Flagship by the Sea

April 21, 2009

With a new design mandate, Renaissance Hotels rebrands itself with the soul of an independent boutique-style hotel within the body of a full-service property.


Symbolism is rife in Cheryl Rowley’s design of the newest hotel gracing Boston Harbor, the historic seaport revered around the world for its revolution-inciting Tea Party rebellion.

Like those independent early Americans, Rowley is also a reformer—call her a hospitality design activist for the boutique hotel coup d’état that began two decades ago and whose tenets now ironically distinguish the massive, 21-story Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel.

With 143 Renaissance hotels, resorts and suites around the globe, parent company Marriott International retained the founder of Beverly Hills-based Cheryl Rowley Design as a consultant soon after acquiring the Renaissance chain. “When I got involved, they were struggling with the positioning of the many disparate Renaissance properties they had inherited,” Rowley recalls. “Some were on the verge of five star hotels with lovely traditional interiors and beautiful traditional buildings. Others, in secondary or tertiary markets, didn’t have enough money spent on them originally. They were not at all full service; not even close to what Renaissance or Marriott are about.”

The idea, says Rowley, was to help the corporate office on branding Renaissance with a bit more design leadership than Marriott hotels. “I personally helped them with the notion that every hotel should start from a place of local influence, tell a story, and create something that’s unique to the marketplace—all basic tenets of boutique hotel design,” she explains. “That was a concept introduced to Marriott by me, and it was a notion that helped to build the philosophy for Renaissance, distinguishing it from the Marriott brand,” Rowley says.

Though Rowley helped other interior design firms incorporate the boutique philosophy into their Renaissance projects as a consultant for Marriott, the new Renaissance Boston Waterfront is the first property designed by her company from concept to completion. “Marriott International developed this hotel with flagship status in mind: Our mandate was to create the individuality and soul of an independent boutique-style hotel within the body of a full-service property—and that was our greatest challenge,” she says.

Fortunately, the first-ever Renaissance Hotel in downtown Boston was a $165-million ground-up project situated in the heart of Bean Town’s newly revitalized Seaport District. Designed by Cambridge, MA-based architects Kling Stubbins to resemble the billowing sails of a tall ship, the stunning glass-clad hotel instantly recalls Boston’s maritime history. References to the waterfront setting and the sea are repeated throughout the interiors by Cheryl Rowley Design, creating a central concept and unifying theme that fans out from the lobby to more than 470 guestrooms (including 21 suites) and 21,000 square feet of flexible meeting space with a 10,700-square-foot ballroom and a 4,400-square-foot junior ballroom.

“This sense of place is a hallmark of our design work [for every client] and extends to all aspects of each project. It is the source of design integrity, emotion, humor and delight, and it flows from the belief that travelers are interested in the things that distinguish where they are,” Rowley says.

To that point, guests of the Renaissance Waterfront Hotel awaken to water views reflected in oversized mirrors that bring the outside in. Headboards are designed with clear resin insets embedded with blue sea glass, and the light and airy quality of bedding, walls and windows bring a fresh airy feeling for an East Coast project.

Displayed throughout the public areas on plasma screens, images of sky and sea also bring the outside in. Behind the front desk, a dramatically-scaled installation designed in collaboration with artist Charley Brown of Evans & Brown uses whimsical tilting fishbowls filled with resin in various colors to create a kinetic, tongue-in-cheek nod to the water location.

The custom carpet designs were also approached with references to the sea and nautical elements in mind, according to Rowley. “The ballroom level is done in a watery palette inspired by the tides, with movement in the pattern inspired by the effects created when water rushes over a rocky outcropping, ebbing and flowing. In the Lobby Living Room, carpets are crisp and geometric with a nod towards nautical stripes and coiling ropes on a ship’s deck,” she says.

Aja Kai, a fine arts photographer, was commissioned to scout Boston’s famous tall ships and create the custom nautical photo images installed throughout the public spaces. Another world class artist, Eva Menz, created the flock of wire sea birds ascending the lobby’s grand staircase. Though not technically fine art, dramatic Nautilus lights by Aqua Creations at the hotel’s front and side entrances are memorable statements that double as wayfinding tools.

Rowley’s ocean palette of coral, golden sunfish and intense ultra-marine blue seem right at place in the sun-filled lobby, but are also indicative of trends the designer is forecasting for the hospitality market.

“I love the fact that color is coming back a bit: We’ve all seen enough of brown interiors—and all-white interiors for that matter,” she reports. From a style perspective, Rowley says hotel design is moving toward acceptance of many different looks, from neo-classic to traditional to very contemporary. “Everything is no longer so minimal and straightforward. What Julian Schnabel did at the Gramercy Park Hotel was really fabulous, and that is setting the trend toward more layered and eclectic interiors,” Rowley explains. “I like that hotel design has come full circle.”

