THE BUSINESS OF CREATIVITY
Superstar hotel designer Jean- Michel Gathy explains how he keeps churning out hit after hit – even after close to four decades in this business.
The world might have come to an economic standstill, but Jean-Michel Gathy informs me that he’s still as busy as ever despite being holed up at home. The effortlessly charming 65-year-old Belgian national shares what it took to produce for a presentation he had concluded the night before: “I spent 14 hours a day on it for 30 days straight.”
It is this tireless work ethic that has placed the principal designer and his firm, Denniston Architects, behind more than 25 of the most breathtaking luxury hotels and resorts around the world. His extensive portfolio, which comprises some of the biggest names in the industry, includes hospitality heavyweights such as Aman Resorts, One&Only Resorts and the Las Vegas Sands Corporation for which he designed the world’s largest rooftop infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands.
And there’s more to come. Gathy tells me that he is neck-deep in three new projects. He has signed non-disclosure agreements but can share that they are located in Korea, Saudi Arabia and an undisclosed Middle Eastern country. With so much on his plate, one wonders how he manages to churn out hit after award-winning hit without missing a beat. According to the man, the secret to great design is surprisingly simple – logic.
“You need to have an analytical mind,” says the Kuala Lumpur native. It’s a characteristic that runs contrary to what most people perceive as the building blocks of creativity, but Gathy explains that design is the successful marriage of creativity and business.
“When you design a hotel, you are conceptualising a business for someone to run. The hotel has to work, so it makes sense from a physical design standpoint to create something that serves a target market.”
But the hotel, says Gathy, also has to be “attractive” and it is this balance between logic and emotion that he has mastered. “A Moroccan writer once said to me that a Jean-Michel Gathy design is sometimes intimate, sometimes dramatic, but always charismatic. I think that’s a brilliant way to encapsulate my designs.
“There is always emotion in my designs. When you check in to a hotel, you are away from home. But you still want to be comfortable. To me, the mark of a well-designed hotel is one where you feel as such. There are so many beautiful hotels in the world that are unsuccessful because they are ccold and emotionless.” The little things matter to him: a place to sit down and read a book with a cup of coffee within reach; a room with a sun-kissed terrace looking out onto the beach; even a strategicallyplaced mirror that expands the room.
With the great also comes the not so good. Gathy admits that there have been times in his career when he’s had to grapple with problems that seemed insurmountable. The hardest battles were not creative or financial but bureaucratic. Gathy constantly had to deal with revised or completely new building codes, some of which would only manifest themselves during the construction of each project.
Of course, he now takes these issues in his stride. Instead of getting frustrated, the designer has adopted a new mindset: “When you are a professional, any difficulty is a challenge. And I approach every challenge as pleasure because it is part of my work.”
01 The garden water villa at Cheval Blanc Randheli Maldives is one of Gathy’s projects that perfectly encapsulates his design mantra – emotion in beauty.
02 Grand and opulent, the Aman Venice hotel is housed in a 16th-century palazzo in San Polo, and reflects the architecture of the city.
Egos and grand creative gestures have no place in Justin Chen’s definition of design. Contemplations on the sacred and the profane. Wrestling enormous form out of space. Meditations on the natural world and urban environment. Such are the esoteric ruminations the world’s greatest architects have tried to convey through their life’s work.
But these musings are not for Justin Chen, the 37-year-old CEO of Arcc Spaces. “Architects always want to showcase their intent or put their stamp on a project. Over time, I’ve come to realise that a lot of these ideas are somewhat disconnected from the reality of people’s experiences,” explains Chen, who graduated from the University of California Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture.
It is the end-user – not the architect’s ego – that sits right at the heart of Chen’s blueprint. When designing Arcc’s 20 upscale flexible office spaces across China and South-east Asia, he ensured that their architectural form was informed by function while materials, as well as spatial design, enhanced functionality. Meeting spaces, for example, were padded with soundproofing fabrics, fitted with adequate electric power points, and deliberately placed away from workstations, making them “out of the line of sight so people wouldn’t feel exposed,” explains Chen.
This dogged attention to usability has much to do with his experience while designing Apple stores in the US back when he was a young architect with MBH Architects. “At that time, Apple was rolling out a new definition of what a retail space should be. A minimal design focused on the product itself – allowing people to come up to the product and experience it on their terms in a non-threatening environment. Everything was placed in the centre and easily accessible.”
Chen was also given the opportunity to design Starbucks cafes, where decisions surrounding the design theme, number of seats and even the food and beverage menu were shaped by data Starbucks had collated. The year was 2005 and the coffee giant had caught onto the power of data way before it became this decade’s buzzword.
