Thoroughly Modern Celeste
Celeste Cooper muses on residential design and revisits high-end hospitality with Cindy Allen.
Cindy Allen -- Interior Design, 10/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
CA: For the few people who don't know you—How did it all start?
CC: I would love to say that I had a burning desire to be an interior designer and effect the surroundings of known civilization. It actually couldn't be further from the truth. I was a divorced mother and I needed a job. I had degrees in the history of art and architecture and in English literature. At the suggestion of a friend, I went to school for design and discovered that it was all about construction. And that I really loved it.
CA: Were you driven from the beginning to start your own business?
CC: While in school I worked for two of my professors part-time and when I graduated, it became a full-time position. Then, I joined the staff at Bloomingdale's in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and stayed for four years. Talk about trial by fire. Any designer who has worked in retail has a superior grasp of the field. It was an incredible learning experience. After two years at a private design firm, I finally started my own business that lasted for 13 years. In the end, I had nine employees in two cities—Boston and New York, but we did work all over the country. I spent most of my time on airplanes and I was burnt out.
CA: When did Repertoire appear on the scene?
CC: I had done a lot of business with Repertoire, a successful Boston furniture showroom featuring high-end European designs. The owner, Rick Garofalo, and I had a great working relationship and were very simpatico in our tastes. At the time, the design world was opening, giving greater access to the consumer and challenging designers to find different ways to design. Eventually, we came up with a way to collaborate that changed his business and mine, and I became creative director of Repertoire—an open showroom, store, and design studio. It was the best thing I ever did. It's now been six-and-a-half years, and we've recently opened in New York.
CA: Through the years we have followed all your successful design endeavors. Starting with your residential experiences, what is the challenge you most commonly meet?
CC: I think the relationship of a designer to a client is a very intimate one because it's intense and time-consuming. The real challenge is trying to filter the clients' needs, wants, and fantasies through your professional sensibility. At Repertoire, we jokingly call it "channeling."
CA: What's your take on the selection of materials available in today's marketplace?
CC: There are two parallel, and not necessarily conflicting currents. One is the use of natural materials, perhaps as an antidote to how technological our lives have become. Wood, stone, natural linens, natural wools, and anything that feels real continues to be important. The other consists of fabulous synthetics. Jack Lenor Larsen has a fabric called Cumulus that I use often and one of its components, I believe, is Saran wrap™. Designers are always trying to find something that has been used in one way and exploit the material in another. Once I took metal mesh used for coffee filters and I made draperies out of them for a New York showhouse.
CA: How were you hired to design your first hotel, XV Beacon?
CC: Rick Garofalo has a saying that comes up almost on a daily basis: "It's all about the relationship." I had a previous longstanding working relationship with Paul Roiff, who is the developer of XV Beacon. First he hired me to design Mistral, a Boston restaurant, then the public spaces in the Pope building; from there, I designed his penthouse, and even an ill-fated take-out chicken restaurant on Route 9 that lasted about 30 seconds. When he decided to do the hotel, we were brought on board. It's funny, people say, "Oh, but you've never done that before, how can you do a hotel?" It's simple. Because the lobby is the living room, a restaurant is the dining room…
CA: And there are many bedrooms…
CC: And there are a whole lot of bedrooms. There were 63 rooms with seven different schemes per floor, where each of the rooms was done with different furniture and fabric. I have done plenty of houses that had seven bedrooms or more.
CA: But certainly your use of materials would be different in hotel work?
CC: One enduring characteristic of my work: I've always used contract materials residentially because of their durability and because the designs appeal to me. I tend to use woven materials rather than printed materials. I don't use chintz. We wanted to make the hotel look like a residence that I would design.
CA: What about durability concerns?
CC: I became obsessed with Wyzenbeek tests. The abuse that any hotel gets, let alone a very high-end hotel with expensive rooms, is beyond one's wildest comprehension. I think the parallel in residential design is the family with four boys, all of whom play hockey. The durability test in a hospitality project is assuming that all the guests own hockey skates.
CA: Did color play a leading role?
CC: I knew that I wanted to inject color into a neutral palette. The use of red came from two theories. The first is that red works as a neutral. Used in large doses, it functions like a brown or beige in a way that blue, yellow, or green do not. I'm almost ashamed to admit the other reason. Those damn Exit signs are the bane of my existence when I do commercial work. They have never made an attractive Exit sign and they're always red. So I made them part of the scheme.
CA: What did you have to give up because of budgetary restrictions with XV Beacon that you wouldn't on a residential project without such a tight budget?
CC: Every decision was vetted. From that point of view, I'm not sure that it was that different from any residential project. I think the difference is that the residential client is willing to say, "This will come back to us." Therefore, people will pay for design in the long term. With XV Beacon, I was very careful with the fabrics. In a residential project, I wouldn't blink at a $200 a yard for fabric. Obviously, I didn't do that there. The dollars were very carefully controlled.
CA: Did you encounter other limitations?
CC: Some of the millwork details were engineered to be the most efficiently built—cost-effective, but not to the point of eliminating the details that were most important to us. The flooring was all stone, some wood, Wilton carpet, some Axminster where the quality was dialed up to be commercial grade.
CA: What about handicap accessibility?
CC: That's a huge issue, even in residential. The crossover between residential and hospitality is there. Even more so with the aging population. People are saying, "This bath works for us now, but we're not going to move for 20 years, and we should plan now for the future." Even baby boomers are interested. We use levers on doors all the time now because people are going to need it eventually.
CA: With the advent of boutique hotels, do you see any hospitality design trends?
CC: I recently read a quote in the New York Times from Ian Schrager regarding his new Clift Hotel. He said that when one travels, it is to experience luxury. He seems to have been taking his cues from us. I don't mean opulence and ostentation, but the idea of having one's needs met in a way that surprises and delights. There has been so much written about the amenities at XV Beacon: the soap, shampoo and conditioner, mouthwash, minibar. We paid attention to everything and that's what people respond to. When they find the hotel interesting, nifty, fun, and chic, that's good, but it's the sense of luxury that's most talked about.
CA: Is there something about "designing the hospitality experience"—a short-term versus a long-term residential experience?
CC: No matter what I'm designing, I think about the experience of being in the space and moving through it. One of the things that I'm very attuned to is how it feels emotionally and psychologically. With the hotel, it was almost like playing a role, like acting the part of a guest. I come in, I turn on the light, I hang up my coat, this is where the suitcase goes, et cetera…
CA: As opposed to a residential project where the client is telling you how they live?
CC: Exactly. I think the essential thing for me is that I took my residential model and applied it to hospitality, whether it was the lighting, bathrooms, amenities, or the feeling of the space.
CA: Are you going to be doing other hotels?
CC: Let's put it this way. If Paul Roiff ever wants to do another hotel, I'll be there.