Posted in News, People on 17 July, 2020

Having lived and worked all over the world, Dylan Wills finds inspiration from the different cultures he’s grown to know and love. Now back in the UK to take up a new post at HBA, he tells Sophie Harper why cultural differences matter in design, why young designers are so important, and why challenges only make us better at what we do.

Dylan Wills has been in the interiors industry for a little over 25 years (he tells me after counting on his fingers from a sunny spot on his balcony in central London). “I went to university in London, studied interior design, then took time off and spent a few years travelling.” With a love for boats, Dylan spent much of his travels sailing around the Mediterranean, which eventually led to his first hospitality design job. “I really wanted to experience Europe and learn about boats as well, then by chance I met a (now good) friend who owned a chain of hotels throughout Europe and wanted them renovating. So I charged him next to nothing and ending up renovating 12 hotels throughout Europe by myself. They were fully operating by the next year.” It was shortly after this that Dylan was asked to design a boat interior and word spread about his work. “My next design role was to design the world’s largest super yacht – in Dubai. It was 162 metres long with 47 suites and two owner’s suites with a nightclub, dining rooms, lounges, outdoor swimming pool with bar. It was like a mini cruise ship.”

Dylan began working on hospitality and retail projects in the Middle East before relocating to Singapore. “I’d always had in mind that I didn’t want to stay and design in one country. I wanted to travel the world, working in different areas and truly understand global culture and global design, so I accepted a new position and moved to Singapore.”

A few years later, Dylan was asked to open a new studio in Shanghai, so he moved again, and after that he was asked if he’d like to move to Los Angeles as well as open a new studio in Las Vegas, so he did. “The big thing for me was learning design and culture globally. My belief is that if you understand global culture, design comes a lot easier,” he says. “Having travelled the world and lived in America, Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the cultures are so diverse. The way people live, the way they connect with their families, it’s so different across cultures. Witnessing such extremes and experiencing those cultures yourself really helps with inspiration and guidance when it comes to design.” Dylan spent four years in Dubai, three years in Singapore, a couple of years in China, and a year and a half in America and immersed himself into the cultures of each, he even read the Koran when he moved to Dubai to try and better understand his surroundings.

He tells me how his travels and experiences have all informed his approach to design but that ultimately hotel design is about creating a narrative. “One thing that ties global interior design together is the approach of storytelling and creating experiences. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a project in London, America, China, wherever, you always begin your design with a story. The story should guide a guest right through the hotel from the entrance to the guest room.” He adds, “It’s like writing a book, you’re creating a story for the guest and each part of the hotel is like a different chapter. Each is different but they’re transitionally linked together to tell that story and create an overall experience.”

Dylan introduces references and key design features from local architecture, history, and culture to give his work a link to its locality and gives me China as an example: “The myths and legends surrounding each province are mind-blowing. I’d sit with the team and ask them for their ideas on where the different stories came from. Sometimes it’s hard to work out how you’re going to present ideas when they come from complex stories, so you have to think of a logical way of taking a story and presenting it in a readable way that relates to the design you’re putting forward.”

It’s clear as he talks about the dynamics between him and the teams he works with that collaboration and synergy is important. “As a design leader, I’m not one of these people that works with a design team and tells them, you do this, you do that. It’s important to have full and open conversations and ideas about a project. Directing isn’t telling someone what to do, it’s guiding. For example, if someone stops you in the street to ask for directions to the nearest supermarket, you might give them different options for getting there – it doesn’t matter which route they choose, as long as they get to the supermarket you’ve given them the right direction,” he explains. “Leadership is making sure that when people are veering off course, you help guide them back to the right path. That might be through inspiration, it might be through adapting stories they’re creating, it may even be through teaching but generally, guiding people and building a collaborative team where all the elements join together to create one story is the essence of any successful project.”

Dylan describes how important he feels it is to include younger designers in the process as well, pointing out that it’s often the less experienced designers that come up with some of the most interesting ideas. “Young designers have so much energy and enthusiasm and bringing them in to be part of a team and actually provide their own ideas for stories revitalises other designers. I’ve learnt so much from younger designers.”

Dylan tells me how he’s been introduced to new technology by younger peers from devices to software and that he’s learnt to embrace these things over the years. “I’ll give you an example of embracing technology,” he says. “I was asked, around eight years ago, to do the interior design for a jumbo jet and the owner wanted a jacuzzi on the plane for eight people. Now, there’s a problem with the idea of having a jacuzzi on a plane. Turbulence.” He begins to paint a vivid picture of a jacuzzi filled with water and people on a turbulent plane, describing the obvious problems. “But the client was adamant he wanted this jacuzzi,” he says, “so we had to come up with a way of putting a jacuzzi on a plane without it spilling water. And we did it and it worked, and it’s this principle.” Dylan picks up the gimball he uses for his phone, which he’s been using for video meetings during lockdown, and demonstrates how it steadies the balance of the phone during movement. “So as the plane moves around, the gimball mechanism on the jacuzzi self-levels, meaning the jacuzzi is always stable. To this day I don’t think it has spilt one drop of water! It’s really these young designers that bring ideas like that to the table.”

