Hospitality Interiors talks to Charles Doell, the self-styled Mr Fantastic, to understand what makes him tick.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
My mother wanted me to be President of the United States, so for a while I thought I would be some kind of politician – an Ambassador to somewhere exotic I imagined. When that dream dried, I decided that I wanted to be an artist. My high school pals and I would get high and head to the library to peruse ‘Art in America’ and ‘Art Forum’. I just couldn’t believe you could make a living by making stuff like that up. I mean Chris Burden getting shot in the arm was art? Nice.
How did you get into the trade?
Straight out of art school, I began working for a theatrical prop house in San Francisco that specialised in elaborate parties and events – over the top with custom props, lighting, huge floral arrangements and the like.
What ambitions did you harbour when starting out?
At that point I still thought I could make it as a fine artist with my odd ball sculpture/painting/fabric assemblage pieces that also held potted plants!?!
Inspirational people back then, and now – two of each please –
Back then, Phillipe Starck and the Ramones. Now, Matthew Barney and Jeff Koons.
Career highs and lows –
High point for me was the San Diego W. Hasn’t got quite the kind of attention some of my other projects have, but I love it. Low point came when my previous company ‘Fun Display’ dissolved in ruins. It was a design/build endeavour and the build part we were simply learning as we went. We were in above our heads and when projects went south, they went very, very south.
What designs in the last 20 years do you wish you could have been responsible for and why?
The Phillipe Starck version of the Royalton Hotel in NYC. When that first opened it literally floored me. I had a serious Wayne’s World moment – ‘I am not worthy!’ To create an interior that can bring people to their knees like that would be my ultimate thrill.
Name three designers practising today whose work you most admire?
David Collins, Jonathan Adler and Phillipe Starck
What are the elements that you feel are critical to effective hospitality design?
Who knows? People expand on this all the time, but there are no rules. You get a client, you hear what they want and you filter it. What’s effective? I guess you have to know what the metric is. Lasting success for the business itself? Notoriety for the interior and its designer? Beauty? Truth? Sex?
How will the industry evolve over the coming decades?
It will continue to run in circles as it always has. I am getting to a point in my life where I see what’s old becoming new, becoming old and becoming new again. There will always be tables and chairs, lights and curtains, art and colour. It’s not an infinitely changing palette of objects that we have to work with. People mention technology in this context, but candlelight and intriguing/romantic interiors have little need for it. iPads won’t be replacing printed menus in a serious way any time soon.
What aspirational design themes do you envisage becoming more important over the next decade?
We are in the throes of a designing down period which I think is great. More mixing of good and bad, taste and tastelessness, local neighbourhood messiness, cheap and raw, faux and authentic. Obviously it’s a bit of a fad, but all trends are. I happen to like this one. It will last at least another 10 years. Interior trends take a long time to cycle through.
What can hospitality owners do to improve their businesses?
Keep creative, or at least try. It’s important that guests feel like the hotel is a complete universe unto itself, with its own unique visual language, a language that hopefully speaks to the guests’ aspirations. People are pretty tribal down deep and they tend to respond positively to interiors that speak their language. Your job is to keep up with the conversation.
What is you proudest achievement, as a designer, to date?
Just the fact that I continue to get interesting projects. Just commissioned to create the first two Playboy Clubs ever in India, Mumbai and Delhi. That’s awesome to me. Living the dream out here in Oakland, California!
Tell me a tale of when you had your own club –
I was in my early 40s when I had a club called Sno-Drift – recently divorced and single. All my friends from the Potrero Hill neighborhood in San Francisco were in their 20s. It was a combustable combination. Anyway our club was very popular but small and we had no VIP area. However, we did have a kitchen and dishwashing area. So, naturally my young good looking friends would inevitably bring girls back to the dishwashing area where we would drink, talk and generally carry on. In particular we seemed to enjoy ‘dishwashing dance-offs’ where we would compete with selected guests while being soaked with the overhead dishwashing flex shower. Pretty stupid, but at the time, hilarious fun. Did I mention that boys in San Francisco never grow up?
So if you had a hospitality space today, what would it be like, what would go on there and who would be on your imaginary VIP guest list?
No VIP list, first of all. That fantasy is so rife with class, race and exclusion it is simply a form of extortion that plays on peoples’ insecurities. Mind you, I don’t mind the old school line picking for people who seem to be the right people for a place but no money for ‘VIP’ as it used today. I would just want a small but stylish hotel by the beach with a great inclusive yet slightly debaucherous vibe. Remember the beach party scene in Big Lebowski? The one hosted by Jackie Treehorn? Pretty much that.
Your most favourite place in the world? (One in the US and one overseas)
San Francisco, California. San Francisco was made for me. Culturally diverse but politically a liberal mono-culture, it has a vibrant urban core that’s nestled in one of the most physically beautiful landscapes in the world. Far less trendy than NYC, naturally adverse to chain stores and ‘bottle service’ nightclubs. San Francisco feels real to me.
