A hospitality phenom for 15-plus years, D.B. Kim brings his acclaimed vision of hotel design and operations to forward-thinking Philadelphia firm Daroff Design . Following years as VP of design for Starwood Hotels and Resorts and a stint as associate principal at Pierre-Yves Rochon/PYR —as well as premier property and brand expansion for Westin and Sofitel—Kim offers pioneering vision to Daroff, which specializes in comprehensive solutions for hotel, restaurant, retail, and corporate clients. Among his notable credits are hyper-successful reimaginings of the W hotel aesthetic and overseeing the Westin Renewal First Class Lounge, Westin’s in-airport partnership with United Airlines. From the City of Brotherly Love, he shares his observations on refinement among hospitality clients, the psychology of travel, and why the word “trend” is downright dangerous.
Interior Design: How have hospitality clients changed since the start of your career?
D.B. Kim: We’ve all grown in maturity in positive way, and are more sensitive to the intellect part of the design process. People have gotten a better sense of this concept of “luxury,” and can speak on it at many levels.
ID: What kind of rapport do you like to create with your clients?
DBK: Collaborative. I find that clients—often without knowing—offer a lot of solutions through their questions. I really value those questions and comments and critiques, even if they’re not trained in design vocabulary.
ID: And how do you embark on a project, to ensure that the space will endure for a long time down the road?
DBK: I always look at economical solutions and the lifespan of a design. Having previously worked for big brand hotels, I came to thoroughly respect the idea of return for the investors. I feel that dreams can be efficient, and well balanced. Now that I’m coming out of the “brand hotel” sector and looking at things with a designer’s eye, I notice that people have gone back to their basic values. People are investing in worth, meaning timelessness and intelligent ways of delivering comfort and luxury.
ID: What does it take to keep sharp and forward-thinking in the hospitality world?
DBK: I always believe in myself, in terms of individual talent and characteristics. What I deliver is different than what is coming from the guy next to me. It’s about not being a copycat, and staying true to myself. I try to understand each client’s needs and regional situations, then deliver to that region using sustainable thoughts.
ID: Is there a trick to ensuring that a building’s design will stand up to scrutiny many years down the road?
DBK: I believe in utilizing what’s there, and not getting stuck in this idea of “egocentric design.” Be yourself, and deliver instinctive design.
ID: Are there trends you notice that you try to avoid?
DBK: I think “trend” is bad, in general. Be organic, especially in the hospitality world. Every eight years or so we naturally are going to change design elements, so I always try to design something modular, that won’t be recognized as a “period piece.”
ID: Are you, yourself, an enthusiastic traveler?
DBK: I still am, after all these years of delays and cancellations and bad food. I’m very enthusiastic, because I always learn something new.
ID: What are the most exciting projects on your plate these days?
DBK: Right now, there are a couple of confidential projects brewing which are very small and local. I’m very familiar with international work, but when something’s in our backyard and we get to utilize our historic value and regionalism, that’s exciting.
ID: What is the creative process within your office and among your team?
DBK: When I was younger and learning, I remember always wanting to bring something to the table. So now, I give assignments to my team, starting with some words and visuals. I say, “This is the project, this is where it’s happening,” and give time to the team members to get inspired and brainstorm. I suppose it’s very academic. Each person starts with their stories and as a group we edit. In the end we agree on one singular concept, and usually it’s very strong. From that point on, it’s collaboration from A-to-Z, and everyone always remembers the concept. During the courses and phases of design process, everyone gets to shine… It’s kind of like a variety show.
ID: What are some of spaces that have always visually inspired you, and continue to stand out for you today?
DBK: I grew up in Korea, so I’m very familiar with traditional architecture and elements such as textured wood finishes, handmade papers, gardening color palates, and so on. I spent my days as a student in Italy, France, and Switzerland. I’m not one for superfluous decorations; classical architecture always comes back to me. My conclusion is that good design is always good design—this could be in the form of a church, a palace, a temple, or a farmhouse.