We talk about Dylan’s current role at HBA’s London office and the fact he joined the team during the first week of lockdown. “I actually started the new job from home, which is quite novel. The logical thing for me was to wake up the morning of my first day, go downstairs to the lobby of my building, come back up in the lift, come into the apartment and start a new routine, that set me up for work!” Dylan has met a lot of the team already and explains that it’s quite usual for the transition to a new place for a senior designer to be a gradual process. “It’s also quite a small industry relatively.” He says. “We all know each other one way or other, so I knew a lot of the HBA team already.”

The focus for Dylan in his new role is to be homing in on the European market. “I’m concentrating on where UK hospitality and European hospitality is heading,” he says. “Before I started at HBA, I researched and developed a strategy – guidance for where the market’s going, but to be honest within the last two months everything’s totally changed. Over the next six months there are going to be some massive changes in hospitality.” He tells me that he doesn’t think the market itself will change drastically and that essentially hotel design won’t need to change too much in order that existing hotels can become operational again, but that design will be quite different for new builds and refurbishment projects. “I think the one lesson we’ve learnt from all this is that no-one was prepared in any way, shape, or form. I think design for commercial, for F&B, and for retail will change to cater to more flexibility and adaptability to help protect against any circumstance in the future.” Dylan looks out across his view of London, “Looking out here, I can see maybe 20 or so hotels and none of them would have had a protocol in place for our current situation. So I think now everyone will be planning, but certainly so for new projects.”

Dylan is currently looking at the ways in which hotels could make changes to their current layouts in order to be safer and more appealing to guests. “If you look at the essence of where hotels or hospitality needs to adapt, the first thing is traffic flow. You need to look at accessibility through the hotel – how will people enter and exit? Secondly, once guests are actually in the public space of the hotel, how will the movement of the hotel work? It might simply be a case of positioning central decorative furniture pieces in an area to provide an obstacle that people have to go around to divide the space. It’s about creating direction, flow, and path.”

We discuss different possibilities and variations on operations to ease hotels back into service and Dylan tells me about the sorts of technology that’s available, from UV lighting that kills bacteria and lighting systems controlled from mobile phone apps to anti-microbial fabrics and new research that shows the natural repellent of viruses in materials like copper. “We have to work out how hotels will work operationally but design-wise I can’t see any reason for hotels to look that different to the way they are currently. The most difficult barrier to overcome will be the social interaction, which I think will have to change – for the foreseeable future anyway. You can still have creative, innovative design using luxury products.”

One thing that’s struck me over the last couple of months is how much the pandemic has dominated our conversations and replaced a lot of the industry’s focus on things like sustainability, so I ask Dylan whether he thinks we can still keep on track with important issues like this as well as dealing with the current situation. “We’ve been talking about sustainability as something we’d like to make a foundation,” he assures me. “It’ll be a core topic moving forward. It’s something I’d love to do. Looking at how the world has changed over the last few months, surely it’s got to inspire people to change. I hope we can change.” He looks out across London, positioning his laptop so I can see the skyline more clearly. “I have never seen the sky so clear. I don’t think it will ever be like this in our generation again. I hope that our current situation rockets forward further developments in sustainability but, like everything, it boils down to money and at this moment in time sustainability costs that little bit more. I think if we all worked together as designers, suppliers, manufacturers, as well as clients and developers, we can make a difference.”

Dylan tells me more about his hopes for the future and how he’s looking forward to some exciting projects in the pipeline despite being mid-lockdown. “Obviously our offices are closed, but everyone’s still working as they would usually, just from home. So when we have conference calls it’s great seeing everyone sign in from different locations. It’s been challenging, but with any challenge you learn, and through learning you become better. It’s progression.” And adds, “The greatest thing about COVID is that everyone forgot about Brexit! But the Brexit-effect has been that a lot of money has been invested into UK property and tourism. So we’re seeing development in traditional UK tourist destinations rather than all the focus being on city development, which is really exciting. In terms of projects, we’re moving forward as normal and having fun getting different inspiration from home, but that collaboration is still there and stronger now. I’m hoping over the next six months you’re going to see a few exciting projects coming into HBA London.” We can’t wait!

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