High Design From the Inside Out

Ask a dozen people, including professional designers, lodging industry owners and developers, and hotel guests, “What is high design?” and you are likely to hear a dozen responses. Pose the question at a meeting of architects or designers, and you will surely spark a lively debate. Nevertheless, if you listen closely, the answer often comes down to something along the lines of, “I know it when I see it,” reflecting the fact that it is a concept that is hard to define, but can be recognized intuitively. That said, let's try to define what characterizes “high design” in hospitality.


Case in point: the soon-to-open Ritz-Carlton Club where hgh design begins not inside the hotel, but inside the developers' and designer's minds. It starts with inspiration and where you find it. The first place inspiration ought to be found is in the program. What is the project? Is it a destination hotel, business hotel or convention hotel? Who will be guests of this hotel, and what are they looking for? If we can't find inspiration in the needs and desires of our guests, we can't produce high design. And the answers to these vitally important questions ought to come from market research, not supposition. Inspiration is also drawn from within the designer's and developer's own experiences of places they have visited and enjoyed.

Second, inspiration ought to be found inside the cultural, historical and physical context of the place in which the project will be built. What are the traditions of the place that can be celebrated in the design? A successful design ought to make an authentic connection between the building and the place. If a hotel reinforces the unique identity of its location, then both the design and the guest experience will be more satisfying. The building design can create or strengthen the sense of place in several ways. One way is through a physical connection, such as a view of a local landmark, or an opportunity to be outdoors in a roof garden or dining terrace. Another is through reference to the place's historical architectural precedent using local architectural styles, formal compositions or volumetric patterns, such as steeply pitched roofs or wrought iron balconies. Another way is through reference to the geographical place using local building materials and landscaping.

At the same time, the best design is not a pastiche, an application of stylized architectural elements to a new building. Now, there are places where pastiche is well-received. And pastiche can be done well. Nevertheless, most everyone in the design profession would agree that it is not high design. To achieve high design requires an authentic expression of today's reality. It refers to the past or recalls the past if it is in the context where that is appropriate and meaningful.

An effective solution is to incorporate the massing, forms and materials of a certain design period, such as an arch, column or circular opening, but expressed in contemporary materials. High design ought to make these connections in an interpretive way, not a literal way. Guests may not — one could argue, should not — notice any of these individual elements. Instead, the overall experience will suggest an earlier time and place.

That said, high design may either conform to or contrast with its context. Two ancient architectural sites epitomize these two divergent approaches. One is the great palace of the Knossos site on Crete, which a form that gradually stair-steps up the hill, almost as part of the terrain. The other is the Parthenon, whose form rises vertically from the Acropolis hill of Athens. One conforms to its context, the other contrasts, and both are among the world's greatest examples of high design.


The often-quoted maxim, “Less is more,” guides practitioners of various forms of minimalist art and design, in which the work is stripped down to its fundamental features. There is much to be said for this approach when striving for high design in hospitality. Hotels traditionally have used lavish finishes to convey a sense of luxury. Yet ancient buildings were designed and constructed without finish materials, using simple, noble designs and material. The same can be said of classical Japanese architecture and American minimalist design. In all cases, the structure is the finish. And there is a powerful, raw honesty in this approach.

Using this approach need not result in a stripped down, cold and uninviting hotel. But it requires that finishes be applied selectively and wisely. For example, if we're building a hotel with concrete floor slabs and load-bearing concrete masonry unit walls, we shouldn't be afraid to expose those surfaces. If these materials are installed and finished in a craftsman-like manner, the effect is beautiful and stylish.


“Form follows function” is another often-quoted design maxim of American architect, Louis Sullivan, who believed that the shape of a building or object should be based on its purpose. Good design of a building envelope reflects the unique purposes, spaces and activities within the building. An insistent, regular grid pattern, windows set flush with the exterior wall, and flat roof lines may be appropriate for an office building, but not a hotel.

Instead, a hotel's building envelope should reflect the rich variety of spaces within, including guestrooms, suites, meeting rooms, board rooms, dining facilities and ballrooms. Appropriate design elements include variations in the planes and openings in the building envelope, as well as balconies and terraces, shutters, inset windows, and roof forms that suggest a building used for lodging.

After all is said and done, what is high design in hospitality? There is no objective definition. But in one designer's opinion (mine), it starts from the inside with meaningful inspiration and can be experienced from the outside as an authentic expression of that inspiration. What is most important to remember is that guests know it when they see it.

James Suggs, AIA, is vice president at 3DI and leader of the Hospitality Group for the design and project management firm. He can be reached at suggs@3DI.com.

For more information and related articles, go to LHonline.com

A Chat With a Design Star

Hotels as theater isn't a new concept, but it's one that's at the core of David Rockwell's vision of hospitality design. Spectacle, community, transformation and authenticity are other passions that intersect in his work which has included seminal projects with W Hotels, Sheraton and Canyon Ranch.

In a fascinating Q and A session at the recent HD Boutique Show in Miami, so-called starchitect Rockwell bared his design soul before a fawning group of designers, architects, hotel executives and students.

“I consider myself to be a hospitality designer first,” said Rockwell, whose New York City-based Rockwell Group is one of the most in-demand firms in every discipline, from hotel and restaurant design to theater staging to airport terminal design. “My joy and pleasure comes from designs that are a combination of components, that represent the cross-pollination of ideas.”

Rockwell's love of the theater started at age 6 and, even though he trained as an architect, continued well into adulthood as he took on theatrical staging in addition to his work in hotels and restaurants. Starting with Rocky Horror Show, Rockwell has designed a series of hits, including Hairspray, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Legally Blonde.

“There are definite links between hospitality design and theater,” he said. “Both embrace transformation and change and the notion that nothing lasts forever. A theater directors and I care about the same thing: taking the audience or hotel guests to another place.”

Rockwell sees an emerging trend among luxury travelers who don't want to be dictated to. “These guests want options, and design can accommodate that need,” he said. “Technology has a role, too, in that it more easily allows guests to customize their hotel stays.”

When asked to name his greatest achievement in hotel design, Rockwell named two of opposite scale. One was the design of the original W Hotel at 49th and Lexington in Manhattan, which he called “an irresistible chance to rethink the boutique concept.” The other is the design of WaterColor Inn, a 65-room property on Florida's Panhandle that exudes Southern charm and warmth.

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