An accomplished design mind and team leader in the Dallas offices of powerhouse firm Gensler , Jennifer Kolstad is at the helm of high-impact hospitality projects such as the Reunion Tower , the beautiful showroom of design icon Holly Hunt , and the Children’s Medical Center Fetal Center , all in Dallas. Here, she shares her thoughts on bringing hospitality to healthcare, making technology seamless in hotel rooms, and keeping things light while delivering extraordinary work.
Interior Design: A big component of your job is to understand the shifting expectations of hospitality clients. What do you see as the new needs in hospitality, as opposed to those of five, ten years ago?
Jennifer Kolstad: At the moment, the focus seems to be on the smaller, more nimble brands. The established flags are releasing smaller, boutique brands en mass to compete. Those products receiving notoriety are typically regionally focused, with an incredible focus on design and authenticity. “Luxe” level doesn’t seem to be as important as an authentic, "rich" experience. Guests no longer wish to visit the same product in multiple locations; they seek out meaningful, unique experiences wherever they land. Meanwhile, social media has created a savvier clientele with universal, virtual access to hotel products. We design for the “Instagrammable moment,” where selfies, Vimeo, and hashtag posts have replaced carefully choreographed ad campaigns.
ID: How do you instigate creative conversations with your team?
JK: We keep things light. Team chemistry is everything when you're fostering innovation. Everyone needs to feel they can let their guard down, be themselves, and be vulnerable. It’s a personal, creative act to offer up ideas or commentary. Often we start with a seed, with the team throwing out collective ideas to grow it into something concrete. The conversation is usually laced with laughter, sarcasm, off-topic notations. Somehow though, we always get there and have fun doing it.
ID: Can you share with us some of the projects that are adding dimension and depth to your repertoire? What are some design challenges you’re having fun working out?
JK: At the moment we're working with a client to develop a new lifestyle hotel brand. The concept is a focus on healthy living delivered through technology-focused amenities. Integrating health and technology into hospitality are not new ideas; the challenge is to use the technology in a more meaningful, comprehensive way so that it becomes the brand. Guests are typically intimidated by isolated technologies—not to mention the expiration date associated with these products.The approach to an immersive technology concept almost needs to be analogue—approachable, intrinsic, "me"-centric. We believe that the further you push technology, the more you need to counterbalance with our basic human desires for tactile, physical comfort. The adage that a technology-driven environment is cold, futuristic, and complicated can no longer be the inevitable.
ID: An unprecedented amount of design and amenities consideration is being paid to medical facilities… What’s the impetus behind this trend, and how is Gensler being innovative in this category?
JK: Gensler entered the medical field in a rather organic way. At the same time that the whole healthcare landscape began changing and traditional healthcare providers began rethinking their delivery model, our corporate, hospitality, transportation, and education clients were becoming much more focused on wellness and health for the people who occupy their spaces. So, our holistic approach to designing spaces that are efficiently planned, aesthetically pleasing, and focused on the people that occupy them was a natural fit for health care. The unique constraints of healthcare environments required having seasoned healthcare specialists on board, so we’ve built that team and we pair them with specialists in our other disciplines to bring an informed, fresh perspective to the design of medical facilities.
ID: Hospitality design is such a complicated endeavor. Not only does the design have to be widely appealing and dynamic, it has to communicate a brand ethos and be durable enough to endure traffic. How do you tackle these tasks?
JK: We always start by dreaming. The pragmatics will inevitable edit and affect the design, so why start there? Start in the sky and come back down to earth.
ID: This is a pretty thrilling time for technology in the industry… What advances have most significantly affected your work life?
JK: New technologies are affecting every aspect of our work right now. From our design process to the physical outcome, the way we consider materiality has shifted in that bespoke is the new ordinary. We test ideas using 3D printing and use the models to convey complicated ideas to our clients. We align ourselves with specialty fabricators early in the process to test equipment and sample materials—and we consider our fabricators to be an invaluable member of our team. When we design something—surface or object—with cost, fabrication, and installation considered at the outset of the project, we’re typically successful in carrying the product through the building process. Each project now presents an opportunity to invent.
ID: An understanding of human tastes and trends seems pretty vital for any effective hospitality designer… How much of your design is “sociology”?
JK: A truly authentic environment isn't one that projects trends. It embodies the social anthropology and geographic nuances of its location. Sociology is a consideration insofar as it effects the physical organization of space, not necessarily the aesthetic output. We appeal to human tastes at a very primal level starting with architectural principles of scale, symmetry, and proportions then build from there. Achieving the richness associated with a hospitality environment is an exercise in layering and scrupulous editing.
ID: What do you feel are the opportunities and responsibilities for those who are entering the field today?
JK: There are so many ways in which new graduates can access our profession now. In school we were taught the only way to develop a reputable career was to work for an architectural or interior design practice. This notion is absurd. The possibilities are endless as graduates will find great opportunity with owners, operators, in-house corporate design teams, and the list goes on. Be creative. When I "crossed over" and began working for an owner-operator I realized the level of design influence available in that seat was probably greater than as a consultant. Owners and operators are now staffed with incredibly talented professionals, igniting better and more focused conversation amongst teams. Indeed our clients are an extension of our team with the same or better qualifications. Years ago, I recall our "old school" partners preaching, “We need to educate our clients.” This approach will get you fired today.
ID: What do you look for in staffers?
JK: Although we expect a great deal from our junior staff, first and foremost is a contagious, positive attitude. Team chemistry is everything. What we do is an emotive process, requiring stamina and drive. A great attitude will help push the team to meet our challenging deadlines. That said, we look for raw talent, technical skill, and the ability to wear many hats. Our profession is increasingly cross-pollenized in that sectors have merged along with our defined roles. Our staff need to be able to charrette a design concept one day, detail the next, and be on site the day after.
ID: What and where thrills you?
JK: The prospect of anything new. Having been an ex-pat national for over twelve years, I’ve detached myself from my roots and revel in the unknown. I dream of new places, scenery, and cultures. My home is where my family is and I literally carry it on my back—albeit a forty-foot container of art. What thrills me is the prospect of the unknown and imagining the possibilities of the next adventure.