She shines: Waad El-Hadidy, design director at SH Hotels & Resorts

In She Shines, Dina Soliman of BrandFull talks with some of the great minds and personalities that are shaping the world of hospitality today and in the future. We will zoom in, share their insight and celebrate their success stories. What we promise is that they will all be varied, they will be interesting, inspiring and they will all be women.

In the first instalment, we meet Waad El-Hadidy, design director at SH Hotels & Resorts. An anthropologist, an academic and a design director, Waad El-Hadidy is the “intellectual designer” of Starwood Capital and the lead behind 1Hotels.

Waad El-Hadidy is one of the creative minds behind the 1 Hotel brand, launched by Starwood Capital in 2015. She was the design lead for the first property, 1 Hotel Central Park, which breathed air into one of NYC’s prime neighbourhoods. Since then the brand has opened another three hotels and will soon be doubling its footprint with four new properties in the US, Mexico and China. It is of course not unexpected, for Starwood Capital is a pioneer and one of the most innovative within hospitality. When Starwood Capital launches a new brand, the industry watches and listens. 

• When did you join Starwood Capital and what exactly is your role there?
“I joined seven years ago, fresh out of The Parson Design School, where I came first in the last year project competition. I progressed in my role to being now design director at SH, which is basically the entity that owns and operates Starwood Capital’s three hotel brands; 1 Hotel, Baccarat and our newly launched Treehouse.”

“As for what exactly is my role, that is not as straightforward. My title is design director, however my role encompasses much more. Firstly and most importantly I set the strategic design direction and the brand narrative. Then I recommend and coordinate the entire team that works on the project be it internal or external consultants. I oversee the entire process from design to development to execution all the way through to launch and beyond. Every little detail matters. Every decision. Every choice. The fabrics, the colours, the landscaping and of course, the lighting hugely important. If I’ve learned one thing, thanks to my previous boss Kemper Hyers, it is that ‘everything speaks’. Every element plays a part in creating the right environment. It is an extremely difficult yet beautiful process and the trick is to make it feel effortless despite the countless decisions and agonising that happens over each choice. I have to be crystal clear on the brand vision and communicate it well to make sure everyone on the team is as clear. Things then start to fall into place like every piece belongs. I guess you can say I act as the brand guardian. I bring the brand vision to life creating the guest experience we envisaged.”

• That sounds like a lot of coordination. You mentioned you appoint the teams. Does that mean you work mostly with external agencies rather than in-house teams?
“Oh yes, we do have internal teams but as you know we have to bring in specialists for every project. For example we have a great F&B team in-house but we bring in kitchen equipment specialists. And while I deal with the design of the space, they focus on the menu, the offerings and the operation. Of course we all work very closely together and like with any great project, there is that bit of healthy tension. But it is always to the overall benefit of the project as it forces us to think through every point.”

• So you are relatively new to design, and your path has certainly been unconventional. Tell us how you ended up in design within hospitality?
“For as long as I remember I wanted to be a designer – since I was six or so, but  circumstances led me to a different path. I went to university in Egypt and there was no good fashion or design school at the time, so I studied business. After I graduated from AUC (American University in Cairo) I worked in social development and humanitarian field and did an MBA. I was interested in studying a more rigorous social science given the work I was doing, and I was interested to further my understanding of people and societies, so I did another Masters, this time in anthropology and I was lucky enough to get a scholarship from Cambridge University, so packed and off I went to UK. It was at this time that I found my way back to my first passion, design, by reading the French sociologist; Pierre Bourdieu who wrote a lot about the design of dwelling, its utility but also its symbolism and how integral dwelling is to life. My passion for design was reignited. After Cambridge I moved to NYC and worked in academia at NYU for about six years. I was at the Wagner School for Public Service where I worked on a Ford Foundation funded project that looked at the work of social change organisations across the US. Then it was time for another big decision; PHD. At this point I decided to pivot and study design, so I went to Parsons and as they say the rest is history. Design for me feels very natural, intuitive. It feels like coming home, like I belong.”

