San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants is the original boutique hotel company, which pioneered the concept of unique, distinctive, design-forward hotels in the US in 1981. Anchored in one-of-a-kind experiences, Kimpton now operates more than 60 hotels and 80 restaurants, bars and lounges across urban locations, resort destinations and up-and-coming markets in the US, Canada, Europe, Caribbean and Greater China.
What was your background prior to working for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants?
I worked in retail home furnishings straight out of university. It was there that I worked with two women who were chosen by Barry Sternlicht to start the design team for W Hotels and help launch the brand. I joined them about a year before the first W opened in NY, and we grew the design team in San Francisco – I was with W for about six years, and opened the first 24 hotels for the brand. I was then working independently, and one of my clients was working to develop a Kimpton, which is where I became familiar with the brand and started to talk with them about joining the company. I’ve now been with Kimpton for 13 years.
My degree is actually in psychology … very beneficial for the broad array of people and disciplines I work with!
What does your current position involve?
My team and I oversee all aspects of design for our properties. We guide everything that impacts the visual expression of the way our brand comes to life, and direct the elements that collectively create the vibe that we’re seeking – that includes interiors, lighting, landscape, signage, styling, art direction and photography, and also wardrobe for our teams on property – all the aesthetic touchpoints of the built environment that impact guests as they experience our properties.
I personally spend quite a bit of time in pre-development, evaluating properties of all types for their potential to become a Kimpton, and then establish a high-level conceptual direction and a specific point of view for the look, feel and mood of each property.
Following that I’ll recommend interior designers who I believe will resonate with the identity that we’ve established, and who will collaborate with us to execute on the vision and help bring it to life. I have an amazing team, and we’ve been together for many, many years, and we all take a very active and collaborative role in managing agencies in the day-to-day design process, and work with the procurement teams and the vendor community to create beautiful bespoke FF&E.
Nothing can be done in a vacuum and still feel cohesive, so we work very closely with our R&D team in supporting them in their development of concepts, liaise with our brand and marketing teams on the way the name, identity and collateral come together to support and complement the interiors, and also with our director of music programming to make sure that our playlists connect to the narrative.
What five words would you use to describe the design of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants?
Contextual, layered, intentional, soulful, highly activated … never the same thing twice.
What makes Kimpton Hotels different to other hotels when it comes to design?
We don’t have a mould that we need (or even want) to fit into, or a narrow bandwidth for our brand aesthetic – to be in a Kimpton is often more of a feeling or sensibility than a specific style. We are a collection of independently and uniquely concepted designs, and are truly a company created by these ‘brands of one’.
With each new property we have the opportunity to be responsive to what the building architecture, location and people living and working in the environment inspire, and also to be responsive to what’s already being offered in the market, to ensure that we’re addressing the opportunity to introduce a point of view that’s new and unfulfilled.
We never duplicate anything that we’ve done before, and we never arrive in a city with a preconceived notion of what something ought to be, but we allow that to develop organically based on what the location and people inspire.
While working very hard to be tasteful and timeless and sophisticated and elevated and chic, we’re also not afraid to take a risk and do something unexpected to avoid being scripted or predictable.
What are the most challenging issues you’ve faced in your current role?
One of the biggest challenges is alignment, and addressing the different, and often conflicting, priorities that the various stakeholders in any project have – making sure that everyone is understood and acknowledged, and that design doesn’t get diluted in that process, but to fight for what I’m personally entrusted to fight for on behalf of the brand.
Design doesn’t work as a democracy, and I’m committed to holding the vision and guiding the process to bring a vision to life and ensure that it resonates and feels honest, and that guests truly believe that there were real humans behind a design, and can be felt in every decision along the way.
Everyone on a project has many clients, and developing trust is essential – not everyone has the same concerns, nor the same taste level or style, so it’s important to earn the trust of people and help them understand the need to step outside of ourselves to believe in a vision and support the bigger picture and the greater good. There’s amazing collective pride in that, when the chemistry is right and people know when and where to compromise.
How would you define Kimpton’s identity?
Independent, heartfelt, spirited, inclusive, light-hearted, human, flexible, luxury without attitude.
Do you believe simple design has become luxurious?
I do. I think a tight idea, edited perfectly to reveal the essentials without anything unnecessary, distracting or extraneous, is a sign of great talent, confidence and conviction. You have to be really good with less, because each detail matters when there’s nothing to hide behind. Precise execution becomes everything, and in that, the strong ideas can make such an impression and blow your mind.
How much time do you dedicate to sourcing products and suppliers for the projects you work on?
My team and I are in a constant state of evaluating new vendors, attending shows to be inspired and look at new product, taking meetings to make sure we’re aware of who’s out there doing new and interesting work.
