Balanced Luxury

April 1, 2008

With increasing demand for luxurious lodging in China, the new Sheraton Changsha Hotel designed by DiLeonardo International offers five-star accommodations in a setting that balances international opulence with regional charm.

By Elzy Kolb | Photography by Kerun Ip


"Balance" is a word that Lia DiLeonardo uses often when talking about her firm's recent design for the Sheraton Changsha Hotel, in South-Central China.

An alluring woven wall, located behind the front desk, can be illuminated from the rear by LED lighting. The color of the lighting can be changed to suit the hotel's current needs. (larger image)

Changsha, the capital of the providence of Hunan, is a city on the move. Growth has been fueled by an influx of investments from the United States, Japan, South Korea, and various European countries, sparking expansion in industries including high-tech, chemicals, food production, manufacturing, and increasingly, tourism. The population has climbed since 2003, when the census pegged it at more than 6 million. Chairman Mao, who began his political career in Changsha in the early 1920s, wouldn't recognize the town.

With the increasing demand for top-flight accommodations from Changsha's international visitors, the time was ripe for a five-star hotel to become part of the changing face of the city. The recently opened Sheraton Changsha Hotel, in the downtown business district, was the region's first international five-star hotel.

DiLeonardo, a project designer on the job, and a partner and principal in the Warwick, RI-based design firm DiLeonardo International Inc., says the firm had a mandate to "balance what the owner expected as the level of luxury, with also making it feel part of a regional experience for the traveler." Guests may recognize certain familiar Sheraton elements in the new facility, such the color schemes for guestrooms, but the design "incorporates a level of luxury that might not usually be associated with the brand."

Above: DiLeonardo International's designers focused on creating interesting architectural elements such as floor pavement and wall features, using readily available materials. (larger image) Below: Crystal chandeliers and glass-beaded wall coverings are among the radiant and luxurious elements designed into the hotel's public spaces. (larger image)

Crystal chandeliers, glass-beaded wall coverings, and reflecting pools spanned by stone footbridges are among the luxe elements in the public areas. The space behind the front desk features a woven wall, illuminated from the rear by purple LED lighting. To show respect for a special client or business group visiting the hotel, the color can be changed to, say, the color of a company logo or a national flag.

New materials are in evidence, such as a soft, high-gloss leather or vinyl known as liquid leather, and sheer window coverings with loose threads, called hairy sheers, add texture and dimension. "We're always looking for things that the typical guest hasn't seen before," notes DiLeonardo. "We make sure they're timeless and not too trendy, because we certainly don't want to start the kind of installation where things would have to be redone in a couple of years. Things like the liquid leather and the hairy sheers are very exciting new materials that definitely add something to the space."

The design team had another mission besides creating an aura of luxury in the hotel. "It was an important part of our philosophy that it should feel international but also local," explains DiLeonardo. "That's why people travel to those regions. So really, maintaining a balance of those things, not just being a contemporary box that you could find anywhere ... that was important." Motifs used in the artwork package were taken from local landscape scenes; fabric and carpet patterns reflect the regional culture, as do metalwork designs on the columns and elsewhere.

Above: The Sheraton Changsha Hotel feels "international but also local" thanks to the design team's concerted effort to balance luxurious, well-appointed accommodations with regional design elements. (larger image) Below: Familiarity with the regional customs helped to create a lavish home away from home for business travelers, but the opulent facility is also intended to be used as a social gathering place for local patrons. (larger image)

The attention paid to achieving the sense of place may delight travelers who don't want to leave home just to see the same old thing in a different locale. Striving to capture the local flavor can also be a wise choice for designers, as it will smooth the path to utilizing regional materials, resources and strengths.

Andrew Chiu, lead designer of the Sheraton Changsha, says that on international projects, the FF&E (fixtures, furniture and equipment) budgets are often unrealistically low, as owners assume that soft finishes and decorative products can be replicated locally at a fraction of the price. "When reality sets in, it's normally too late, so last-minute substitutions for important elements such as fabric are made from a limited selection," he says.