• With such interesting and varied background, is there anything that you bring from your other studies into your design work today?
“Good question. Well, when I think about the path I have taken, I feel very grateful for two reasons. The first is that had I started  the normal route I will have joined a design studio, and most probably I would have just left the sector completely. It is not a blanket rule of course but unfortunately a lot of design studios do not do enough to foster and take care of their talent. And designers, like many creatives, are notoriously bad at management. The other reason is that being a trained anthropologist I learnt to be inquisitive, so I think about the people and  their use of the space and how it makes them feel, not just how it looks. Few people in the industry do this well. Ace is a great example. They create spaces that are alive, that have soul. You go to the lobby and not one empty space in sight. This is not easy but they manage to do it over and over again.”

• So what are the major trends within hospitality design today and in the foreseeable future?
“Being so involved in 1 Hotel I have to say that sustainability is big and will only get bigger. It plays a huge role in not just the design but the entire vision for 1 Hotels whether it’s the partners we work with, the construction methods we employ or the subtle educational moments we create. Nowadays if you are not thinking sustainability in your business concept whatever it is, then you are behind the times. We are facing an existential crisis, so being sustainable can’t just be a catchy add-on. Well-being is also another huge wave and with people living longer this will only grow.”

• Can you elaborate a bit more on the 1 Hotels concept, and how it maintains its design integrity?
“Traditionally, sustainability was associated with shabby ecolodges. It was basic and quite compromising on comfort. 1 Hotels brought sustainability to the luxury space and very credibly. I would very proudly say we are pioneers in that area. 1 Hotels combine three aspects that hardly meet; luxury, comfort, done at scale. Sustainability was not just lip service with a couple of products on the menu, this was the bedrock for every choice we make  from the wood of the tables to the artwork on the walls to the food ingredients we put on your plate. It is a fully integrated concept. Saying that, outside of hospitality this movement started way before 1 hotels. If you look at whole foods for example they were pioneers in brining luxury and sustainability together.”

• You mentioned the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu as a major influence in re-igniting your interest in design, how about someone from the design world, anyone you look up to as your design hero?
“Oh, there are so many and I won’t be able to list them all, but here is a small sample: Carlo Scarpa, the Italian architect who brings reverence and humility to everything he designs. The tomba brion (cemetery) is a case in point. Brad Wilson – president of ACE Hotels. The best operator I know. Kemper Hyers – my previous boss and mentor – I learnt lots from him. I admire and respect him immensely. Aman – embodies the spirit of resorts and hospitality and elevated service that is not ostentatious.  Coqui Coqui in Mexico. It’s a hotel and perfumerie. In Valladolid, their hotel has one room. It’s simply beautiful.  Ian Schrager – of course you cannot talk about design and hospitality without his name being mentioned. He is gutsy and revolutionised the hotel world.”

• In this role, you must require a lot of stimulus. Out of curiosity, where do you get your inspiration?
“My inspiration comes from anywhere. One can find inspiration in unexpected places and objects. Sounds clichéd I know but it is true. Music is very inspirational to me. Sometimes I hear a song, it evokes a feeling and I want to bring that feeling into something I’m designing. It’s quite abstract and inchoate, but the design processes always starts with a nebulous idea/feeling that you then work at giving form. Much like writing. Nature is a huge inspiration. One always feels at home in nature. Travel of course is another big one. And art. I’ve been told I’m an intellectual designer. I guess what that means is that I think concept first rather than aesthetic or style. I’m stimulated by ideas like how do you create a democratic space where everyone feels welcome? Or what is the future of community living?”

• Leaving inspiration and moving to challenges, what would be some of the main challenges you face?
“Oh, plenty, but I do love a challenge! When under time pressure to produce, sometimes you get creativity blocks – not fun! Another challenge is to find vendors and partners who would be willing to come with you on the journey of trying something new. Even though we are in a creative industry, people are still risk averse , especially in hospitality where traditionally hotels were looking for fool proof furniture pieces. And of course, the classic; working with multiple stakeholders where everyone has their own opinions and priorities.”

• What is the one tip you would you give to young or new designers within the field?
“Seek mentorship. Find people you admire and ask them to mentor you. Be intentional about it. Many people would be honoured just to be asked. Schedule regular calls and meetings. Ask questions. Understand what their experience has been and seek advice.”

• From business to anthropology to designing hotels, what is next for you?
“Being a musician I guess! I will certainly stay in design but I keep layering on my artistic interests including pottery, dance, life drawing and music.”

Dina Soliman-Pedersen is the founder and managing director of BrandFull, a young brand, marketing and innovation consultancy.

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