Social media (especially Instagram) is becoming an increasingly important marketing tool for hotels. What are your thoughts on this, and do you take it into account when designing spaces?
It’s the reality of the world we’re living in, but, quite honestly, when I hear someone say, “We need an Instagrammable moment,” it makes me cringe. I know what they mean, and understand the need for hits and likes in a world that has a short attention span, but I also think it cheapens the design experience and, in my opinion, can come across as insincere and disingenuous.
The design process needs room to unfold. Great design will have features and big ideas and strong sightlines where they make sense, but it also requires quiet places where the eye and the senses can rest, in order to appreciate those features. I prefer to approach design with longevity, sophistication and integrity in mind, and trust the intelligence of the guest. I want to avoid appearing desperate, disconnected, or risk having a short shelf life, and believe that guests can really sense when a space feels sincere and personal and created by someone who was passionate about what they’re doing.
They may not be able to put their finger on why a hotel or restaurant or lounge feels great, but I believe they know when it does, and will continue to return to those and consider them their favourites.
Do you have a most memorable experience in interior design – something you saw that changed or inspired you?
I’m completely captivated by Southeast Asia – the countries, the cultures, the environments, and also the design work being done there. There’s the craftsmanship, the quality and luxury level which are all part of the collective power of this part of the world, but I remember a moment from one of many exceptional stays in the region about the power of conviction – having a great idea, the ability to edit oneself, using repetition to communicate the strength of that idea.
I arrived at the Nam Hai near Hoi An in Vietnam on Christmas Eve several years ago, after spending several days in Luang Prabang. It’s one of the places where I stood and remember just stomping my foot at how impressive the series of processions and sightlines were crafted, the repetition of material and form and the subtlety.
There was a series of decisions that showed a beautiful confidence that was grounding, calming and peaceful. So impressive. On one hand it appears so simple by avoiding overstimulation, but on the other it’s brave to eschew the need to display every idea that’s ever been entertained, instead being exquisitely disciplined and getting each element just right and the proportion perfect. This is an amazing talent.
How important is choosing the right designer for each hotel?
This is an essential part of the process for me and the way that I like to work. In-house, we develop a design brief that establishes the high-level vision for a project – it communicates the high-level look, feel, mood, vibe, palette and level of formality versus casualness, level of luxury and polish, versus rugged or chill. To find the interior designer who resonates with that vibe is essential, to work within the framework that we establish – and not just that, but also who has the right chemistry with the rest of the development team, because we often work together for two, three, four, five years, and that needs to be a good relationship.
There are enough challenges and struggles over the course of development, so to ensure the right fit with an agency that will connect with the aesthetic is critical – and not just the skillset and connection to the vision, but we also want to like them, because we spend a lot of time together, and the right attitude and personality is something I don’t want to compromise on.
Is there anything exciting you’re working on that you can tell us about?
We’re working on a resort in Roatan which is going to be absolutely stunning – it should be open by this time next year. We have a really interesting mix of projects right now – some amazing European and Asian destinations, and a very wide variety in the US and Mexico, from resorts to university campuses, big cities and smaller towns, and some new categories that we’re working on as well.
What is the biggest thing you’ve learnt over your years in the industry?
Be willing to do anything, have no ego, ask questions, be curious, learn from the bottom up, get into factories and understand how things are really made, expose yourself to as much and as many different people, facets of the business and management styles as possible.
I would say the importance of relationships – vendor relationships, colleagues, owners, the design community as a whole. We will all be met with so many challenges along the way, but if we’ve been careful and considerate about building and tending to relationships, we will have a support system to help us through those bumps. To meet people, be kind to people, respect them, learn from, be willing to take people under our wings and teach others in return to keep the cycle going.
Where currently ranks highest on your travel wishlist?
A safari – I crave big adventure, dark skies, silence and something spiritually, physically and emotionally transformational.
Tell us something surprising about yourself that people may not know?
I’m a very simple person, living kind of a complicated life. I’m a total tomboy, a jock, always have been. I grew up in competitive team sports, and a lot of my life lessons come from that – I love an underdog story and I believe in the importance of kindness, justice, proper manners, good sportsmanship and being a gracious loser. The basics.
Where would you say are the three best places you’ve ever stayed?
I’ve had a lot of them, so am trying to narrow it down, and I’m sure that I’ve left some out that I’ll be embarrassed to have forgotten in this moment – but here are four if you’ll indulge me with one extra: Aman-i-Khas, a tented camp in the north of India near the Ranthambore game reserve – I was the only guest staying there at the time!; Amansara in Siem Reap, Cambodia; The Siam in Bangkok; and the Commune at the Great Wall outside of Beijing.