If at first you don’t succeed, try again by doing something crazy. At least that was the experience Irina and Olga Sundukova, cofounders and art directors of the Moscow-based design firm Sundukovy Sisters, had in creating updates to the public areas of the Pullman Berlin Schweizerhof hotel.
“Our initial concept was very conventional—okay, boring; it was something everyone would expect to see in a business hotel in Germany,” says Irina.
That proved to be Lesson #1 in how not to get a commission from AccorHotels. The design department was ready for something different, too. The feedback? Take some risks; be wilder and the studio would get the job.
So, the sisters went back to the drawing board and returned with a high-octane, offbeat fusion of Bauhaus architecture and animal inspiration from the famous nearby Berlin Zoological Garden. They got the point—and the gig.
AccorHotels’ advice, which the sisters point out is given to all firms responding to Pullman’s RFPs, highlights a fundamental change in today’s client mindset: Every hospitality company needs to be a disruptor, no matter how many hotels are in their pipeline or what the target demographic/psychographic might be.
The Pullman brand is a poster child for this movement. The longstanding flag, acquired by AccorHotels in 1990 but initially dropped (via the rebranding of all its existing hotels to AccorHotels’ Sofitel flag) three years later was revived in 2007. Six years later, it underwent a brand refresh that sought to cement it as a cool “bleisure” go-to rather than just a solid pick for corporate travelers seeking loyalty points with its giant parent company.
And, yes, that business-driven core customer is just as charmed by the oversize, hollow abstract zebra, glowing fish sculptures suspended from the ceiling and wild colors in the lobby as any iAddicted blogger. “Not only Millennials and children are in love with the whimsical aspects of our design,” says Olga.
Clearly, though, the transformation had to be more than just a quick soft-goods redo, as the property had to deliver street-level buzz. The neighborhood around it has evolved from a blah business destination to a hotspot of parks, shops and design-led hotels, and Pullman urgently needed to keep pace. That was an especially big challenge, as the hotel had to remain open during the renovation. Major structural work was out, so the sisters and their team had to walk a fine line between impactful redesign and concepting that could be done without hotel closure.
Some swaps were simple enough—for example, ditching heavy curtains that were redundant to the front windows’ tinted glass and instead using high-backed seating to reinforce a sense of privacy for the guests. Bauhaus-inspired FF&E offers a polished offset to the zaniness of the color palette, used to both accent different zones and wrap the lobby’s columns.
Other updates took more planning. “While we were limited in the amount of changes we could make, we were able to move the bar and place it right across from the entrance,” says Irina. Adds Olga: “Now it’s located in the center of the whole space, and attracts not only hotel patrons, but also passers-by. We also moved the reception desk closer to the entrance, which improved its functionality. Moreover, we combined the bar and restaurant zones, and placed the giant zebra sculpture in the restaurant, which attracts attention and invites people to come in—we’ve set up the restaurant area as a sort of ‘shop window’ so passerby can see into the hotel.”
After the edits were made to the space, there were still major hurdles to overcome in the execution the sisters’ vision. “The original plan was to have the zebra figure be solid and sliced up into sections, but since we didn’t replace the smoke detectors and fire control system, we realized that the zebra can’t be a solid piece at all. And that’s when we decided that it can be ‘hollow,’ and we liked the end result even more,” says Irina.
Another key element: A zebra-print flooring strip running from the entrance to reception to the restaurant. The owner was hesitant to allow it to be placed over the existing granite, due to worries about damaging the 18-year-old floor. The sisters insisted and AccorHotels took on the financial liability—another sign that brands are more willing than ever to put skin in the game for design.
That puts the onus on designers to offer solutions that help their work justify itself on the bottom line, and no, just “ooh, pretty” doesn’t do it. At Pullman Berlin Schweizerhof hotel, doing that included having the ceiling do double duty.
“The ceiling works as an objet d’art: It attracts attention from the outside and creates a relaxed, warm atmosphere on the inside,” says Olga. “Its most important feature is that it’s interactive; it typically shows patterns in the general style of the hotel, but during special events or conferences, it can be used as a space for advertisements.”
There’s no such thing as business as usual. Got it?