An elegant and generous powerhouse in hospitality design for four decades, Interior Design Hall of Fame member Trisha Wilson is known the world round for her forward-thinking take on interior architecture. Through the years, Wilson Associates has brought captivating design to top hotels, casinos, eateries, and residences, putting a big focus on projects’ seamless integration into their respective locations. Research and respect are key factors, as is Wilson’s deep understand of high-end hospitality experience and expectation. Major hotels brands—from Hilton and Four Seasons to Hyatt, St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton, Rosewood, and Shangri-La—entrust Wilson Associates with their blue-chip developments and refurbishments.
These days, Wilson gives much of her attention to her philanthropic efforts for the world’s under-served children, via the Wilson Foundation . She has devoted majority of her work to the people of the Limpopo Province of South Africa. The Hope Bracelet , a design by Sue Gragg Precious Jewels (shown on Wilson below), is now available, and all of the proceeds benefit the Wilson Foundation. We caught up with Wilson to get her take on international luxury, giving back, and managerial tactics for highly creative bosses.
Interior Design: You've worked with many of the world’s most discriminating hospitality clients throughout your career. Given your background, would you say “luxury” means something different today that it did five or ten years ago?
Trisha Wilson: From my perspective, the biggest change over the past ten years has been the absolute necessity of having your design product appeal to an international clientele. Just as technological advances have forced changes in the speed of communication, they’ve also forced change with regard to the appeal of a hospitality project’s design to a broader, more educated, better traveled international clientele. Ten years ago, many luxury brands hadn’t addressed workout facilities and spa services. That’s become a much larger footprint in properties. The more you travel, the more you see, and the more demanding you become as to what a luxury hotel should offer. Today’s traveler has seen much more, and is therefore more demanding. It’s true, as well, in service. People who hadn’t traveled to Asia and experienced the exceptional service are now expecting that same level of service with the brands wherever they are in the world.
ID: How have you approached the task of bringing new life to a long-established hospitality venue—especially when talking about a Four Seasons or a Hilton or a St. Regis?
TW: Technological efficiencies, absolutely. Those offerings need to be universal, and gratis. Travelers who stay in a luxury brand hotel find it insulting when the hotel charges for Wi-Fi, or if the television isn’t high-definition, widescreen quality, or if the key-entry system doesn’t work efficiently. The older properties require bathroom upgrades—fixtures, plumbing—and they realize the importance of current color palettes, new soft goods, and upgraded artwork.
ID: The philosophy at Wilson Associates has always been to sidestep trend and focus on custom experiences. How does that creative conversation start, given how many people use hospitality venues?
TW: I’m still bullish on the research phase of a project. The more you know about the regional influences of your project, the better—and easier—the design development phase will be. If we can educate ourselves about the location, source great local artisans, and include historical perspective and influences in our design, the richer and longer lasting the design will be.
ID: While hotels offer firms opportunities to create more daring design, there are all the considerations like durability and brand identity. Is there a pragmatism that comes with being a successful hospitality designer?
TW: Hospitality, although a huge market, is truly still a “niche market.” Crossover designers from other disciplines often aren’t very successful at designing hotels. There’s too much knowledge required such as codes, technical services, and function space requirements. I guess the pragmatism is that I veered off forty years ago and decided to concentrate on hotels, which was an offshoot of my early work in restaurants, and that parlayed into including casinos much later.
ID: You’ve devoted yourself to the Wilson Foundation, which works with and advocates for underprivileged children and their communities—primarily in South Africa. How did you come to be inspired by this cause?
TW: 22 years ago, I was awarded the Palace of the Lost City project in South Africa’s Sun City. That began my love affair with Africa. After working on the Lost City development for several years, I ended up building a home in the Welgevonden game reserve. I became a member of the community, although I only visited there five weeks each year. You can’t live in those communities and know those beautiful people and not get involved in fighting the poverty and disease. I saw a critical need, and knew that I could share my passion for Africa with others through the Wilson Foundation. It has funded medical fellowships, assisted with building clinics and a wonderful school, and countless health programs and initiatives have been introduced by our presence in the community. It’s been the most rewarding experience of my life.
ID: What are some of the other satisfying projects currently on your plate?
TW: We are working on the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi. It’s such an honor to be involved with the Royal Family of the UAE, and to be a part of something that will become historic. We’ve just finished the Four Season in Shanghai—an example of the new look of Four Season that brings into account today’s design as well as the elegance of the Four Seasons that one would expect when traveling.
We’re also doing twenty hotels in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It has been so interesting to be involved in such a holy place, and to learn about Mecca. Even though I will never be able to go there, I have learned so very much about the culture and the people.
ID: How have you come to instigate creative exploration among your teams through the years?
TW: I think my employees would say that my most successful leadership has come from stepping back. Creative people often require acknowledgement, but they generally can’t perform to their potential if you oversee them constantly. I’ve been told that I am not judgmental, so perhaps that gives talented people a sense of freedom—that they aren’t being judged or graded at every turn. I was involved with Harvard Business School years ago in a study about “managing the creative process,” and they were interested in measuring the success of the management of very creative people in a for-profit business environment. I remember telling them, “You give them lots of leash—like a retractable leash for your pet. Let those fabulous imaginations run wild, but you have that little button you can push to “reign it back in” when it encroaches on the danger zone. The professor then used my company in her white paper to teach and profess about doing business in a creative industry with highly creative people.
ID: Have you noticed a renewed interest in construction and development since the economy slowed a few years back?
TW: Yes! I am delighted to report that there are many great new projects on the boards—especially in resort areas, in renovation in the US, and in Europe. Financing is gaining strength again, although slowly. The pace is most definitely picking up.
ID: Are there any structures or locales that have endured for you as a source of inspiration?
TW: I sound like a broken record, but I maintain that travel, of any kind, is my main source of inspiration. Seeing the world and its infinite people, regions, landscapes, resources, textiles, markets, art, wildlife, craftsmanship—all of that inspires me. I love to see new buildings when I travel. Asia is amazing to see right now… the Shanghai skyline is remarkable. The Middle East has changed in such a short period of time, with architects from all over the world participating. I always take time to see classic sites in a new city, and then look at several of their new construction projects. I encourage our employees, as well, to spend a day or two more to see the sites and to see other hotels and restaurants all over the world. This is so important to their growth, as is looking at magazines.
ID: What kind of rapport have you most enjoyed with clients, and what kind of clients have been the most satisfying?
TW: I love clients who participate in the creative process, who relish the outpouring of ideas, who are strong communicators. It’s great when they say, “This is what I love,” but who also acknowledge that we—the designers—are being paid for our expertise, and that we have designed hundreds and hundreds of properties around the world, and that we know about hospitality design. I love a collaboration—a marriage of ideas, thoughts, dreams, and vision along with the respect for our expertise in getting the job done. I am very lucky in that over the years many clients have actually become my very good personal friends. This is rewarding in many ways… One of these is that we get repeat business, and the other is that I make a friend for life.