MATTHEW BALON, HEAD OF DESIGN, RUBY HOTELS
Matthew Balon has been involved in interior design since his teens, and worked with major global brands before embarking on his current role as Head of Design at Ruby Hotels. Victoria Noakes sat down for a chat with Matthew at the newly-opened Ruby Lucy London to discover more about his design process and where he finds his inspiration…
Matthew Balon’s first exposure to the world of interior design was at the age of just 16, when he worked in his hometown of Chicago under the interior designer Hattie Smith on exclusive residential projects and practices. He then progressed to working with large hotel names of the likes of Marriott, Sheraton, Westin and Radisson Blu, before making the decision to move to Munich in 2017 to study interior architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts. Matthew is now a member of the Bavarian Chamber of Architects and holds the title of interior designer. After completing his studies, Matthew successfully took on planning and implementation projects in the high-security area of Munich Airport whilst working at German architecture firm Ochs Schmidhuber Architekten. His work also included project management of various shopfitting projects for brands such as Emporio Armani, Etro and Esprit. Matthew has been with Ruby Hotels since 2017, is head of the design team and with that, he is responsible for the design of all new hotel and works projects.
For Matthew, the appeal of interior architecture is its variety and flexibility, and the opportunity it presents to take a project from concept to completion. “It covers such a wide spectrum –youstartinthebeginningandit’sreallyconceptual,thenyou havetheresearchphasewhereyouhaveloadsofideas,and you end up on the jobsite and it’s really hands-on. There’s always something different and something new. I like the conceptual and design stages a lot, but it’s also fun and makes for a diverse role when you’re on site putting out fires and taking care of things,” he says. The faster-paced nature of working with a smaller brand is something that Matthew appreciates, acknowledging the creative freedom it allows him. “The way that large brands and small brands are run is so different – if you’re trying to get a design approved from a big brand, that process takes a very long time. With Ruby, I’m basically my own customer, so if I come up with an idea and say I want to try it out, I can get the sign off, order what I need and it’s on site two weeks later. Everything being much faster makes it really fun,” he explains.
Ruby Lucy London marks the brand’s first hotel in the UK, located in the Lower Marsh area behind Waterloo Station. With the architects having already developed the shell of the building, Matthew and his team knew that they wanted the hotel to fit seamlessly into the streetscape, and began researching what made this part of London special. As with all of Ruby’s projects, Matthew was keen for the hotel to reflect the feel and history of the area, and upon further investigation discovered the significance of the local market, which dates back to the 1500s. In addition, Matthew learnt that the South Bank area of London had a history of being a hub for entertainment.
“I love history, so all the research was really exciting for me. I found out that the whole South Bank area was somewhere people would come to experience things that weren’t accessible within the confines of the city, like bear baiting and cock fighting. The area was also a huge industrial hub in the 1900s, so the idea of entertainment went away and then came back again after World War II with the Festival of Britain, which was held near where the London Eye is today. So I really wanted to incorporate the idea of entertainment into the hotel,” Matthew states.
“I also drew upon the fact that the local market is one of the oldest continuous markets in London. It started when the original marshland was drained and locals would grow fruit and vegetables in the fields for the city. A market is something that usually gets moved around, so I was playing with the ideas of entertainment and something temporary and moveable in my head, and it brought me to the idea of a carnival. Just like I wasn’t familiar with this part of London to start with, some of our guests won’t be either, so I’m hoping that communicating that narrative will inspire guests to go and explore more of the local neighbourhood.”
Following this research, Matthew and the team had the task of working out how to incorporate the carnival theme into the hotel’s public spaces and bedrooms in an intuitive way whilst maintaining the aesthetic of the Ruby brand. Matthew tells me that it is important that guests clearly recognise as soon as they open the door to their room, that they are in a Ruby property. As such, the theme is more apparent in the communal areas such as the bar and lobby, where bright colours meet bold and statement furniture and art pieces, creating a playful atmosphere. Meanwhile, the guest rooms take on the theme in a more subtle manner, with thoughtfully-selected decorative features. Almost all of the loose furnishings within the hotel were sourced through vintage furnishing suppliers to create a sense of authenticity.
“We’re always working to create an interior that feels like home; we bring residential aspects into the rooms and public spaces so that guests get that feeling of being welcome, warm and comfortable. For us that means using a lot of vintage furniture which already has a patina and a story behind it. We’re looking to create comfort, which is important for travellers, especially those that are travelling a lot. You don’t want to feel like you’re always in a hotel.” Matthew explains.
“At the same time, something I believe strongly in when it comes to hotel design is that you just can’t be boring. I would much rather create an emotional response in someone with my design work even if they don’t like it, rather than have them say it’s boring!”
Ruby Hotels seems to have occupied a unique segment of the market with its lean luxury concept, where it is able to offer a high-end experience at a lower price point by cutting out some of the extra services that guests do not necessarily need during their stay. Matthew maintains that the future of hotel design will be shaped by assessing modern guests’ most essential needs, so the expectations of what a room needs to deliver is constantly changing.
As for what’s next for Matthew, Ruby’s next project on the books for the UK will be based in Clerkenwell- a new-build project like Ruby Lucy, but on a bigger scale. “This project was 75 rooms, which is on the small side for us, but my take on it is that it’s about getting your foot in the door and then once that happens it’s about building trust,” Matthew says. “Then a lot of other projects will come quicker. This was our foot in the door moment, and the development team is looking at all kinds of different projects scattered throughout the UK, so we’re just really pleased to get this first one open.”