A solution that has worked for DiLeonardo International Inc. is to rely less on soft finishes and decorative items. Instead, designers focus more on creating interesting architectural elements such as floor pavement, wall features and ceiling treatments, using readily available materials. "As a firm, we tend to begin that way because we work all over the world and it's often very difficult to control soft goods unless you're working domestically," says DiLeonardo, "so we tend to put a lot of emphasis on the interior architecture of the space-making sure we're using local materials and local methods of building to achieve what we'd like to do. It also guarantees us that that ‘wow effect' is there. When the soft touches are added, we're very lucky to get what we specified. And if we don't, we have something that holds up to the test of time, due to the shell of the space."

For the Sheraton Changsha project, DiLeonardo rated the quality of local labor and of most of the interior installations as "fantastic." Metalwork, millwork, plastering and woodworking all received high marks, as did attention to detailing.

Above: Guests may recognize some familiar Sheraton characteristics in the hotel, such as guestroom color schemes, but the overall design features a level of luxury not always associated with the brand. (larger image) Below: Interior installations produced by local labor, including metalwork, millwork, plastering and woodworking, all received high praise from DiLeonardo. (larger image)

DiLeonardo has found that owners can be flexible about importing certain items, if the designers present a strong enough case about quality or appearance. "If you have something very beautiful and you have a physical sample of it, you can win them over," she explains. As an example, DiLeonardo cites some of the Sheraton Changsha's crystal light fixtures, which were imported from Europe. "Lighting was an important element, and those [fixtures] were important in maintaining that."

According to DiLeonardo, communication is the key to a successful design project. In this case, it was important to be sure that the owner and operator of the hotel had the same vision for the property ... to ensure that "everyone is on the same page and there are no surprises." She adds that a core, six-member team worked on the project for 3½ years-from the start of schematic design to the finish of construction. During that period, "We had a lot of on-site meetings. And with e-mail, of course, it's very easy for everyone to see what's going on and answer questions very readily, so everyone was in the loop for the entire project."

DiLeonardo International, which was ranked the world's fourth largest interior architectural design firm in 2006, has completed more than 1,400 resorts, hotels, casinos, and restaurants around the world and has been working in Asia for 19 years. It has an office in Hong Kong that can quickly send staff on-site to locations in China; plus, Mandarin-speaking employees are available to ensure smooth communication and stave off cross-cultural misunderstandings.

Striving to capture the local flavor, designers utilized regional materials and local methods of building to help achieve a "wow effect." (larger image)

Familiarity with the regional customs was helpful, since, in addition to it serving as a luxurious home away from home for business travelers, the opulent 385-room facility is intended to be a social gathering place. Almost every Asian property has private mahjong rooms and tearooms, explains DiLeonardo, and this Sheraton is no exception. Among the amenities for these spaces are small stages for karaoke, private restrooms, and bars.

When working with first-time hotel owners, as was the case with the Changsha hotel, DiLeonardo has found that it's important to bring them up to speed on some of the important issues in the hospitality business. "I do think you have to explain that it's not a personal property and doesn't necessarily have to fit all of your personal tastes. You have to appeal to a greater audience," she says. "Owners often need guidance about factors such as durability and service issues. You might have a beautiful velvet, but if it's not durable it's certainly not going to hold up and won't reflect well on the property within a few months.

"Oftentimes working with a local architect, you have to make sure that the service doesn't cross over into guests' space at all. It's very important or us to maintain that sense of luxury. So we're helping to educate them as to how proper service should work for a hotel property," adds DiLeonardo.

Though her firm has close to two decades of experience in Asia, there are still aspects of it that she finds challenging. "We do try very hard to maintain our original specifications, and I think in that part of the world it's always a challenge," concludes DiLeonardo. "It's something that all designers have to stick by their guns on, a little bit. But if you're strong and you can present a good case for your product, you can maintain original specifications, which is important."

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Yunda International Plaza
478 Furong Zhong Lu, Section 1
Changsha, Hunan Province 410005
(86)(731) 4888888



DiLeonardo International
2348 Post Rd., Ste. 501
Warwick, RI 02886
(401) 732-2900

INTERIOR FITTING-OUT CONTRACTORSShenzhen Hongtao Decoration Engineering Co. Ltd. 

Shenzhen Mei Sui Decoration Co. Ltd.

Jin Hai An Decoration Co. Ltd.

Xinpengdu Decoration Engineering


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