The Aha! moment: Hotel design’s new mantra shouts “out with the new, and in with the old”

Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks Company, shares his view on the future of vernacular design.

“Bingo”, it’s like a lightbulb exploded straight in my face, as I spring off the psychologist’s couch and straight into the nearest craft cocktail bar. My newfound euphoria is little match for a sudden comprehension into the post-crisis apocalyptic world of hotel design. Mind you, the first person that utters that abysmal now trending term “the new normal” is due a head butt straight between the eyes, so please be warned, before reading further. 

Over the last two months with social distancing weighing heavy on my psyche, I’ve had countless viral discussions with many creative souls in the hospitality community. The full range of Greek-tragedy emotions span from depression, bankruptcy, deep stress (note precursor ‘deep’ in lieu of bold typeface or frowning emoticon), hints of suicide and day drinking. 

Covid-19 has brought a darkness not only for the edge of town, but straight into our business and home life. Sounds depressing? You bet. But let’s move forward as there is a point. Really. Don’t give up reading yet. 

One of the upsides of our current collective predicament is a coming to terms with the values of simplicity, honesty and a reflection on basic values.  Time has suddenly found a way into our lives. Hospitality’s forward journey is unfinished and a work in progress, but in no uncertain terms it’s absolutely wrong to think that designers have been red carded and sent to the sideline to wait out the match until there is a gradual return of upward economic growth. To the contrary, the present situation has simply accelerated a trend that was long needed in hotel design – a return to human scale. 

Suddenly, coming out of the current crisis hotel owners and operators have to re-evaluate every single aspect of their businesses. From places, spaces, the impact of social distancing and smaller footprints to a smaller number of guests. Gone is the idea of conspicuous consumption over the past decade and idea that money was no object. Devil worship is back, as it’s all in the details once again. 

And why is this good for designers you might ask? I’d say, because it returns the industry to one that takes a closer look at things, a return to craft versus mass production, to the use of natural materials instead of environmentally damaging synthetic goods that so negatively impact our world. For ages, design and building relied on the using what was available nearby. It was a survival instinct and as anyone in the hotel industry today knows, those hungry wolves our lurking just outside your door. 

Crisis, by its very nature, breeds opportunity. Given today’s head spinning changes many new hotel developments will be replaced instead by faster to market, lower investment renovations. Let’s say that the letter ‘R’ has been elevated to superhero status – repurpose, reuse. If you are upgrading hotel rooms, rethink everything, change soft goods, create value out of the ordinary. Spend your client’s money, like it was your own. Solid virtues. 

For me the next page that is yet to be written is one of amazing thinking, as hospitality has become such as bland, vanilla, mass offering of sameness that we can now take a crash course in creative entrepreneurship at every level of our businesses. Scaling down the industry in many ways restores focus and is centered on primal instinct. 

Looking at hotel architecture as an example, I can see a return of vernacular design that restored the human touch. In 1972 the epic design book “Learning from Las Vegas” carefully examined modern ornamental and noted how these structures lacked meaning. Modern vernacular on the other hand eschews a return to authentic, indigenous architecture that serves the people and society who occupy the spaces. Enter 2020, bring on the sandman and pop goes the weasel – this is where we have landed today. 

I was caffeinating heavily yesterday with my friend Patrick Keane who is design director of Enter Projects Asia, who has taken the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to embrace rattan craft villages in Thailand who were on the edge of extinction by low-cost, mass-produced synthetic furniture factories. Under the guise of Project Rattan, Patrick is using locally sourced natural rattan to create amazingly complex patterns for hotels using 3D tech in a way that the old and new merge together in a creative amazing way, and is economical as well. Opportunity rising for the ashes of near failure. It goes beyond the retro, and in fact takes the first steps of becoming a movement. 

Closing out this rant I have to say, despite all the highs and lows of the past months, weeks and hours, I’m as excited as I have ever been about the prospects of hotel design especially in the boutique space. It’s a return to honest, local craft that can restore the human touch, in what has to be a human industry. It is after all, a life affirming Aha! for designers everywhere. 

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