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Editorial: A Sense of Place

April 20, 2009

The late, famed architect Philip Johnson once said that “architecture is the art of how to waste space.” While I can only assume that he was being characteristically shocking, the idea that our built environment is largely excessive (particularly here in North America) isn’t new to anyone.

But as financial and natural resources continue to be stretched to their limits and as we continue to build more sustainable projects as a result, I sense we are awakening to our over-consumption hangover and are re-evaluating the spaces we occupy, and are looking for ways to do more with less. Whether it’s out of necessity due to today’s economic climate or out of a sense of social or environmental responsibility, it is one positive change I see that could result from this recession.

But the idea of being wasteful extends beyond just the size of a building or home, however. In considering the design of hospitality projects—the focus of this issue—it occurred to me how many wasted opportunities there have been as a result of off-the-shelf designs that are so common to hotel chains. It’s not uncommon for weary business travelers (I speak from some experience) to forget which city they’re visiting because the hotel rooms they find themselves in bear the exact same resemblance to the ones they stayed in previously in any other city in America.

In other words, the design of countless hotels and restaurants lacks any sense of connection to the geography in which they are located. Of course branding and franchising requirements bear most of the blame for this, but opportunities exist for design to bridge connections between people and places.

This concept is not a foreign one to Cheryl Rowley, principal of Cheryl Rowley Design, who helped convince Marriott International of 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.” Rowley’s design of Marriott’s new Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, the subject of this issue’s cover story, is a perfect illustration of this philosophical approach to interior design.

“This sense of place is a hallmark of our design work [for every client] and extends to all aspects of each project,” she says. “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.” To that point, guests of the Renaissance Waterfront Hotel awaken to water views reflected in oversized mirrors that bring the outside in, as contributing writer Carol Tisch notes. 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.

As more firms are taking on international projects and we move ever-closer to a global economy, it is not so much that designers need to interpret local influence for their clients, but to bring strategic thinking and conceptual design to the table instead, as Bruce Brigham, FASID, relates in this issue’s ASID forum article. To illustrate his point, Brigham explains that his client in Hong Kong is not so interested in his ability to produce CAD drawings or putting all the drawing notes, labels and specifications in Chinese, which their own staff is completely capable of handling.

“Overseas clients are less interested in our ability to handle all phases of a project,” Brigham writes. “After all, they have in-house and local teams who are very skilled at many of the aspects of interior design work. These clients are much more interested in our thinking. It is our skill and sophistication at strategic planning and conceptual design, especially when it is evidence-based, that they want to tap. And therein lies our value.”

Indeed, communicating and marketing the value interior designers bring to the table has never been more crucial than it is now. As client dollars are stretched, they will be looking increasingly not only for basic design services, but also for solutions to their business challenges; how they can make their offices more flexible; how they can effectively and efficiently brand their organizations; how designers can help them create a sense of place for their employees and customers—one that tells their unique story, and is infused with meaning.

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