Paradigm in the Making

Aug. 24, 2006
By Carol Tisch, Cover and portrait photography by Liane Enkelis
The Las Vegas design firm of Avery Brooks & Associates is something of a dichotomy. Its work is considered experimental, yet its designs consistently and uncannily embody real-time business goals. The firm’s principals are products of Disney Imagineering, but they don’t do themes. ABA’s artistry is dazzling, yet deliberately eschews any trace of a signature look. It subjugates itself to the personality of the client or brand instead.

The Las Vegas design firm of Avery Brooks & Associates is something of a dichotomy. Its work is considered experimental, yet its designs consistently and uncannily embody real-time business goals. The firm's principals are products of Disney Imagineering, but they don't do themes. ABA's artistry is dazzling, yet deliberately eschews any trace of a signature look. It subjugates itself to the personality of the client or brand instead.

You could say that ABA is the prototype for future design firms. The problem is that the model is evolving and morphing at breakneck speed and it's difficult for the rest of the industry to keep up. Speak with president, Todd-Avery Lenahan, and you'll hear a new jargon—one that reflects thought processes so far ahead of the curve, words and phrases must be invented to describe them. Listen to his attitude about the design profession— its outmoded fee structures, ambiguous public image, and ever-changing scope of responsibility, and you begin to grasp a paradigm shift in the making.

For example, clients think of ABA as their "design concierge." Lenahan says the holistic approach encompasses an expanded area of influence for designers—whatever it takes to build strength around the client's business objectives. "The design concierge approach is a far cry from anything we ever learned in design school," he explains.

"We're doing everything that the client asks us to, and then some: from creating music soundtracks for public spaces to the special scent of a project. We design staff uniforms, graphics and branding, print logos, and even seasonal decor," says Lenahan, "and we typically work with the client's media teams and publicity people as well." If a property's environs lack in nature the elements needed to create a memorable vacation experience, ABA invents them.

"Right now, we are literally sending a hidden smell machine to a project where we're creating four custom scents that will subtly hang in the air of the different zones of the hotel," he explains. The scents will immerse guests in what they perceive the region surrounding the property should be.

"Guests have expectations and associations with an area. In the Adirondacks, for example, they need to smell pine. If the actual indigenous species don't create anything that ignites the senses, we need to come up with a way to create experiences that make guests feel that they've been there. We want the experience to move through them."

The term design concierge, in Lenahan's opinion, is the antithesis of an all-too-commonly used descriptive for fellow design practitioners— consultant. "I've always been really put off by the fact that we're referred to as consultants in the industry today," he says. "I'm not consulting anybody. I'm not giving them advice. I'm not putting together a program narrative for them. I am creating or perpetuating their brand."

Lenahan would prefer to liken the design firm's function to that of an ad agency. "Clients use our work to package what they're selling to consumers; what we do is foundational to the success of their business." He says he often jokes about the fact that people refer to Britney Spears as a performing artist, but refer to a designer as a consultant.

"We are not regarded as artists, and that has a lot to do with the immaturity of our industry," states Lenahan. He points out that legal, accounting and medical professions do a much better job of promoting themselves than designers do ("actually I think our industry does a dreadful job of promoting itself," he adds) because they have professional standards that define and protect an established degree of credibility. "But the design industry is so young (essentially less than 100 years old as a practice that encompasses the totality of interiors) that we're really not doing ourselves the favors we should be doing." 

In his opinion, the 'hobby decorators' in the business foster a tremendous misunderstanding of what designers do, as well as what the professional and academic credentials of a designer should be. "It completely undermines the wherewithal of the profession," says Lenahan. "When I'm at a social function and somebody hears what I do, they literally think I'm doing tea curtains and gingham tablecloths in breakfast nooks. But I can tell you this: When I meet someone at an event who says they're an attorney or a CPA, I know exactly what they do."

ABA is helping to change that perception. Its staggeringly unique interiors for the forward-thinking Wynn Las Vegas have been dissected, analyzed, criticized and praised, just like any other work of art would be. The project, ABA's first on the Strip, was anything but Strip-like. In fact, the design directive was to create what had never been done before. Considering Lenahan's disdain for Glitter Gulch's over-abundance of themed hotels, the assignment was a pleasure.

The sophisticated interiors for Red 8 Asian Bistro at Wynn Las Vegas, though supremely memorable for their rich detail, are implicitly devoid of a "theme." The Broadway Theater at the Wynn, on the other hand, is a case where a programmatic context of theatricality was not only suitable, but the project's entire reason for being. 

That's the difference between forcing a theme on a project aesthetically, and keeping it within the confines of an entertainment venue, says Lenahan. "Many hotels are actually de-themeing their properties because the public has revolted, and is not giving those venues their business. 

"A lot of people don't understand that when you go to a themed environment like a Walt Disney World or Disneyland, a complete storytelling experience has been created. It works very well in the confines of that environment because the story telling and the delivery of that story can be controlled in a cinematic way. The delivery falls apart when it becomes a design gimmick," suggests Lenahan. "You end up with a thin pastiche that in many cases is quite distasteful."