“It struck me just how sensitive these brands were to the user experience,” says Chen. And it is this very sensibility that continues to ground his design philosophy today.
When you walk into Arcc’s latest 19,000 sq ft workspace at One Marina Boulevard, which is slated to open in July, you will find it almost impossible to perceive Arcc’s design DNA. It’s an effect Chen is pleased to have achieved and with good reason.
“We’ve kept our branding minimal as our financial clients want a space that is an extension of their brand,” says Chen, whose clients are given the option to co-design their dedicated office spaces.
With an onsite programming and events team, sleek micro kitchens, and the choice to transform a breakout space into a bar, the company’s latest project also reflects how Chen has managed to transform his family’s traditional real estate business into one that borrows elegantly from the hospitality playbook.
Come early next year, Chen will launch a 49-room hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, marking Arcc’s foray into the competitive realm of hospitality. It’s targeted at the “global citizen who has stayed at luxury retreats or five-star hotels in the past but is looking for something a little more authentic and alternative”. While the nitty gritty plans for the hotel are yet to be finalised, Chen hopes that travellers will linger and unwind within the space instead of merely using the hotel as a transitional space.
As a successful second-generation business owner, who’s not only a voracious reader but also a casual ceramicist and – of late – a sourdough baker, Chen is in some ways the very traveller he is designing the hotel for: conscious of his surroundings. Chen started his meditation practice a few years ago when he was on the brink of burnout and credits it for bringing him back from the edge.
“As an entrepreneur or leader, you have to be physically and mentally fit. You can’t help others until you help yourself. When I meditate, I carve out time for myself to decompress and reflect on the past as well as what’s coming in the future.”
01 The arrival area of Arcc’s co-working space at One Marina Boulevard, slated to open in July.
02 Built in 2013, the Co. at 75 High Street is designed and managed by Arcc Spaces and represents the starting point of Chen’s design process.
THE MAXIMAL PURITY OF MINIMALISM
Bruno Moinard reflects on human connections and a life well designed. For most of us, a banister is an afterthought. We hold on to it as we move up or down the staircase and then get on with our day. For Bruno Moinard, the banister rail was his first-ever building project. “It was for clients in Paris. Forty years later, I still meet these people and they still talk about that rail! This, to me, is a magnificent thing in life. That design celebrates human connections,” reminisces Moinard.
The Frenchman grew up surrounded by creativity and the arts. Moinard’s father owned three furniture stores and an upholstery workshop, so home was a constant and colourful tapestry of curtains and tiebacks. During school holidays, a young Moinard would visit his father’s workshops to watch the workmen fashion beautiful products from raw materials. He was enamoured.
“I wanted to be an upholsterer and decorator. I wanted to be a painter in interior design. And I was only nine!” Naturally, at age 15, he enrolled in the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Appliques et des Metiers d’Art in Paris and threw himself into the syllabus. He worked day and night, and, eventually, his hard work and talent were recognised by his teachers, including one Louis Bercut, a recognised costume designer.
Every weekend, Bercut would guide Moinard around Paris to draw while teaching the youngster about volume, materials and light. More importantly, Bercut was responsible for introducing Moinard to the legendary designer Andree Putman.
The two would eventually form a close working relationship, with Moinard becoming Putman’s veritable right hand. This “adventure” lasted 15 years and while there were countless projects, Moinard fondly remembers the British-French airline project.
The year was 1993 and Air France had just invited some of the foremost designers of the day to submit proposals to redesign its fleet of Concorde turbojet-powered supersonic passenger planes. “I remember Philippe Starck announcing that he would win the competition because of his expertise in planes. But Putman and I won instead. I think we won because we had more humble attitudes and were able to comprehend the subject at hand.”
The duo approached the project the same way they do for all their projects: using design to enhance the warmth of human connections. Once on board, they softened the sharp lines, switched fabrics and carpeting, and added more shapes to an otherwise business-like environment.
Moinard was particularly proud of one design trick: subtly hiding the handle of the travel trunk so it flowed seamlessly with the curved lines of the cabin. The handle also emanated warm and elegant lighting along the aisle when the trunk was closed.
It is this constant pursuit of enhancing human connections through design that compelled Moinard to take on the challenge of creating a luxury medical facility in Shanghai. The brainchild of cousins Terence and Nelson Loh, Novena Bellagraph Aesthetics is a state-oftheart medical and aesthetics centre created in partnership with Clinique La Prairie. It’s nestled within the confines of Bulgari Hotel Shanghai and is set to launch at the end of this year.
“For me, working with light is the key to everything. I wanted to use high ceilings and column pillars to play with space and the light. Different materials and decor provide the finishing touches,” says Moinard. The designer also painted a kaleidoscope of coloured diamonds with the idea that the stones reflected light in a variety of different ways through angles, forms and symmetries.
