No 12. 21 Things that Distinguish Timeless Hospitality Design

For much of my life, design and style were a response to insecurity, a way to draw attention, to seek approval and acceptance. Over time, my perspective has dramatically shifted. I have embraced the minimalist concept of quality over quantity, evolved to a more understated sensibility, and seriously consider my role in consumerism and the impact of my lifestyle on the environment as a whole. I now appreciate the intersection of design and the joyful emotional experience it evokes, particularly in visual and kinesthetic mediums. 

It is particularly challenging to maintain the integrity of occupant experience in commercial spaces, which are governed by regulatory doctrines and require accouterments unnecessary in a residential context. Editing becomes exceptionally critical to remove distracting elements to create a completely immersive sensory experience.  

One of my favorite artists is Salvador Dali; I am a huge fan of surrealism and the distortion of reality, all of which can be articulated in commercial interiors. For this post, I am forgoing my interest in the more expressive and playful examples of design intended to amaze the viewer. Instead, the focus is on interiors of hotel and food and beverage projects, designed for repeated use, which encourage more meditative states of relaxation and joy. 

  1. Distillation of meaning – The best design begins with a clear, concise design brief that a team can follow.

  2. Flawless Brand Development and Execution – Far beyond name, logo, and the many branded accouterments that adorn most commercial environments, brand is the essence of the idea or concept that must permeate through every aspect of the users experience from furniture, clothing, fragrance, and décor.

  3. Residential – Layered, realistic, meaningful. Laminated TV station guide, no. When possible: lamps before sconces, rugs, plants, drapery, magazines/newspapers, things you would likely find in a home.

  4. Balance of Masculine and Feminine – Beyond being a great teacher, contrast creates a compelling context. Hard and soft, smooth and rough, straight and curved, structured, and free. The river-banks and the flowing river. Finding a balance between the masculine and feminine, the yin and yang, is an essential feature of any calming environment.

  5. Warm, dim lighting – Flattery lives here. If older customers complain, it’s just right.

  6. Texture. Complexity is a critical component of a stable system. Great examples of this can be found in monochromatic environments or spaces with a simplistic color palette, where texture is essential.

  7. Intentional Dissonance – Every space needs at least one and sometimes multiple elements that are on-brand but don’t quite fit. Perfection is unnatural and uptight; our minds can relax once we get the first ding on our new car. Think organic produce. Think lived in.

  8. Mastery of color. Tone, Range, balance, and saturation must be considered carefully. Sometimes a palette of five primary tones feels more settled than three.

  9. Textiles and patterns. Interest begins with surprise. My taste says less is more, although some designers use many layered designs. Whatever the sensibility, pattern stands in perfect contrast against uniformity.

  10. Audio and Fragrance. An evocative, emotional experience is incomplete without auditory and olfactory inputs. Beyond immersion of brand experience, these factors can also serve as moments to reset an occupant’s senses, particularly in common areas and bathrooms.

  11. Deep Curation – One of the most challenging and painstaking aspects of any hospitality project is pre-opening. It is easy to stop at plate ware and silver and go to the restaurant supply catalog to order the last 497 operating supplies you need before guests show up. There are tons of antique, vintage, and alternative sources for these small items with which your guests interact. The best projects curate to the saltshaker, the serving platters, the teapots. These are special moments that truly distinguish the most outstanding projects.

  12. Consideration of occupants – Staff and guests add color and movement into any physical space. Restraint of the interior design must leave room for this energy and form.

  13. Art and Décor – Must speak to the brand and design intent

  14. Authenticity of Materials – Vintage, worn, organic materials, handcrafted, yes. Fake plants, faux wood, cartoon graffiti, no.

  15. Plants – (and fish) breathe life into a room. Happy face emoji here.

  16. Wabi-Sabi – New things that look old are for Modern Farmhouse Instagrammers and corporate types. Spend the time to source authentic, quality vintage furniture, art, décor, and operating supplies.

  17. Proportionality of classic and modern/contemporary. Now we are in super subjective land. While I appreciate period-specific design, I have always felt more settled in a space without a specific representation of era. Environments with a harmonious mix of classic and modern/contemporary elements are timeless.

  18. Conflict within the design team – If everyone agrees on every decision, you are in trouble. Commercial design requires subjective interpretation, even with a well-defined direction. Talented design team members should be sparring to keep the outcome focused and making sure to avoid selections that are out of place.

  19. Editing – This is one of the most tedious and difficult aspects of great commercial design. Code requirements attempt to introduce many items in a space that are tacky and out of place. An obsession must exist to remove, or hide, anything that reminds a guest they are in a commercial space.

  20. Staff – Staff are an extension of your brand and design, what they wear, say, and most importantly, their emotional energy conveys a message to your guests. Nice isn’t enough; people want to interact with others that stimulate them or offer something unique. Your staff will ultimately determine who your customers are.

  21. Glacial Voice - The best brands leave ample room for curious, nerdy guests to discover. Pop music and movies are predictable; great brands are not trendy and they only provide enough information to create intrigue and beg you to ask questions to fill in the story.

Spatial and Interior design is an art form that can be as rewarding and emotionally stimulating to a receptive mind as music, film, or performance art. Done well, it feels accessible and can be appreciated by a discerning crowd without feeling stuffy or exclusive. It also creates a wholly immersive and intentional emotional experience that allows a visual and kinesthetic mind to relax and be submerged without the irritation of things out of place.  

I have distilled these through my limited experience, meticulous observation, and failure. A book can be written on any one of these bullets which are assuredly incomplete, depending upon the perception and experience of discerning viewers.

I’m curious, what other things do you believe define timeless hospitality design, and what effect do those spaces have on you?