With the recent opening of their fourth Artist Residence hotel in Oxford, husband and wife team Justin and Charlie Salisbury are continuing to build upon their highly successful hospitality model. But it is only through sheer grit, determination, hard work, and a few mistakes along the way that they’ve arrived at this point. Hospitality Interiors’ Gemma Ralph finds out more ...

As with many of the best and most enduring ventures, Artist Residence has evolved from the most humble of beginnings. After his mother was seriously injured in an accident, Justin dropped out of university to look after her and help out with his family’s B&B on Brighton seafront. Confronted with the challenge of running a struggling business with very little experience and no money with which to renovate, Justin was nevertheless determined to improve matters. 

After placing an advertisement for local artists to decorate the B&B’s guest rooms in exchange for board and lodging, Artist Residence – in it’s original guise – was born. Justin is the first to admit that this strategy was rather ill-conceived, but it nevertheless succeeded in putting the property on the map. 

Indeed, it attracted the attention of Hotel Inspector’s Alex Polizzi, whose advice – both on and off-screen – helped the pair to create the foundations of a sound, attractive hotel business. Today, Justin and Charlie have properties in Brighton, London, Penzance and now Oxfordshire, with future plans for further expansion.

“When you’re thrust into something with little or no experience it’s a bit like being locked in a dark room trying to find your way out. Eventually you start getting a feel of right and wrong by making lots of mistakes”

“The early days were really good fun but incredibly tough,” says Justin. “When you’re thrust into something with little or no experience it’s a bit like being locked in a dark room trying to find your way out. Eventually you start getting a feel of right and wrong by making lots of mistakes.

“I look at the early years in Brighton as a bit like pre-school as it wasn’t really a proper business quite yet. We were very much learning the basics. For example, I was running around everywhere doing the laundry, cleaning the bedrooms, checking in guests and taking bookings etc.

“I think in year one or two it was a really busy bank holiday weekend in Brighton and we were completely fully booked, as was the whole of Brighton. At about 11am I received a phonecall from a guest confirming the time of their arrival. To my horror I discovered they weren’t in the system! Charlie and I had to get rid of our hotel reception and turn it into a temporary bedroom for the weekend. I literally drove around Brighton buying a new bed and everything! 

“In the end it all worked out fine. The guest never knew they were actually staying in the hotel reception. That was a really tough and stressful day!”

Of course, the operational side of running a hotel is hugely challenging – in particular for a novice and given the hands-on take Justin and Charlie had and still have – but creating a successful interior design is another matter entirely. Despite the evident natural talent with which the pair have designed their four distinctly different Artist Residence properties, this aspect of the business was also something of a steep learning curve for them. 

“In the early days we had little or no experience in interior design and when I look back some of the stuff we were doing was pretty horrendous,” says Justin. “We used to get quite hardcore street artists to come and paint entire bedrooms which would end up looking like some sort of squat party. We then experimented with white walls and minimalist furniture (from ikea).

“What we learnt over time is that it’s not just the first impressions that count but also how you feel when you actually stay in the room. The amount of guests who used to look like they’d had a sleepless night in the “squat” room was probably in the dozens! Equally, when you’re going for a minimalist style it scuffs easily and requires a lot of maintenance and touch ups. That’s really why we started experimenting with more of a reclaimed rustic style.

“I think the point when we started really thinking about ourselves as interior designers was when we were working on the London hotel. One of our initial ideas was to involve lots of great interior designers/ shops to curate a room each. Over time we realised we had very strong ideas of our own and thought, why don’t we just design it? It was the right time and place to do it. When you’ve got pinterest and ebay its really easy to get started!”

“I always forget just how different each of the hotels are. We have some amazing guests that do the tour and stay in all of them and they always mention that they really encapsulate their surroundings yet have the same feel about them”

Though Justin and Charlie now have a great deal more experience, and indeed a natural eye for design, their latest project in Oxfordshire was nevertheless a challenge. The 16th century property required full refurbishment to create the beautifully eccentric English inn they envisaged. From its thatched roof, electrics and plumbing to repairing an array of original features, the inn has been thoroughly and faithfully restored.

