A bold new generation of unflagged hotels is celebrating its independence with a revolutionary take on hyper-local design.
Hotel guests are chasing a new thrill—the adrenaline rush of unearthing a hidden gem. Forget about feeling “smart” by surfing hot lists for today’s most noteworthy independent and small-chain hotels. Now, travelers want to feel like finding out about under-the-radar places to stay is a genius moment.
Whether it’s an intimate 18-room hotel in London’s Covent Garden, a hotel in Tasmania that invites guests to live out the area’s rugged history via its visuals, or a New Mexico newbuild that pays homage to an ancient people, designers need to create strong visual identities that will catch the attention of early adopters.
What’s cooler than being your set’s guide to what’s new and next? Nothing, if you ask Dorothée Meilichzon, founder, CHZON. For this 18-room hotel (a London outpost from Paris-based restaurant, nightclub and hotel operator Experimental Cocktail Group, which has the Grand Pigalle hotel in Paris to its credit, along with another soon-to-open hotel, Hotel Grands Boulevards, in the City of Lights), formerly two townhouses in the Covent Garden neighborhood, you’d have to know what you’re looking for even to ID the door.
Layering lighting and mirrors around the bed offers both superior task lighting and a visual anchor to the wall. Wall-mounted nightstands ground that statement. Photo: Karel Balas
Every piece of the interior design is set up to save the best for the guest, not the casual passerby or anyone looking for quick-hit moments. Meilichzon crafted the design journey to pull guests into the experiential aspects of the hotel—in other words, you have to spend some time, not just take a great selfie. That starts with Meilichzon’s decision to de-emphasize the arrival experience in favor of the slow-burn impact of an F&B outlet.
A dramatic shift from deep tones to pastels emphasizes the sense of discovery in moving from the guest room to the bathroom. Fountain-inspired sinks draw the eye through the guest bath. Photo: Karel Balas
“The public area layout is typical for London—very long and a bit narrow—not easy to work with for a restaurant, but we decided to do a very open space, with reception just as part of the restaurant,” says Meilichzon. Adding elements of biophilic design (using natural elements and research into human behavior to make guests feel “at home” in a space) such as herboriums, greenery and terra cotta keeps the focus on setting the mood, not the scene. Having guests practically check into the restaurant also invites them to linger and fully experience the public space.
Dorothée Meilichzon, CHZON. Photo: Karel Balas
Meilichzon maintains that attitude in the guest rooms, but amps up the palette and design details to make them the real focal points of the hotel. The “wow” inspiration board of architectural facades, playful tones and cheeky riffs on shape and proportion defines the private spaces, not the public ones, here. Massive headboards behind each bed mimic the facades of nearby structures. Bold colors and textures, as well as 1970s-inspired accent pieces, offer a wry modern twist to the historic references those buildings imply. And, as the extensive use of mirrors both around the bedheads and by the vanities make clear, it’s the guest who’s the star.
Did being in the know ever look better? Non, merci, as this proves.
It’s time for designers to push past the conventional idea of a design narrative. Forget about channeling the locale or finding clever neighborhood refs. People want to know about people. In the case of MACq 01 (named for its location as part of the MAC 01 complex on Macquarie Wharf) that starts with 114 of Tasmania’s most memorable characters, each one serving as the muse for a guest room. Amanda Pike, director of interior design firm Pike Withers, wanted to use the hotel (a design-upgraded replica of the shipping shed that formerly occupied the site) to tell the tale of the people who defined the area for 200 years. Her goal was to plunge guests into their stories and allow them to not just to see objects from the past but to share the life experiences of the individuals who lived, loved and worked in this locale over the centuries.
Mixing elegant and industrial finishes in the Old Wharf Restaurant echoes the area's history. Large windows offer a view of the modern-day dock area. Photo: Adam Gibson
The materials palette was the most important implement in Pike’s toolkit. In the public spaces, the contrast of industrial finishes such as concrete, rusted steel, recycled timber and zinc with sophisticated elements such as carpet, blue glass and granite puts the struggles of early settlers front and center. Literal pieces, such as an upside-down map of Tasmania on the doors, take second place to more abstract references. That way, says Pike, guests can interpret the story based on their own reactions to the physical surroundings.
Amanda Pike, Pike Withers. Photo: Courtesy of Pike Withers
To keep that intent in the rooms, Pike turned to market research conducted by Tourism Tasmania, which identified five different Tasmanian trait combinations—hearty and resilient, curious and creative, fighting believers, grounded yet exceptional and colorful and quirky—and placed each individual character into one of them, using that identity to guide FF&E choices.
Keeping it dark in a bathroom lends an urban edge to a serene vibe. Stone textures bring the surroundings inside. Photo: Adam Gibson
“We tried to convey throughout the design of the rooms how that a person’s character would influence how their room was furnished,” she says. “For example, someone that was ‘grounded yet exceptional’ would have an understated style focused on selecting high quality, authentic pieces that display an appreciation for workmanship and craft. Everything that was selected for this room, from crockery to bedside lights, was done so with this character trait in mind.”
Put another way: Personality counts.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
When it comes to digging deeper to find a truly authentic story, there’s no substitute for old-fashioned study. Guests—and owners—demand design that reflects a place or culture beyond the Google-able high points. So, Kris Lajeskie, founder of her eponymous studio, knew that even her three-decade-long study of the ancient peoples who populated New Mexico a millennium ago was just the starting point for Albuquerque’s Hotel Chaco.
Mixing surfaces in the lobby heightens the impression of being in a desert environment. Seating along a curved wall evokes natural rock formations. Photo: Nick Merrick
The Pueblo culture and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chaco Canyon became the basis for the design. After the initial charrettes with owner Heritage Hotels & Resorts (HH&R), whose ceo James Long told Lajeskie and the team (which included architect Gensler and Heritage’s in-house designers) what the hotel’s theme would be, she headed to the American Museum of Natural History to get an up-close-and-personal look at its vaults.
Twenty ceremonial cylinders and a jet frog effigy she saw there became central focal points for the 118-key property’s design. Working with Gensler, Lajeskie re-created those cylinders as a visual foundation for the public spaces. Placing them on the outside of the lobby atrium gives guests an immediate reminder of the civilization to which the hotel pays homage.
White bedding and lampshades brighten a desert-inspired palette, while a darker floor serves as a visual counterweight. Photo: Ryan Gobuty
The simplicity of those artefacts highlights a key attribute of the indigenous peoples that Lajeskie wanted to place top of mind. Keeping both the color palette and the FF&E streamlined makes sure this 21st century building is visually connected to both its contemporary surroundings and its history.
The circular layout of the lobby not only shares the geometry of those details, but helps reinforce the idea of pared-down shapes as a means to a sacred or transformative design experience, something Lajeskie felt was key to making sure guests came away with a reverence for the culture.
Kris Lajeskie, Kris Lajeskie Design. Photo: Jenny Steigwart
That careful curation also smoothed the process of accommodating 25 different room types. “The basic design is very linear,” says Lajeskie. She and Long turned that same eye to the extensive art collection. Starting with a separate budget just for art, she sought out Native American artists to produce commissioned works. Her one-line directive? “Evoke the spirit of Chaco.” That intent unifies works across media from pottery to painting, as well as helping to channel an immersive journey throughout the entire property.
Easier said than done, of course, but that’s the point. Today’s non-branded stays thrive on the challenge of delivering more than just a pretty picture. From booking to check-out, designers need to be prepared to craft masterful environments.