Icelandic native Gulla Jónsdóttir forges force-of-nature interiors that are rocketing her sensual, immersive hotels, restaurants and nightclubs to the top of global hot lists.
With a penchant for creating highly inventive, nature-inspired designs that incorporate sensual curves and voluptuous forms, Jónsdóttir has become a go-to designer for hospitality spaces in some of the world’s buzziest markets. Since founding Gulla Jónsdóttir Architecture + Design in 2009, she’s worked on numerous high-profile projects around the globe, including Le Grand Restaurant/Jean François Piège in Paris, the Macau Roosevelt Hotel in China, the Hotel Thingholt in her birthplace of Reykjavík and the Lilium lounge at the W hotel in Union Square, New York, to name a few. In and around her adopted hometown of Los Angeles, her work includes the Red O Restaurant on Melrose Avenue, the Hyde Lounge in Hollywood and two of the most hotly anticipated hotel openings in recent memory: the new Kimpton La Peer Hotel in West Hollywood and the renovation of The Mayfair Hotel in DTLA.
Drawing on a career that includes stints at three world-renowned design organizations before striking out on her own, Jónsdóttir has clearly become a name to know in her own right—not only as a designer but as a trendsetter, creating custom furniture, rugs and jewelry. Here she details her background and dishes on what ignites her creative process.
Chocolate Lounge, San Diego. Photo: Courtesy of Gulla Jónsdóttir Architecture + Design
You grew up in Iceland; how did your time there impact your view of design?
It was a humble upbringing, surrounded by very kind, down to earth people. But serving as a backdrop to that was a dramatic landscape with juxtaposed colors of black lava, white glaciers and red volcanoes. That spectacular nature has always impacted my design, either consciously or unconsciously.
When and why did you know you wanted to be a designer?
In Florence, Italy, when I was 12 years old. I used to travel there with my mother every summer and I remember being mesmerized by the sheer beauty of this city and its arts. When I came back home, I started looking at the local buildings and found myself wanting to fix them.
Gulla Jónsdóttir | Gulla Jónsdóttir Architecture + Design. Photo: Erez Sabag
What brought you to the U.S., and specifically to LA?
When I graduated junior college with a degree in mathematics and biology, I wanted to study architecture, but they didn’t teach that subject in Iceland at the time. So, I researched schools in Italy and elsewhere. The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC) in LA wound up being my first choice. Even though I’d never been to America, I decided to apply and give it a chance. I got in, moved to the city and started my studies here.
The Mayfair Hotel, Los Angeles. Photo: Jesus Bañuelos
Before starting your own business, you worked for a trio of high-profile firms—Richard Meier & Partners Architects, Walt Disney Imagineering and Dodd Mitchell Design. How did that come about, and how did those experiences shape your design philosophy?
Upon graduation, the government gave foreign students like me one-year work visas to stay in the U.S. I decided to take advantage of this opportunity and applied for two jobs: with Richard Meier and Frank Gehry.
I was offered jobs by both, but the Richard Meier position came first and I was very grateful to land employment right out of architecture school at his office working on the Getty Center museum, which was then the largest project of its type in the country.
Camal, Los Cabos, Mexico. Photo: Art Gray
I learned many things from Richard and his team, and I still appreciate his work. There’s an element of elegant geometry in all of his designs, and since I majored in mathematics before studying architecture, this really appealed to me. I stayed at his office for four years and then a colleague of mine introduced me to Walt Disney Imagineering, which was my next career move and something so completely different and fun. I was a set designer working on a large project in Tokyo called Tokyo Disney Seas. I traveled back and forth to that city for a few years, and fell in love with Japan and its culture. I also worked at Euro Disney in France.
I met Dodd Mitchell through a mutual friend. That was a journey I will always appreciate. When Dodd hired me, he had a few people in his office and was about to get his first hotel project. Two months after I started, we began creating the hottest restaurants and bars in LA, as well as very successful hotel projects, including the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood and Thompson Beverly Hills. Dodd and I are still friends, and it was a magical time working with him, growing the team and creating memorable projects.
Casa Roosevelt, Macau. Photo: Kelly Puleio
Why leave that behind and start your own firm?
I was about to turn 40 years old. I’d been the design director and vice president for Dodd Mitchell Design for nine years. I thought it was time. It was a “now or never” moment in my mind. In November 2009. I started my own journey.
How big was the firm at first, and what is its size and scope today?
I started on my living room floor and I hired three people with whom I worked closely after that. I then rented a lovely studio at 633 N. La Peer Drive (which is now the home of one of my latest commissions, the Kimpton La Peer Hotel) and the studio grew to 10-12 people over the years. We’ve intentionally remained a small studio so that we can all be heavily involved in all our projects. Our ongoing obsession in creating one-of-a-kind spaces, using unique materials and styles that are site specific, works better for me in a small and tightly knit team.
Kimpton LA Peer Hotel, West Hollywood. Photo: Laure Joliet
You’ve recently been working on two high-profile properties within the LA hotel scene: Kimpton La Peer Hotel and the renovation of The Mayfair Hotel. Share some behind-the-scenes stories about them.
For The Mayfair Hotel, I wanted to infuse a sleek contemporary design with nods to the historical context of the property, which boasts austere Roaring Twenties architecture. I was immediately inspired by the hotel’s lobby—whose renovation is set to be complete later this spring—with its double-height ceiling, skylights and stately columns. I wanted to bring this space back to life.
Looking over some of the original drawings, I reimagined the building’s unique details in contemporary fixtures that echo the past. For example, the cage chandeliers in the lobby reflect a pattern originally found on the ceiling before a fire destroyed them. So the shadows of the past will dance on the ceiling.
The building housing the Kimpton La Peer Hotel, which as I mentioned was the home of my first studio, has become the first hotel in the Design District of West Hollywood. I imagined a space where art, music, fashion, poetry, film and architecture intertwined into a cacophony of spatial harmony. I think the result is both chic and comforting, thanks to its earth tones and abundant natural materials.
What are some of your favorite recent F&B commissions?
My favorite new restaurant projects include COMAL, the signature restaurant at Chileno Bay Resort & Residences in Los Cabos, Mexico, an Auberge Resorts Collection property. It’s an al fresco restaurant on three levels with fabulous views of the Sea of Cortez. This is mostly an open-air space, with chairs hanging from the 15-ft. ceiling, white stone walls, natural wood floors, a river stone mosaic, a brushed metal sculpture fireplace and a floating tequila display. The result is a very welcoming, Mexican-style atmosphere.
I’m also very fond of Casa Roosevelt at the Macau Roosevelt Hotel in China, where we incorporated the Portuguese style of historic Macau through such touches as the eclectic flooring materials and metal screens. I describe this restaurant as an all-day playground, with its multicurved concrete ceiling that resembles an ocean wave, laser cut metal screens and curved bronze columns.
What’s on your firm’s boards?
Theatre Box, a multiplex theater and restaurant project in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter that will include the Chocolate Lounge; a new restaurant at the Westfield Century City mall; a private residence in Beverly Hills; a moveable museum with a New York artist; and last but not least, the opening of my new atelier back in the building that now houses the Kimpton La Peer Hotel.
Your firm emphasizes a holistic approach to design. How does that manifest itself in your projects?
I’ve always been interested in creating bespoke spaces that are beautiful and inspiring to all six senses. I believe in a unified, overall design that is site specific. Everything needs to work seamlessly and beautifully, and have a soulful energy to it. I want the spaces to feel as good as they look.