Its four guest rooms exude a bohemian style, with original pitched ceilings, antique furnishings, Morris & Co fabrics, roll top bathtubs and wooden floorboards. The smallest room, ‘The Rabbit Hole’, is tucked away in the eaves with a king size bed, comfy armchair and ensuite with rainfall shower, while the largest – the Farmhouse Suite – features a super king-size bed with a separate comfy seating area, mini bar cabinet, roll top bath and additional bathroom.

The pub and restaurant’s design, meanwhile, centres around a fictional character – Mr Hanbury. “We’ve had some great fun with The Connor Brothers collobrating with them on a speakeasy cocktail bar in Brighton and our new pub venture in Oxford,” explains Justin. “They’ve got this fictional character called Mr Hanbury that they created these artworks around and Charlie and I did the interiors as we imaged Mr Hanbury would have done!

“Artwork is a huge part of our DNA. We started out very much with murals done by anyone, which then evolved into murals done by more established artists within the context of a hotel room that should make the guest feel peaceful! Over time, as we’ve focused more on creating understated rustic interiors, we’ve tended to use framed artworks and prints.”

Art, of course, will always be at the heart of the brand and its interiors and so too is the collaborative element that was so integral to Justin and Charlie when they were starting out. 

“Working with the Connor Brothers is always a good laugh; James and Mike are probably one of the funniest duos you’ll ever meet!” says Justin. “Likewise we’ve been really lucky to work with some amazing artists like Maria Rivan and Bonnie & Clyde. 

“Design wise we really love Christopher Howe. He’s such an amazing guy and we absolutely love his furniture! Everyone talks about his barstools in our cocktail bar in London. Likewise the clawfoot bath from Catchpole and Rye in our grand suite is also a big talking point.”

What is abundantly apparent is the passion Justin and Charlie have for their business, and the real sense of enjoyment they derive from it. Though the interior design of their properties is all important, it is the fun the couple have with these quirky, eclectic spaces that makes them so successful. 

“For those looking to start out in hospitality, I’d say only do it if you absolutely love this industry,” says Justin. “For us it’s not really work but more of a lifestyle decision. The days are long otherwise as hotels never really sleep, they simply go into standby mode at night, so if you’re not passionate about it you’re going to tire very quickly!”

This passion extends to the locations Justin and Charlie have selected for their hotels – all of which resonate with them on a personal level, and which become the starting point and principal consideration when shaping the interiors. It is key for the pair that each  property should capture the essence of its local neighbourhood, that it be entirely individual, while still bearing the hallmarks of the Artist Residence name. 

“We’re so lucky to work in such amazing parts of the country,” says Justin. “We’ve always had some sort of connection with our locations. We live in London, Charlie was born in Oxford, I went to school there, weekend family trips to Brighton, amazing memories holidaying with friends in Cornwall and really deep down Charlie’s a west country girl, having been brought up in Devon!”

“I always forget just how different each of the hotels are. We have some amazing guests that do the tour and stay in all of them and they always mention that they really encapsulate their surroundings yet have the same feel about them.

“It’s difficult to put in words, but what I always try and do is to really make people feel great when using our spaces whether it’s eating, drinking or sleeping! I also want it to feel authentic. One of my real fears is creating something that tries way to hard to be something. You really need to find the right balance.”

“To be honest I never really stop and look back or take the time to celebrate. I know it sounds funny but I’m so focused on moving forwards. That’s really what I enjoy most: how to go from A to B”

Honest design is certainly not lacking when it comes to the interiors of the Artist Residence properties. Eclectic, unusual and full of creative, sometimes whacky influences, yes, but never contrived. The organic process Justin and Charlie have gone through to this point – learning on the job, recovering and improving following set-backs, honing the identity of the brand – has brought an authenticity to their hotels that cannot be easily matched. 

Most importantly, Justin and Charlie’s enthusiasm and ambition has not been dulled by their venture’s unexpected rise to success. “I’m really enjoying everything at the moment,” affirms Justin. “We’ve got a great team and exciting projects on the horizon. To be honest I never really stop and look back or take the time to celebrate. I know it sounds funny but I’m so focused on moving forwards. That’s really what I enjoy most: how to go from A to B!”

Justin and Charlie’s careful nurture of each of their properties from start to finish means that, as their carefully selected team grows and they themselves gradually step back from the day-to-day operation of the hotels – they can set their sights on the bright future of the Artist Residence brand.