Back to the Future?

By Patrick Goff

17 November 2005

Reading future trends is a hazardous task. In a discipline where the time between planning a project and seeing it realised can be anything up to four years, as in a new hotel, it can be particularly hazardous. Yet a designer must be innovative, and to do that they must look forward with anticipation.

Yet one leading car manufacturer brochures its design capabilities with the comment “If the product is not functional, it can’t be beautiful” and so it is with hotel interiors. Designers work with manufacturers to produce many bespoke products to match their individual vision of the future. It is important that manufacturers too look at where future trends are leading when investing in the production of standard ranges, whether Wallcoverings, furniture, carpets, lighting or fabrics.

Clumsy wash hand basin shape and powerful colour doesn't fit with strong pattern, the overall effect being crude. Contrast with the confident subtle design (bottom) in the Hotel Amigo in Brussells, part of the continuing development of Olga Polizzi's design voice

Individual hotels have in recent years followed a fashion agenda, whilst others have recognised that fashion is short lived and that keeping up with fashion needs constant investment. In turn this drives the need for higher rates of return from the initial investment. In fashionable city centre environments this is possible, but for the bulk of commercial hotels their location and clientele make this difficult to achieve with acceptable room rates.

Commercial design is not design without style, but it does perhaps pay more attention to function both in terms of the interior working for guest satisfaction and with the interior enhancing the return for the operator, possibly more than design purists like. As the car manufacturer realises form must follow function so in an hotel interior that function is clear, isn’t it? There is the nub of the issue, for no, the function is not clear to many.

Uncomfortable seats in a goldfish bowl that allows smoke and noise to penetrate to upper floors result where 'design' has been allowed to rule functionality - a change of style will not fix all ills. Contrast with the stylish lounge at Eltham Palace from the 1930's, yet very contemporary (below, thanks to English Heritage) or the traditional comfort of the fireplace (Haagshe Suites, the Hague) circa 2004

The desire (by hotelier and designer) to make a design ‘statement’ can overwhelm any sense of functionality. Thus in one hotel a designer shortened all the chairs in the restaurant, lowering the seats and tables to make eating a more ‘laid back’ experience. You had to lay back with your legs stretched out in front of you because to do different was to sit with your knees approaching your chin, doing dreadful things to the digestive tract. Laid back maybe, but ergonomically unsound and within weeks of the hotel opening a source of many complaints.

Functionality doesn’t compromise design; it is an essential part of the designers challenge. Hoteliers too need to address this challenge. My image of an hotel guest is based on a tired rep arriving in an hotel on a wet November evening, tired after a day of trying to sell. What do they want at the end of the day? To be challenged by a designer interior? Are they going to say wow! look how well designed this is? No, they want to be welcomed, have their bags taken to their room, their slippers placed on their feet, sat in a comfy chair in front of a welcoming fire and have a stiff drink thrust into their hand.

Hotels should in my view deliver service with style as well as with comfort and ease. Luxury and service even at a three star level can be delivered effectively with the help of good design. Service has to be delivered in an environment that is conducive to it. It may be different in an inner city serving a hedonistic ‘young and single’ local market, and the hotelier needs to be cognisant of this in setting the brief, as the design, which may cost 15% of the build cost can leverage 70% of the income by the way it sets the stage for the operator. That different design approaches are needed in different locations for different markets may be obvious but is not often acted on.

So how should design deliver comfort? Is comfort just physical or also gastronomic, emotional and visual? We have had minimalist interiors inflicted on us in all sort of locations for many years. Hard surfaces and plenty of marble are a desirable interior when the weather is hot but maybe not when it is continually raining, when they may actually become a slippery noisy hazard. Designing for location is part of functionality. Are white walls and echoing interiors stylish, visually or emotionally comfortable, or are they just bleak and empty?

I believe that we will have a return to comfort in the form of fabrics and carpets, in the use of colour and pattern, in maybe smaller more fragmented public areas allowing for more private ‘nooks and crannies’ to accommodate small groups of five or six with a semblance of aural privacy, where family groups may bond or businessmen bicker without feeling that they are but actors on some designers stage set. Carpets and Wallcoverings absorb sound, fabrics provide visual comfort, fireplaces focus and all provide emotional warmth. It doesn’t mean a return to the Victorian interior but neither do we need to continue this often cost driven rebellion into the blind alley of nihilism. We need to move back to the future.

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Patrick Goff