Sustainability is a design imperative today, but to do it well and with eco-friendly materials takes vision, flexibility, and the chops to bring those dream clients along for the ride. Luckily, Michael Suomi—principal, design and marketing director at Stonehill & Taylor Architects —has all three. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a Masters of Architecture, Suomi was a senior associate at Rockwell Group and went on to open his own boutique firm in New York and Chicago before joining Stonehill & Taylor. In the last five years alone, he and his work at Stonehill & Taylor have won two Boutique Design Awards, two HD Awards, an IIDA Award, and the NY IIDA ID Firm of the Year Award. A Gold Key Award Finalist, he also earned a HiP Award at our own inaugural ceremony at last year’s NeoCon. Speaking of ID, he co-founded the Futuregreen Hospitality Forum , a group charged with, as its mission states, “effecting change in the world of hospitality that enhances social and environmental sustainability.” In other words, pushing the entire industry toward the kind of work he does so well. Here, Suomi discusses how it all began, and where he wants his work to go.
Interior Design: What's your first memory of really noticing the design of something?
Michael Suomi: I’m not sure about a first memory, but one thing that really stands out about my childhood was that I loved to build elaborate model houses out of cardboard. I would constantly edit and add on to these models. My interest in this inspired me to take an architecture and drafting classes in middle school.
ID: Was there a mentor in your education who really influenced or helped you?
MS: During my junior year of high school, I took a class with the school’s architecture teacher. As part of the class, we had a semester-long assignment (that he supervised) where we had to design and do all the drawings needed to build a house. I was fascinated by Buckminster Fuller’s work and designed my project as a geometric dome. My teacher’s passion for architecture and construction, which was very apparent in the project, was a real inspiration to me.
ID: What was the first project you worked on that convinced you this was the job for you?
MS: The geometric dome house I designed in high school (mentioned above) was the first project that convinced me I should be an architect. The house ended up being built by a family friend when I was a high school senior and from there I was hooked.
ID: Stonehill & Taylor is known for their LEED-certified projects. How do you convince your clients that sustainability and LEED certification should be a priority?
MS: We don’t convince our clients, but rather show them the benefits of having a sustainable and LEED certified property. Highlighting both the long term economic savings (from energy conservation) and the benefits for guests(increasing the amount of daylight, higher levels of fresh air, etc.)
Additionally, we show our clients properties we have worked on to highlight that sustainable design can, in fact, be beautiful and receive recognition for both their environmental friendliness and their design, like The Press and NoMad Hotels.
ID: How did you honor The Press Hotel's history as a newspaper office in its new hospitality incarnation?
MS: In the Press Hotel we were able to infuse the design with elements and ideas that came from the paper. Throughout, there is an “inky” color scheme that was inspired by newsprint. Additionally, letters are scattered everywhere - in the corridors, guestrooms and public spaces. Whether they are individual letters, like in the corridor carpet, letters forming a quote on the back of the desk chair or the ones behind the front desk.
We worked closely with the paper’s staff, going through the archives to learn about the history of the paper, what the news was on the first day of publishing, etc. In fact, actual headlines from the paper’s 150-year history were used to create newsprint-inspired wall coverings, while a scale originally used to weigh newspapers and newspaper roll was incorporated into an art installation in the fitness center.
ID: Could you tell me a little about the AZUL project and the inspiration behind your design decisions for it?
MS: The design for AZUL was inspired by Cuban street culture. Right now, Cuba is a ‘hot’ destination because of its changing political status with the U.S. Our clients really wanted something that reflected Cuba, so we drew our inspiration from the country’s street culture – the food, the people, the island’s history, politics, and most importantly, the art.
ID: What are the challenges in hospitality design for New York City right now?
MS: There is a desire around the world to shrink the size of guest rooms, and nowhere is this more prominent than in NYC. This shrinkage creates an interesting dilemma – how do you shrink a room from 350 sq. ft. to 200 sq. ft. and still provide the same quality of guest experiences?
We work very hard to ensure that a small room doesn’t feel that way by thinking about what a guest really needs and wants in their hotel room. We have spent a lot of time rethinking the function of our furniture selection – combining what used to be individual pieces into one (i.e. an individual dresser, desk and nightstand can be combined to one item).
ID: The Refinery Hotel was chosen as one of Trip Advisor's top 25 hotels in the US. Do you think social media and user comments have affected your designs, and if so, how?
MS: I think that if you create good design and elements that are fun, exciting and memorable, it will end up on social media regardless, but we are starting to use social media as a starting point in design.
We are working on an Autograph Collection hotel in Phoenix right now whose theme is “look and look again.” When starting the design process, we looked at how the hotel could be viewed by guests through the eyes of their social media accounts. We looked at how the areas could function and used design elements that could create excitement and interest on social media, primarily through selfies.
ID: What kind of changes would you like to see in the hospitality industry going forward?
MS: I am passionate about social sustainability and would like to see that as a major player going forward. An important aspect to success is not just overall design and hotel operations contributing to the surrounding community, but creating the hotel itself with local talent and materials. The Press Hotel is a great example of this – not only did all of the art highlighted in the hotel come from local artists, materials also tie to the region, with the marble used in the guest bathroom counters and the reception desk coming from an quarry in Vermont.
The concept of building local isn’t new – it’s the way things were done hundreds and thousands of years ago, but with cheap labor and open trade, the focus has moved away from local sourcing. I hope that moving forward, we can redevelop that passion for all things local and in design work to include these authentic materials.
ID: What your dream design job be?
MS: I would love to work on a private island resort property.