City-center hotels don’t need to be destinations in and of themselves. Yes, they have to have a strong design signature and a slickly-executed identity. But it’s time for designers to change their thinking from “downtown oasis” to “launch pad.”
From Philadelphia to Istanbul, that represents a seismic shift in the purpose of downtown hospitality. Call it the Airbnb effect if you like, but the coolest hotels today are masters at making guests love their time at the property, while also encouraging them to step out and embrace the city around them.
“We were careful with our nods to iconic or well-known points of history in the area,” says Christine Shanahan, managing director of design, HVS Design, of the firm’s renovation of The Franklin Hotel at Independence Park in Philadelphia that’s slated for completion early next year. “While we worked to reflect these elements, this isn’t a nostalgic or museum-piece design. It’s grounded in the current era—the hotel owner wanted the design to encourage the guest to go out and explore the neighborhood.”
Crafting a launch pad rather than an end point changes the design process from the first charette. On-the-ground research is still vital—Shanahan and her team took the time to walk the neighborhood around the hotel. They also made an effort to get locals’ insights and photograph and sketch the team’s experiences. So is nerding out on the building or its surroundings. For Shanahan, that meant doing a detailed study of Philadelphia, including both large-scale historical events and local lore.
And, for some urban projects, designers need to be prepared for the building itself to be a collaborator. “What stands out for me with Room Mate Emir is the amazing process of restoring the splendor of two historic buildings that were totally in ruins and their transformation into an astonishing design hotel,” says Room Mate Hotels president and founder Kike Sarasola of the company’s new Istanbul hotel. “Keeping the frescoes and the façade intact was a must.”
For hotels like Room Mate Emir, Istanbul, it was the painstaking craftsmanship involved in restoring historic frescoes at the property that was the passion project moment for Lázaro Rosa-Violán, founder of his eponymous studio.
The next step is slightly counterintuitive: taking all of that information gleaned from the local cultural and architectural scene and leaving much of it on the cutting-room floor. That kind of curation is vital to both the efficacy of the design and the outside focus of modern urban stays. “We found that by limiting the amount of information we delivered through the design about the local neighborhood, we could create more visual interest,” says Shanahan.
So, quirky pieces in Shanahan’s design such as a white silhouette of Benjamin Franklin or a giant green key that becomes an art piece in the bathroom work more like Easter Eggs in a video game than museum pieces. For Rosa-Violán, the melding of East and West was a starting point, but he’s not taking it too literally. Warm woods and geometric pieces in the guest rooms offer a general reference to both, but a varied palette of color and materials, including pink and bright yellow seating and intricately-installed wood accent walls, means those allusions don’t become too literal.
So, what has to happen to create focal points throughout the hotel without obvious local accents? For projects like these, the emphasis is as much on wayfinding as it is on creating Instagram moments. Designers need to invite guests to circulate through the hotel with the same freedom they’d have in the city outside.
“Exploring is essential to us, so we want to make the guests curious about the space, as a way of drawing their attention through it,” says Rosa-Violán. “The lights, tech and even the tactile elements combine and work as a motif throughout the hotel.”
Case in point: the series of oval mirrors that line the wall of a spiral staircase in Room Mate Emir. Their streamlined shape works to suggest the traffic pattern—directing guests up or down the stairs.
For Shanahan, it’s the color palette that helps create a roadmap. “A deep charcoal against the window wall helps to define individual spaces within the room (creating an orientation point so guests can easily locate the room’s features). A rich crimson is used sparingly, but with purpose throughout the room, to provide the feature or focal point of interest,” she says. A narrow black door draws attention to the guest rooms’ coffee maker and counter. Green mirrors, red cords and even red lipstick prints on the artwork in The Franklin modernize wood flooring.
Those deep tones also offer a more layered spin on a classic East Coast vibe, something that’s key for modern travelers looking for hotels that match their 21st century concept of city stays. Whether the shell of a hotel is a rundown historic structure (or two, in the case of Room Mate Emir) or a more modern building that was purpose-built as a hotel (as is the case for The Franklin), the fusion of new and old elements has to feel fresh, even when the elements are traditional.
Emir’s candy-pink walls and sparkling chandeliers might be formal, but the result when combined with wall-size black and white graphics and the caramel leather of a round seating piece is still contemporary.
Sound like making downtown magic is a tall order? It is. So, designers can forget about a blank slate (or, clearly, a guidebook). Time to head out into the urban jungle, indeed.
ROOM MATE EMIR
Room Mate Hotels
Lázaro Rosa-Violán Estudio:Lázaro Rosa-Violán; founder and interior designer; Santiago Inat, technical architect; Aleida Martínez
PURCHASING COMPANY/GENERAL CONTRACTOR
THE FRANKLIN HOTEL AT INDEPENDENCE PARK
The Buccini/Pollin Group
PM Hotel Group
HVS Design: Christine Shanahan, managing director of design; Inad Bilbeisi, studio director; Allie McWatters Corneal and Elizabeth Saffell, designers
Jonathan Nehmer +
Christina River Exchange
FXB Engineering (MEP engineering); Lighting Design Collaborative (lighting)
Fil Doux Textiles
Royal Thai (fomerly Tai Ping Carpets)
Lily Jack Upholstery