame member Piero Lissoni is designing the interiors at the Shangri-La Hotel, Miami, a hotel and condominium tower breaking ground on Biscayne Bay this fall. And, just in time for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group will open a 240-room location in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture's CCTV complex. Interiors by Lim Teo + Wilkes Design Works will "maintain a sense of Asia in carpet patterns and colors," Mandarin Oriental design director Patrick Lawrence says. Naturally, a feng shui master will consult.