One of the problems that Lenahan and Kimberly Trueba, the firm's managing principal, encountered early on was that they (and several on their staff) had previously worked at Disney Imagineering. "We were often taken aback when people said they didn't want their project to be Disney-esque," says Lenahan. "We had to remind them that they could never be Disney-esque because they, as clients, were not in a storytelling business, and we would never even aspire to do that for them." The firm built its business outside of the fairy tale milieu, making the Hospitality Design Giants list within three years and Design Giants in four. Awards were garnered for projects like the Wynn Las Vegas' Atrium Restaurant, the Four Seasons' Great Exuma and the Nevada Headquarters for Southern Wine & Spirits. At the Four Seasons' Great Exuma, ABA deliberately avoided what it considers cliché definitions of luxury. Instead, designers played up the local Bahamian culture and the luxury hotel's finely-honed philosophy of service. "The interiors are a backdrop for the Four Seasons experience; they're not self-important statements disconnected from the design objective," explains Lenahan. 

Although there is no definitive, hallmark ABA look, certain design elements prevail. Boldness of scale is embraced and pushed to uncharted limits, as in the 23-foot chandeliers at Wynn's Broadway Theater. Lenahan and company like to counterpoint contemporary design with elements from antiquity and classicism—an approach that was highly praised in its distinctive interiors for Tre Restaurant for Lauren and Mario Maccioni, of New York's Le Cirque and Circo fame.

But despite his firm's meteoric success, Lenahan remains somewhat reticent. Biographies are listed deep within ABA's Web site and are never the focus of client presentations. "Bottom line, the work has to promote itself. No matter how much you deliver the back story of the players, if they ultimately can't deliver something that improves the real estate owner's or developer's business, then the back story on the player is irrelevant."

Indeed, ABA's best projects and clients have been the result of third-party endorsements, sometimes without the firm even knowing they were coming. Referrals from past clients were expected; those from industry peers they had never met were all the more flattering. "We've worked with some of the best names in the industry—many of them are the leading architecture firms in the world. Several have sought us out even though they had their own interior design departments," explains Lenahan.

When presented with the opportunity to do interior design on a project, ABA has actually told its clients, "'We'll do the architecture, but we want to bring in another firm for the interiors that will be a better fit for the job.' We were commissioned to provide a service because they know the value we bring to a job is extraordinary," says Lenahan.

'Extraordinary' doesn't come cheap, however. ABA asks clients upfront whether their selection of a design firm will be qualitative or quantitative. "If it's a qualitative process then we're honored and interested in speaking with them. If it's about who the low bidder is, we're not interested in being engaged for that work," emphasizes Lenahan. \

To that point, ABA rarely enters into competitive bid situations. "It says to us the client's expectations are not aligned with buying based upon quality in every dimension of the project." Lenahan explains that many major hotels expect to pay the same interior design fees they did 10 years ago, because designers sell themselves short. "The firms out there that will undersell or underbid on a project hurt us all," he notes. "The industry's fee structure is appalling."

Part of ABA's cachet may be the fact that it actually turns down work, and has done so since its inception. "We could easily be an 85-person firm," says Lenahan. "We're this size because we are judicious about the types of projects we accept." The company's Las Vegas office operates with a streamlined staff of 24, which handles the Western United States and Asia. In Washington, D.C., a team of seven will be expanding because of projected growth and current projects in Europe and the Eastern United States, including projects as far west as Chicago.

The Chicago project of the moment is the new Mandarin Oriental in the city's up-and-coming Millennium Park area, next to the highly publicized Frank Gehry auditorium. "The hotel is being conceived and built to be the new stage for Chicago society events," says Lenahan, "so we expect a lot of utilization of this property by Chicago residents."

The hotel will house a substantial spa and fitness center, as well as restaurants that will be available to the general public. "If you're working in the city or visiting the city and staying elsewhere, you will be able to use the spa and restaurants as independent destinations."

ABA was awarded the complete design project from soup to nuts. "We're doing everything: all public spaces, the restaurants, rooms and serviced apartments," notes Lenahan. Multiple market segments will be targeted by virtue of the room mix, which includes hotel guest rooms, serviced apartments and Mandarin Residences. "Everything is custom because the client's expectation is that people will be surrounded by things that are unique to the Mandarin Oriental Chicago experience, and not commercially found elsewhere in the travel industry," he adds. 

Sharing ABA's design renderings for the project with Interiors & Sources, Lenahan insists that nothing within the design solution is representative of a potential industry trend. "We've noted an increased level of discernment and increased qualitative expectations for comfort and amenities among today's travelers. But each of our projects is a commission that asks us to deliver something completely unique to their brand, their program and location."

While striving to meet that mandate, Avery Brooks & Associates has become an industry trendsetter.

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