Tulum has the same kind of low key, easy going feel, albeit very rustic. It’s along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea in Quintana Roo state, Mexico. Simple palapas style ‘hotels’ if you can really call them that, line the road up and down one of the most gorgeous beaches in the world. Heaven.
Where in time would you choose to travel and why – three choices please –
If I could go back in time, I’d go back to the 1950s and 60s in San Francisco. The beat generation and the radical social experimentation (especially judged by today’s conservative culture) of the first hippie wave, were such fleeting grassroots art scenes that still reverberate today.
Then I’d choose the roaring 20s in New York City. I would just love a glimpse at the Gilded Age in all its glory and what I may have romanticised as the radical sexual power of the roaring 20s. A great leap forward for women and for art.
For my third time travel period, I would go back to the 70s in Paris. And sepcifically to two clubs, Le Drugstore and Sex and Disco. These two legendary outré clubs I would have loved to experienced.
Yes, I am a 20th century boy.
What do you like to do with your downtime?
What downtime? I have a beautiful wife and five-year-old son so whatever time I have it’s for them.
Mister Important is currently working on the design of a new Hard Rock Hotel in Palm Springs, California; the W Hotel Westwood public areas and various food and beverage offerings in the Turning Stone Casino, NYC.
Given the choice
1. Drink – A good vodka martini, very dry.
2. Film – What’s New Pussycat?
3. Place – My backyard.
4. Building – Not really moved by the exteriors of buildings much.
5. Moment of the day – Noon.
6. Holiday memory – Beach vacations just south of Santa Barbara.
7. Period in history – 1970s
8. Designer – Paola Navone for furniture, Phillipe Starck for interiors.
9. Sport – Baseball if the Giants are winning.
10. Belief or saying – The one on my tombstone, which will be: Here Lies Charles Doell. Once Ubiquitous, Now Defunct.
About Charles Doell
Charles Doell has led the design in dozens of successful retail, nightlife and hospitality interiors. His work has been featured in 50+ magazines and books in more than a dozen countries. Charles Doell was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. He received a Bachelors Degree in Art History from Humboldt State University and a Masters in Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute.
From 1985-1998 Charles owned and operated ‘Fun Display’, a design build firm in San Francisco that created exhibit and retail spaces for clients such as Nike, Levi’s, Gump’s and Paramount Pictures. He also designed and built a handful of landmark San Francisco nightlife venues such as Red Room, Mercury and Backflip.
From 1999-2005 Charles took a turn as a club impresario at Sno-Drift, a San Francisco nightclub and restaurant he designed.
In 2005 Charles began his new design firm ‘Mister Important Design’ with an eye to bringing an ebullient perspective to interiors. Specialising in nightclubs, hotels, restaurants, bars and lounges, Mister Important Design works closely with clients to achieve interiors that exceed expectations – exuberant interiors that are designed to be remembered and talked about.
Today the firm has attracted a number of international clients with recent projects opening in Taipei, Bratislava, India and Dubai.
Hospitality has become a new focus as well with the opportunity Starwood Hotels has given the firm with the remodel of both the W San Diego and the W Westwood hotels. In addition Hard Rock Hotels has engaged the firm to design its new Palm Springs location.
Recent awards and recognitions include:
¢ Named ‘Legacy Designer’ by the San Francisco Design Center for his contribution to San Francisco design culture.
¢ Finalist – Best Nightclub Interior, Motif, San Jose – Hospitality Design, 2009
¢ Winner – Best Nightclub Interior, Vanity, Las Vegas – Hospitality Design, 2010
¢ Winner – Best International Nightclub Interior, Special Media Prize, Vanity, Las Vegas – Modern
Decoration (China) 2010
¢ Finalist – Best International Bar, Gitane, San Francisco, International Bar and Club Awards (London), 2010
¢ Finalist – Best Restaurant Interior, Gitane, San Francisco – Los Angeles AIA Restaurant Awards, 2011
¢ Gitane and Chambers named as two of the six best new restaurant designs, San Francisco Chronicle, 2012
¢ Chambers Eat and Drink named one of the top 10 Hotel Restaurants in the US, by Open Table and USA Today, 2012
¢ Finalist – Best Restaurant Interior, Gitane San Francisco – Los Angeles AIA Restaurant Awards, 2011
¢ Winner – Best Decorative Element, W Hotel San Diego – Boutique Design Awards, 2012
¢ Winner – Best Restaurant Interior, Chambers Eat and Drink San Francisco – Los Angeles AIA
Restaurant Awards, 2013
¢ Finalist – Best International Lounge, Alegra, Dubai UAE – International Bar and Club Awards (London), 2013