A Design Revolution

upper hseOver the last few years an aesthetic uprising has been taking place around Asia. With the region enjoying the fruits of a mushrooming economic climate, the environments of many leading Eastern urban metropolises have started to metamorphose and transform into something of a more attractive nature. Like a snake shedding off its old skin, these central capitals have slowly but surely become more visually appealing, with stunning new interiors cropping up alongside an ever-increasing stream of strikingly-planned urban areas. Whether it is Tokyo’s consistently futuristic cityscape, the clean well-organized and unrelentingly booming streets of Singapore, Dubai’s breath-taking skyscrapers, or the ever-changing landscape of China, where a new high-rise building is erected every five days, Asia has been undeniably and conspicuously restyled of late.

Nowhere is this restyling more apparent than in the field of hospitality, namely in the realm of hotels, where aesthetics can sometimes make or break the success of a project. As the internationally-acclaimed and minimalist-inclined designer Andre Fu comments, “The hospitality industry is rapidly changing, especially in South East Asia – I am happy to see a growing trend towards the development of hotels that are diverse in their offerings. In particular, I am pleased to see a growing offering of hotels that are more personal and bespoke in spirit.” This aesthetic shift is also most ostensive in hospitality developments in Fu’s hometown of Hong Kong which is, by its compact and concentrated nature, a place where restyling is a mandatory prerequisite of the city’s tightly knit geography.

In Hong Kong Fu has worked on luxury residences, a gothic burger restaurant, a massive extravagant retail space inspired by a French courtyard while, overseas, he has worked on hotels in Singapore, Istanbul, London and Tokyo. Fu’s most prominent masterwork however comes in the form of The Upper House hotel in Hong Kong, an intimately-sized property which is a charming mix of well-planned minimalist fittings and natural light. Organic-looking materials, original oriental sculptural installations and seamlessly-proportioned spaces designed with respect to balanced geometry and symmetry voguishly fuse together in the sophisticated Asian-influenced hotel that is unlike any other hotel in the city.

upper houseThe Upper House contains but 117 out of 62,000 hotel rooms in the city, a number which is growing at an almost monthly rate with new properties opening all the time. According to the latest figures from the Hong Kong Tourism Board, visitor arrivals to the city reached 22.32 million in the first half of 2012, up a staggering 15.5% year on year – and these million few people were all put up in a hotel for an average of two to three nights. In this highly competitive and fast-moving industry it is no wonder then that so much emphasis is placed on design and aesthetics, as these can be a distinguishing factor to help a project stand out from the crowd.

Steve Leung, another talented locally-reared Hong Kong designer, knows this as well as any, having worked on countless hotel and restaurant interiors in the city, around the region, and the world. “Hotel design can help the branding of a hotel or a hospitality group,” he says, adding, “from the use of colours, materials, facilities, to the overall spatial planning and design style, hotel design contributes to the guest’s first impression. Good design can also add value. A consistent style of design can establish a corporate image and facilitate brand building so as to differentiate a project from others.”

This differentiation can be seen in a lot of the new hotel projects that have opened recently in Hong Kong, with the city caught in an aesthetic flux between the old and the new. While there is still a lot of respect for the ways of old and the architecture of yesterday, over the last few years Hong Kong has been going through a design insurgence, with the city showing a newfound respect for good design. The city’s streets and interiors have been becoming more pretty by the day and designers like Andre Fu and Steve Leung are clearly on top of this trend. “The city has seen itself as placing a stronger focus on design and lifestyle over the past few years. There’s definitely a greater awareness of design in the city and there’s a market here that understands and appreciates design,” Fu says.

W Hotel Hong-KongThe W Hong Kong is one of the more louder design-lead establishments that was at the head of this new aesthetic trend when it first opened back in 2008. Being the style-conscious group that it is, W Hotels employed not only one, but two prominent design firms for most of the decoration work (Yasumichi Morita’s Glamorous and Nicholas Graham and Associates from Australia), with different design companies also hired to do the restaurants (such as Steve Leung’s company who designed the Cantonese restaurant Sing Yin). Financed by Sun Hung Kai Properties, it is clear no expense was spared in creating the wow factor in the hotel and the unconventionally chic feel that is the luxury chain’s trademark is visible right the way through, with a whimsical sense of creativity emerging throughout. Scores of fairy-tale-like elements inconspicuously pop their head up across the property, with a massive iconic mosaic wall featuring fantastical nature motifs standing out on the 76th floor, replica tree branches materialising as table lamp stems in guestrooms, and highly-stylised wall paintings appearing all over the place as well.

