The Boutique 18 Interviews: Ginna Claire Nguyen

Read our full conversation with Relativity Architects' director of design.

Boutique Design
Ginna Claire Nguyen

Ginna Claire Nguyen; photo courtesy of Rachel Jacobson

In this week’s 2019 Boutique 18 class interview, you’ll get to know Ginna Claire Nguyen, director of design for Relativity Architects. Enjoy the conversation!

What are you working on?
Everything! There are 60+ projects on our drafting boards at the moment that range from restaurants to hotels to tech campuses to affordable housing. Specifically, I am working on a 260-unit timeshare resort, a boutique hotel on the Venice boardwalk, several multi-family projects (including two senior living communities) and a historic renovation of a traditional Japanese tea house, to name a few.

What was your defining career moment?
In 2010, I was part of a design team with former classmates Dale Suttle and So Sugita that won the Sukkah City NYC Competition. We built a parametrically-designed pavilion in Union Square out of cedar and copper. I hosted a traditional Japanese tea ceremony (which I study) inside our pavilion, which Paul Goldberger, one of the jurors, saw and commented on how appropriate the ceremony was for this Sukkah. When I heard that, I knew I was on the right path. I knew that I had found the vocation that was true to who I am and to my talents. 

What was the aha moment when you decided to be an interior designer—and what drew you to hospitality?
I was an undergrad art student and loving life, but felt that something was missing from my career path. I needed my art to be more expansive and on a different scale. I was interested in too many disciplines: literature, art, social justice, urban planning, business. I found that architecture and interior design perfectly fit the bill. Having pursued architecture, I found a natural draw to hospitality due to my background in restaurants. Hospitality offers service, experience and an intricate weaving of economy and art. It really is an exciting industry to be a part of.
 

Hal's Bar & Grill | bar | Relativity Architects

Hal's Bar & Grill in LA; photo courtesy of Ginna Claire Nguyen

Who would be your wish list client and why?
Boutique hotels around the world. The opportunity to design in situ experiences and to study a local culture gives me chills. 

What were the most important non-design-specific skills in your tool kit and how do you use them? 
My background in the restaurant industry has been the most defining tool in my non-design-specific kit. I have worked every role of a restaurant since I was a teenager, from cashier to operations to accounting, and that kind of knowledge has proven invaluable. Not only does that help me design a truly functional back of house, but it helps me understand the client’s and operator’s needs and processes for success. It sets the stage for in-depth discussion and decision-making as we take a concept—be it an oyster bar or a timeshare resort—to reality. 

What’s next on your list of skills to acquire?
I would like to further hone my lighting design skills. Lighting can have the biggest impact on a space, and with each project I am constantly learning something new. Not only are the basics of lighting design complex in their own right, but technology is producing new systems and controls every year that are valuable to keep up with.

What are some of the best lessons you’ve learned from your clients?  
I am learning every day from my clients. Some of the most encouraging moments are seeing the kindness and consideration of owners towards their customers. It is a sticky trap to take a hotel or restaurant and see it only as a design problem. The reminder of the human scale and the intimacy of the design is so critical to creating a successful experience for the end user. 

What frustrates you most about the gap between what you’d like to design and what the industry will accept? How are you dealing with the hospitality industry’s lag in technology, wellness, biophilia, etc.?
Trends versus permanence in design is a real philosophical struggle for me. When thinking about sustainability, it is hard to digest that we design these amazing spaces, only to see them demolished and rebuilt anew when the next food trend comes along and the restaurateur changes. It is difficult to dismiss the very cyclical world of hospitality when we’re creating a specific genre of experience. How can we design sustainably in an oft temporal industry?

What’s your favorite tech tool and what’s on your wish list and why?
Honestly, the more advanced our technology gets, the more I find myself working through design concepts with a pen and paper. From that initial ink, the tech world is our oyster to produce amazing work. I still have an affinity towards parametric computer modeling, because it opens up the possibility to create things like a double-curve wine rack made of steel and connected by hundreds of reflective wires. 

Describe your design for your dream hotel if money were no object.
There would be raw, natural, textural materials and an amazing view. And a soaking tub on the balcony.

What would you be doing if you weren’t an interior designer?
If I weren’t a designer, I would be a developer or planner, curating the design of the urban fabric. My passion lies in contributing to the built environment in which we live, work and play. That, or I would go back to painting and writing. 

What’s the next hot trend or next new kind of project (cannabis, wellness, coworking extreme hotels) you’re working on or hope to work on and what will the challenges/opportunities be?
Our firm has recently conceptualized several different cannabis retail stores in the Los Angeles area. From a design perspective, the opportunity in this new market is that it is no different than if we were designing a perfume retailer or chocolatier. The concept of designing an experience to sell a product is the same. The challenge truly lies in what this kind of retailer means for the city street, the neighborhood and how to mitigate the developing regulations on security, etc. How do we approach the integration of legal cannabis products into the sociopolitical fabric of our communities? And how do we design these retailers to be spurs of economic growth while providing protected and beautiful storefronts?