A totally new direction, however, is Rowley’s increasing focus on lighting design. It’s evident in strategic locations throughout the Renaissance Boston Waterfront‘s public spaces, from the abstract fishbowls behind the front desk to a sculptural piece created by artist Carolina Sardi for the elevator lobby. “We’re working more closely with lighting consultants than ever before, and they are integrated into the design effort at a much earlier phase of the project,” she says.

Lighting was used to solve an architectural problem in a hallway where ceiling heights dropped from 17 feet to 9 feet, for example. Rather than create a sudden ceiling break, Rowley’s team smoothed out the height difference with drywall panels gradually descending down to that 7-foot height. Coves along the side panels and over the headers are fitted with light strips that transform a mundane hallway into a memorable feature. “Great lighting brings an entirely new dimension to the interiors, creating a layer of design that is often missing from projects. It’s a big part of what we do,” Rowley says.

To achieve the sense of style and character guests usually associate with much smaller boutique hotels the design team proposed creating a series of smaller spaces within the lobbies of all Renaissance properties. “We had discussed how we might go about warming up public spaces so that they would be more like those in boutique hotels, and one of the concepts I brought to Renaissance as a feature was to introduce Lobby Living Rooms. We wanted to transform the lobby from a space that one walks through, to one where people would actually congregate, feel cozy and spend time in,” Rowley says.

To achieve that goal, the designer also presented Marriott with the idea of living room fireplaces as a signature feature in Renaissance hotels. The concept was an easy sell, but introducing the fireplace element into the ground floor of the Renaissance Boston Waterfront was particularly challenging because it had to be positioned against the guest elevator bank. “The elevator course had to have layers of fireproofing because it runs through the building. All kinds of gaps were involved and we couldn’t penetrate beyond a certain dimension because of fire hazard.

“We got a bit of push-back initially from the MEP (Mechanical Electrical Plumbing) consultants, but I always feel a fireplace in the lobby living room is important, especially in Boston where it can be freezing cold. Marriott supported the concept, and so did the architect—so after everyone spent hours discussing methods of venting the fireplace through the building, the MEPs and architect eventually were able to make it work,” Rowley recalls.

As a nod to New England, and Boston in particular, Rowley’s team chose wingback settees (albeit jazzy contemporary ones from JL Furnishings) to flank the fireplace. Millwork bookshelves added warmth to the library area above the fireplace, with vessels filled with sand and coral arranged as a graphic element.

The vessels, like many repetitive graphic statements throughout the property, relate to the location and space, but are inexpensive. “We didn’t spend a lot of money on the vessels and sand (about $15 each) but it makes a wow statement,” the designer confides. “We definitely approach our work in a really graphic way,” she continues, pointing to a line of chairs along a wall in another area of the lobby, each with a reading lamp placed meticulously and graphically above it. “I always teach my designers to stand 20 feet away from something to look at it and see if it’s really going to read in a big space.

I think that’s important, and a unique way that we design,” she says.

Though the lobby’s signature staircase aces Rowley’s 20-foot statement test, it took some convincing to get Marriott to buy into it. “Since the hotel offers significant meeting space, the challenge of moving large numbers of people between floors convinced the client that an escalator would be necessary,” Rowley says. Her belief that an escalator would be completely antithetical to the concept of a boutique-style hotel prevailed in the end, allowing the creation of the beautiful curvilinear floating staircase that became the dramatic focal point of the lobby.

Another unanticipated challenge for the designers was working with very strict Boston Fire codes. The city strictly enforces a requirement to burn test every item of FFE (Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment) that goes into a hotel, even if only one of those items is specified. For every single item purchased, a duplicate item must be ordered and burned to satisfy the local Fire Department, which added significant time and expense to the FFE portion of the project.

Budgeted from the outset, though, were all the bells and whistles the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel needed to set new technology standards in the hospitality industry. The hotel offers a DS-3 line, which operates 28 times faster than the speed of a T-1, and allows guests to stream video, host video conferences and run their largest Internet-based presentations—simultaneously—without sacrificing speed. It also features innovative guestroom plug-in technology for laptops, MP3 players, camcorders and digital cameras, in-room 37-inch, high-definition, flat panel TVs, and wired and wireless Internet on the same network throughout the property.

In the end, Rowley says the project was a great opportunity for Marriott to deliver on the promise of “Expressive Design,” a tenet of the new Renaissance design standards she helped formulate. “The mandate is to create a look that is local, fashionable and whimsical; but one that also meets the high-tech demands of a savvy business clientele,” Rowley concludes.

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606 Congress St.
Boston, MA 02210
(617) 338-4111



Cheryl Rowley Design Inc.
446 South Canon Dr.
Beverly Hills, CA 90212
(310) 843-0101

Cheryl Rowley, Principal
Erin Kendrew, Designer
Erwin Canela, Job Captain
Maricris Climaco, Sr. Project Manager

Lighting Design Alliance

PMA Construction Services

Kling Stubbins

Marriott International

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