It could be said that W Hong Kong paved the way for many of the leading design-centric establishments that pepper the Hong Kong cityscape today, as the hotel was one of the first local properties to so successfully merge lifestyle, design, technology and business. Recently more properties have grasped this lifestyle-cum-design concept and more efforts are being made to create stylish environments that add value at the ground level. Transcending the cookie-cutter hotel design and layout approach, these hotels are changing the nature of the industry with eye-catching design themes being employed alongside innovative features like reception-less check-ins and iPad control panels.

hotel-iconHotel Icon in Tsim Sha Tsui East is one such game changer that utilizes these kinds of innovations, with some of the distinguishing elements of the property being the lofty real-life vertical green wall, the casually late check-in and check-out times, plus their hotel-wide complimentary in-room bar and snacks. The hotel is aso unique because it is actually a teaching and research hotel built for the School of Hotel and Tourism Management by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the first such business model for the hospitality industry in the world. Nevertheless, this does not make the hotel any less appealing, with the hotel in fact being one of the most distinctively-designed buildings in Hong Kong. Built from scratch on a site that was formerly the staff quarters of the university, many gifted talents offered their helping hand during the development of the property. “Hotel Icon is a collaborative project featuring work from award-winning artists, creative visionaries and respected designers,” said the General Manager, Richard Hatter. These visionaries include the interior designers Terence Conran and William Lim, plus the architect Rocco Yim, the hotel curator Freeman Lau, the uniform designer Barney Cheng and even Vivienne Tam, who helped design a suite for the hotel.

ritz carlton hong-kongAnother recently-opened trailblazer of a hotel is The Ritz Carlton Hong Kong, which has just passed its first anniversary. The sky-scraping hotel has come to be an iconic happening address with luminaries, leading politicians and stars such as Lady Gaga having graced the towering heights of the property. Being a project of such exclusivity, like Hotel Icon, many talented parties were involved in the outfitting of the hotel. While the overall design was overseen by New York-based firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and Hong Kong’s Wong and Ouyang Limited, the public areas were taken care of by Singapore’s LTW Designworks. Meanwhile, the dramatic designs of the bars and restaurants were fittingly done by Japan’s SPIN Design Studio and Masamichi Katayama’s Wonderwall, with his design of Ozone, the highest bar in the world, being one of the main attractions of the whole hotel. There is a distinct Alice-in-Wonderland vibe about Katayama’s typical atypical design style which, in Ozone, features blown-up inspirations of nature that become apparent through elements such as a neon colour-changing forest-like entrance, a beehive-resembling ceiling and marble-shaped bamboo. A forward-looking design scheme also stands out across the rest of the property with some other high points including a glass-enclosed infinity pool with a ceiling made up of 144 LED screens plus guestrooms with silk-panelling and ‘baseball stitching’ on the leather and metal television walls.

hotel iconWhile such design features are impressive, sensorialy-infectious and will surely increase visitant traffic, they are nothing without good planning, a clear understanding of one’s market and some clear goalposts to fire into. “A good design needs to serve a purpose or answer a need. We once did a design for a four-star hotel with a three-star hotel renovation budget and got a five-star hotel effect. This helps to improve the hotel image and brings in good reputation and publicity,” says Steve Leung.

In addition to helping the business and the brand, Andre Fu adds that good design can also positively enhance the psychological experience of guests and increase their overall satisfaction. “I would say design and lighting can create an ambience for the hotel. It is common for hotels to display artworks, or set themes throughout different parts of hotels, room types and dining environment. The texture of materials can contribute to the comfort of guests and enrich their sensory enjoyment.” However, this does not mean hoteliers should simply shower their properties with travertine floors and onyx countertops as the overall feelings of the guest should still be carefully considered. “I think customers would positively respond to a hotel that is designed with a high degree of thoughtfulness whereby guest experience is placed as the top priority – it is not about the lushness of the materials nor the volume of proportions, it is about the sheer experience of being inside the room,” comments Fu.

upper_houseIn addition to Upper House, W Hong Kong, Hotel Icon and The Ritz Carlton Hong Kong, there are a handful of other properties around the city that have managed to get this balance of aesthetics and guest experience right. Hullett House is one of the more prominent of these, with the hotel situated on a respectably preserved site dating back to 1881, with various structures and elements still standing today as part of the property. Each restaurant and suite on the site was individually created to embody a period of history in Hong Kong’s cultural past with David Yeo responsible for the hotel design. The Mira Hong Kong is another unique property which has perfected the balance of guest experience and design, with the modish hotel having resurfaced after a multimillion dollar face-lift and rebranding a few years ago that resulted in striking geometric fins on the exterior and stunning design features within. Nearby, The Luxe Manor is also idiosyncratic, with the hotel fusing traces of Salvador Dali and Antonio Gaudi to create a surrealistic design theme that is hallucinogenic and phantasmagorical.

More international names are also starting to make their mark on Hong Kong’s design landscape, with Marcel Wanders and Yoo Design Studio set to launch Mira Moon in 2013, and the recently rebranded J Plus Boutique Hotel being the first Philippe Starck designed hotel in Asia. The same prettifying trend has also been catching on in restaurant and retail spaces as well, with dining establishments such as Lily and Bloom, The French Window and Ammo setting the bar for restaurant design outstandingly high, and Thomas Heatherwick having recently completed a contemporisation project in the Pacific Place shopping complex, making it a mall like no other.

At the end of the day hospitality interior design is all about theatricality and, being the early-adopting city that it is, Hong Kong has clearly cottoned on to this with the rest of Asia following suit. Whether it is an ornately extravagant old-world restaurant or a hotel drenched in sleek contemporariness, interior decoration in the service industry is about escapism. Like arranging a movie set, designers need to think about the staginess of spaces, with ornamental conceptualisation even being required in something as simple as a conference room. This is becoming even more crucial in today’s increasingly aesthetically-aware world where globalization has, ironically, produced an effect contrary to standardisation, with hotels and restaurants trying to outdo each other through individualism and discriminating differentiation.

 Originally published Dec 2012, in Perspective.

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