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It’s cool to stand out in a crowd. But, say the masterminds behind cutting-edge resort design, standing out in a crowd of just one (or two) is just as cool. You don’t need a tribe to be special, and this latest generation of retreats is all about unplugging from tech and a social set to focus on 360-degree experiences.

That starts with putting design in the background and using it simply as one more tool in the toolkit to help guests feel the entire resort experience was crafted with their individual preferences in mind. This is not the place for a riveting lobby focal point, a knockout wall treatment or anything so attention-getting that it interrupts the “feel” of the space. As the projects featured here show, luxury resort design now is about crafting an impression—not impressing the guest.

Soneva Jani | Eva Malmström Shivdasani

Since that impression has to flow seamlessly between the exterior world and interior area, the new language of luxury starts with the site. It’s not a question of inside/outside, because the whole resort directs an individual experience, says Jose Cruz Ovalle, head of his eponymous Santiago-based firm and the creative force behind the architecture of adventure retreat company Explora’s seven hotels, including its latest, Explora Sacred Valley in Peru. For that property, Cruz’s wife Ana Turrell, also part of his firm, worked on the “ambientation,” including selecting FF&E such as chairs and carpets. The whole hotel needs to be laid out as a journey for the guest.

Explora Sacred Valley | Jose Cruz Ovalle

For that destination, the literal layering of Inca platforms, a 17th century colonial Spanish house (originally owned by a hero of Peruvian independence and now the hotel’s bath house) and ancient corn terraces gave him a roadmap. There was no fighting the architecture already there, so Cruz and his team worked up a layout of low, interconnecting buildings that echo the historic walls and terraces. They also had to change the design several times to allow the Incan structures and other elements to stay in place.

Explora Sacred Valley | Jose Cruz Ovalle

Letting guests explore the built environment in a gradual way, instead of hitting them with the sensory overload Cruz sees in many urban spaces, fuels the sense of serene escapism. The spaces in the hotel are laid out so that the guest experiences each one in a serial reveal during the trip from arrival to the room. That large-footprint layout also helps encourage guests to flow through the site and not congregate in a centralized lobby area. Even the bar and restaurant areas make use of the long volumes to offer some privacy.

Dispensing with the grid is another vital tool to crafting an immersive environment. For Explora, playing with the height contrasts of the steep mountains around the hotel let Cruz use the interior landscape to further develop the connection with the rugged terrain.

Explora Sacred Valley | Jose Cruz Ovalle

Ramps replace stairs around the restaurant area. Wooden screens and accents around the windows are mounted on angles or with angled edges to return to the idea of focusing the guest experience by literally directing their viewing lines. They also act as signposts pointing out need-to-know areas like the sofa in a suite or the chalkboard with the menu in the restaurant area. A spare color palette helps blur the line between inside and outside, as do tactile, relatively raw finishes in the wood and textiles.

The sense of seclusion might be harder to create in the tighter footprint of villa resorts, but it’s no less key in properties like the 25-villa Soneva Jani in the Maldives. All but one villa is an overwater type connected by floating walkways, so Soneva co-founder and creative director Eva Malmström Shivdasani (who did the interior design for the resort, while her husband Sonu Shivdasani worked with Habita Architects on the architecture) had to make aspirational isolation top of mind from the beginning. “All the villas are positioned away from the walkways and have only a few windows in that direction for maximum privacy,” she says.

Eva Malmström Shivdasani | Soneva

It’s also crucial that the materials palette maintains a similarly quiet presence, and that it plays into guests’ desire for the conscientious use of resources. For Malmström, that’s a combination of practicality and aesthetics. “I only use sustainably grown or recycled wood, so a whitewashed resort made sense, as it’s easier to make different woods look the same underneath that treatment.”

Taking the careful, intellectual approach to design entails going down to the tiniest detail. The designers need to think each element through, so guests don’t have to. Malmström is opposed to using any prints on textiles in her hotels, as she feels solid colors are more visually relaxing. Soft pastel accents with a few pops of color in the villas offer just enough modulation to avoid being monotonous.

Soneva Jani | The Gathering | Eva Malmström Shivdasani

The backstory for both hotels reveals just as much care as the final product, and also shows that just thinking and sourcing locally isn’t always the path to an authentic result. “We import wood from countries with plantations—for example, Laos, Thailand, New Zealand, South Africa, etc., to find materials consistent with our ethics about sourcing,” says Malmström.

However, she is able to work with Maldivian carpenters and joiners (some employed by Soneva and some outsourced) to shape that wood. Restored frescoes are part of the centerpiece of Explora’s bath house.

Soneva Jani | Eva Malmström Shivdasani

If that seems like some pretty intense effort for styling resorts where the aesthetic isn’t the main point, that’s because it is. But it’s also a challenge to designers to find ways to make a transformative environment. And who doesn’t want to play fairy godmother or godfather once in a while? Plus, nothing here will turn into a pumpkin at midnight.

DESIGN FIRM: Soneva: Eva Malmström Shivdasani, co-founder and creative director
ARCHITECT: Habita Architects
DESIGN CONSULTANTS: Replan Pvt. Ltd. (MEP engineering)

CLIENT: Explora


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