Ornstein Fashions Impressive Hotel Design

Jeff Ornstein, the founder and CEO of J/Brice Design International, is currently working on high-profile projects on both sides of this country and throughout the Middle East, but recent work at a Holiday Inn has drawn the most recognition.

The $26-million transformation of the Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza was recently honored as IHG’s renovation of the year. The hotel features a stunning new look, including all 521 guestrooms, 25,000 square feet of meeting space, two new restaurants and the centerpiece lobby, located at the base of the 10-story atrium.

General Manager Tony Miu called it a “transformation,” adding the J/Brice Design team “gave the lobby spaces character in what used to be a big empty, pass-through void. People linger now. The space is beautiful.” Ornstein, who believes hotel designers need to be cultural spies to understand their targeted guests, says the goal of the redesign was to convey “American exuberance.”

“We wanted this property to deliver on that promise of Chicago,” he added. “No matter where you are—public space or guestroom—you are connected to the Chicago experience, a city known for great eateries, cool jazz, commodity trading, a gregarious social scene and style.”

Ornstein’s firm is currently renovating two iconic properties in this country—the Queen Mary Hotel in Long Beach, CA and the Helmsley Hotel in New York—while simultaneously creating two projects of similar note in the Middle East: the Al-Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and Hotel Khalifa in Qatar. The Al-Khobar project is a $300-million hotel/office 19-story, neo-modern twin-tower construction, while the Doha hotel will be a 150-room ultra-luxury resort with a French chateau motif, the style picked by the crown prince.

Ornstein says although the recession is global, his work in the Middle East has grown as much as it has slowed here. His firm opened an office in Saudi Arabia two years ago and a partnership with a local engineering and architectural firm has opened many doors. He recently took some time to discuss the IHG award as well as his design philosophies and work in the Middle East.

How’s business been for you?
Fortunately we’re cooking. I started going to the Middle East in 1995. It was very slow going to make inroads in that part of the world, but since 2003, we started being a recognizable presence there. There’s been a tremendous drop in work in the U.S., but we’ve actually signed several large projects in the last 12 months in Saudi Arabia. Fortunate for J/Brice, I had wanderlust in my early 30s. The downturn is global, but it’s worse here. We have clients there that don’t finance.

How exciting is it that the Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza renovation was honored as IHG’s renovation of the year?
We have a saying that if a client doesn’t say anything at all, you did a good job. It’s always ‘We really like it, but that green chair….’ There’s always a ‘but.’ If they say nothing, you pat yourself on the back. When people go out of their way to recognize your work, it’s a real feel-good moment. I’m very thankful for IHG to recognize our efforts and we had a great client (Hostmark Hospitality Group) and a nice budget.

What’s one of your favorite features there?
I loved our registration desk; it’s so incredibly welcoming, like a beacon. You’re immediately drawn to it with a backlit component. It calls to you when you arrive, it’s not like an interrogation; you’re being illuminated from the side. It’s very comforting and the experience is Zen. It’s very calming.

Explain your theory of a hotel designer being a “cultural spy?”
When I first started 30 years ago, there was a recipe for hotel design. It was like imitating how someone would want a fancy house to be. A hotel was sort of this caricature of a house nicer than what you lived in.

What we found was more care has to be given to study the local market and region. The cultural spy concept was figuring out the guest…what are their preferred culinary directions, music, are they socially conservative or progressive and all the demographics…all those things that make your total experience. We studied those components, from language, food, fashion, climate, cultural elements of the city, region and we put it all together and designed properties that key into the location and have an immediate connection to the local population. That’s very important, a hotel is not just for transients from out of the area. A successful hotel is going to have a connection to the local community and become a vital part of the local community.

And you’ve said hotel design should be called hotel fashion?
Because fashion takes into account all those things. Hotel design to me sounds cookie cutter. By nature it’s more formulaic and becomes mathematical. If you change it to fashion, in my poetic vision of it, it is a broader brush stroke that takes in the intangibles. For example, at the Chicago Mart Plaza, we put in very little artwork, and I’m a big art buff. But we didn’t need to, we had all these amazing views and they are kinetic art, constantly changing. It wasn’t formulaic.

How is it possible to take all these things into account about the guest and area to become a cultural spy and hotel “fashion” designer?
You have to study. Studying has become a lot easier with the Internet. When I first designed in Chicago in the early 80s, we went for a weekend and I think we went to 42 restaurants in 24 hours. We just went from one place to the next to see what the competition was doing. You also have to have owners say this is who we want to tap into. You don’t want to be a caricature of what’s authentic, so you have to do your research and immerse yourself.

How do your clients differ in the Middle East?
Here’s the truth of it: They are a walk at the beach. It is very hard to get through to them because they don’t trust people…The biggest question you always get asked is are you coming back. It’s hard to convince them, but once you get through and they trust you, they trust you completely. They’re not going to second guess you. (The big hotel companies here) have a very hands-on design review process. Our clients over there, we’ll show them a concept, and they’ll say it’s exactly what they like after one presentation. They entrust you to make the right decisions. But there are plenty of frustrating components to working there.

For example?
Here’s how I explain it. I take my American businessman hat off on the plane over there and put on the Middle East hat. It’s not that they’re being rude, but plans aren’t really plans there. You’ll get there for a meeting on Tuesday and they’ll move it to Friday. They’ll take a call and be on the phone for an hour in the middle of a meeting. You can pull your hair out. I used to get so frustrated, but I finally said wait, this is how they think and I just started going with the flow.

How can you be a cultural spy there?
When you go to the other side of the world, you don’t go for two days. We spend that much extra time bumming around. You try to be an observer. I ask a million questions.

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