Just like that banister and airplane, Moinard also had to consider the human element here, especially as the space had to seamlessly blend and balance the art of design with the sterility of medicine.
“Inspiration for this came from constraints.” For example, the patient suites had to centre on the human element, but still incorporate functional design thinking. Moinard came up with the idea of a cocoon enveloping both the doctor and the patient so they could comfortably engage with one another.
Creativity adds meaning to his life and, despite being in the design field for the better part of half a century, Moinard still derives pleasure from it.
Increasingly, the designer is beginning to realise that his designs can drive meaningful changes in society. What started out as just a simple banister has become a quest to “reach a form of timelessness”. A life well-designed, so to speak.
01 The Hotel du Marc under the ownership of Veuve Clicquot went through an extensive revamp in 2011 courtesy of Bruno Moinard. It’s not open to the public.
02 One of the bathrooms in Hotel Eden, part of the Dorchester Collection, after it went through a major two-year restoration project.
03 Besides hotels, Moinard also designs flagship stores for celebrated luxury brands. This is the Goutal Paris perfumery store.
As he marks 40 years of chic hotel interiors and keeping a low profile, Lim Hong Lian of LTW Designworks finally opens up.
This award-winning design studio, responsible for the strikingly elegant interiors of many luxury hotels around the world, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year – but it has flown under the radar for most of that time. Says Lim Hong Lian, founder and principal partner of LTW Designworks, “We’ve always been low-profile. As long as we enjoy the process of design and are proud of the end results, we don’t really care about the publicity.”
The work of Lim and his team can be seen across a span of international hotels, from the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul to the Park Hyatt Beijing Hotel, yet you’d be hard put to attribute them all to the same firm because each looks so different. This is due to the fact that it does not have a design signature – the primary reason for LTW Designworks’ low profile.
He elaborates: “We are not designing for ourselves but for the client and appointed hotel operator. They are all variables, therefore there is no recognisable LTW style.”
What ties them all together is something else. “We are not interested in quantity. In a good year, we don’t sign on for more than six projects. This means we can dedicate our time more intensively to each project.” This selectiveness challenges the firm to tackle one of his biggest grouses in the industry – a lack of originality in hotel design. Lim ensures each of his projects is unique by instilling a sense of place and telling a story. Grounding each hotel in its location is also crucial, especially for the frequent flyer. “You don’t want to get up in the morning and not remember where you are,” says Lim.
The process involves diving deep into each location’s culture, customs, cuisine, history and people. For the Jumeirah Nanjing hotel in China, that meant reflecting the organic movement of its external architecture – designed by Zaha Hadid – on the inside, while evoking the cultural refinement and scholarly history of the city within.
When working on the Grand Hyatt Xi’an, the desert was the design inspiration, given the city’s status as the start of the Silk Road. Here, artful shapes reminiscent of shifting dunes, a sunset palette of warm reds and oranges, and lift shaft cladding in the form of laser-cut bronze conjure up a shimmering desert mirage.
The love of art runs in Lim’s blood. Born to parents who were both artists, he says: “I used to squat by the drain to wash my dad’s brushes when I was five or six, and the smell of linseed oil and the oil paints left a lasting impression on me.”
Later mentored by Chen Wen Hsi, a Chinese-born Singaporean painter famous for his avant-garde Chinese artworks, he became a painter himself and went to art school in London, where he moved from painting to exploring sculpture and then studying interior design and architecture.
“The way I got hooked on interior design was unique. I realised that art didn’t have to be for art’s sake. It could be something I could use and live with, and be applied to the environment.”
Lim’s portfolio proudly displays his inclination towards hotels, with their sheer range of public and private spaces – from lobbies to function rooms and restaurants to guestrooms, as well as spas to fitness centres. “They have one of the most complex types of interiors. It gives us a lot of meat to chew on.”
Looking back on his career, Lim reflects on what it has taken to get to where he is.
“You need to be patient and truthful about what you are doing. There are no shortcuts and there is no room for ego in a process where collaboration is key. It’s been about dedication and knowing how to work with people. So many are involved when it comes to a hotel that it’s like making a movie. You need a team you can create with.”
01 The sumptuous lobby of the Grand Hyatt Xi’an, which is but one example in LTW Designworks’ extensive portfolio of luxury hotels across the globe.
02 Look up when you’ve reached the lobby of the Jumeirah Nanjing and this is the stunningly unique view that greets you.
03 The interior of the Jumeirah Nanjing hotel reflects the organic movement of its external architecture by Zaha Hadid.
TEXT FARHAN SHAH
TEXT DENISE KOK
TEXT CHARMAINE CHAN