Molly Swyers, senior vice president of design and communications at 21c Museum Hotels, has years of experience in global marketing, branding, and merchandising spent at major consumer brands like Calvin Klein and Gap. Still, she says her transition to a more design-focused role in 2007 was smooth, perhaps because she landed at a hospitality brand that broke the mold of its peers. She was introduced to 21c Museum Hotels co-founder Steve Wilson just as the brand’s first-ever location, in Louisville, was opening and needs were shifting. Very quickly, Swyers was asked to grow her retail merchandising role to focus on guest experience and branding. 21c Museum Hotels built its portfolio of 11 hotels across the U.S. on the desire to display curated and evolving exhibitions of contemporary art, and this curation truly drives the design process.
Swyers tells Interior Design about working with longtime collaborator Deborah Berke Partners on the design of the brand’s latest property, 21c Chicago, which opened in February. She also reveals a few strategies she believes are critical to success in any industry, and offers a message of hope for hospitality design in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, both Swyers and the 21c brand seem to have a knack for evolving.
Interior Design: You have a background in design and merchandising for consumer brands. What was the transition to hospitality design like?
Molly Swyers: My path to hospitality was nontraditional, I suppose, but really smooth. However, 21c is not a traditional hospitality company. Our co-founder, Steve Wilson, likes to joke, “We broke all the rules, because we didn’t even know what the rules were.” In all seriousness, I studied architecture in college, so it’s been really nice to have an opportunity to return to the design of spaces and experiences. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have an opportunity to collaborate with many talented designers over the years. Regardless of industry, there are a few things that I feel are critical to success: An ability to listen, take in a lot of information from many sources and distill it down; intuition and an ability to anticipate consumers’ wants and needs; respect for the many talents and contributions of others; and an ability to lead a cross-functional team in a collaborative process.
ID: 21c Museum is known, of course, for collecting and exhibiting contemporary art. How are the works curated, and how closely are the interiors tailored to accommodate the art?
MS: For the public areas, our desire to display curated exhibitions truly drives the design process. We’re planning for flexibility and trying to anticipate the various needs that our diverse and growing collection of art requires now and into the future. Change is constant in the public spaces of our hotels as new exhibitions rotate in and transform the spaces. We have a dedicated museum team, led by chief curator and museum director Alice Gray Stites, with whom the 21c design team and all design consultants work very closely.
ID: Why did 21c Museum decide to open a Chicago property?
MS: We had an incredible opportunity to convert the former James Hotel to a 21c. Chicago is a market we have had our eye on for years. There’s a vibrant arts community that we’re excited to become a part of and it’s already home to so many 21c brand loyalists. It’s a great feeder market for many of our other properties.
ID: Deborah Berke Partners designed the guest rooms and suites in Chicago. What was that collaboration like?
MS: We’ve now worked with Deborah Berke and her team on designing 10 locations for 21c. With so much history together, it’s as if we’re able to speak in shorthand at this point. For the project in Chicago, the building itself created some unique architectural challenges. The Deborah Berke team is incredibly skilled at identifying architectural moves that will have tremendous impact.
ID: How would you describe the design approach in Chicago?
MS: Our main focus was on making some architectural moves that would create public space that was more open, and visually connecting the galleries on the first and second floors. Aside from that, I would say it was an exercise in editing, in stripping away to create space for the contemporary art, which is meant to be the star of the show. For Chicago, the opening museum exhibition is called This We Believe. It includes the work of 56 artists and all of the work is from the 21c Collection, which has more than 3,500 works by artists from around the globe. Each hotel generally features the work of local artists as part of our Elevate program on each guest-room floor.
ID: Did the location dictate any of the textures or materials?
MS: The guest rooms are light and airy, and the palette of calm colors was informed by the vast Chicago sky and nearby Lake Michigan.
ID: Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism and travel, what do you see as your design marching orders right now?
MS: I think it’s too soon to say how Coronavirus will impact hospitality design in the long run. For the time being, we are focused on working with our teams on changes to ensure our guests and teammates feel safe as we plan to reopen our properties.
ID: Are you making design decisions right now that will shape future hotel openings post COVID-19?
MS: We do continue to work on development of future 21c Museum Hotels. Safety and security have always been a consideration and are certainly at the forefront of our minds these days. Looking back to 2007 and 2008, we were operating just one property with 91 rooms in Louisville. We were not impacted by the recession to the extent of many other hotels. In fact, we were looking ahead and thinking about bringing 21c to new markets, which meant that we were thinking a lot about brand standards. We were trying to articulate the core values essential to our brand and translate those to the experience of staying at a 21c. Fast forward to 2020 and we are in a very similar position. As we prepare to re-open our properties, we are once again reviewing brand standards and establishing new protocols related to COVID-19 to keep our team and our guests healthy and safe. It has also given us the opportunity to be creative, and to focus on the things that are vital to our brand and our guests.
ID: Where do you think hospitality design is headed in the next five years? What’s next for your brand?
MS: Coming off of so much consolidation in the industry in the last few years and heading into an economic downturn, I expect we’ll see a bit of a correction. I’m hopeful that there will be less imitation and fewer brands hatched in boardrooms. Savvy consumers will be more discerning with their time and money, and I expect the experiences that are truly unique and the brands that are grounded in a higher purpose will rise above the rest. 21c will continue to bring thought-provoking contemporary art to the public at our existing locations and new locations. We’ll continue to deliver authentic hospitality. Our brand is rooted in contemporary art and culture, it’s in 21c’s DNA to constantly evolve.
ID: What’s giving you hope?
MS: People are resilient. Having lived through 9/11 in New York City, I saw firsthand how we adapted to such a significant event. Things will normalize again, and we will all adapt to a new normal.