Minimalism or Maximalism?

By Patrick Goff

17 December 2005

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.

English Heritage owned Eltham Palace is a gem of 1930's design which still looks utterly contemporary - one of the authors favorite rooms. Bottom, contemporary spaces too can rely on colour and pattern less obviously than a turkey carpet (bar at the Meridien Vienna)

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?

Light makes pattern giving interest - visually warm, welcoming but relying on contemporary paint techniques (Haagshe Suites, The Hague). Below shows how going back to pattern in maximilism can create visual problems too, whilst (bottom) individual design sensibility can provide strong answers

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