A Chat with Paula O’Callaghan, Senior Associate at HBA about ETHNIC HOTEL SPACES

Posted in Business, People on 13 September, 2017

Paula O’Callaghan, Senior Associate at Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), talks to Carol Kraal and Sara Graav (Architecture & Interior Design Consultant) about designing hotel interiors to exude cultural authenticity and luxury…

The whole point of travel, even on business, is to experience the cultural soul of the place. That begins with your hotel – its design, spaces and ambience.

While ethnic style may seem primitive to some, local traditions represent who we are today. Architecture and interior design that use ethnic elements connect a site’s past to the present while respecting its spirit and history.

Experienced interior designer in the hospitality sector Paula O’Callaghan, Senior Associate at Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), transforms hotel and resort spaces into ethnic havens by doing a lot of research, listening to locals’ views, and observing their arts and customs.

Some of her high-profile hotel, new-build, renovation and historic restoration projects include the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, Marriott Copenhagen, Ritz-Carlton Jakarta, Fairmont Peace Hotel Shanghai, and Waldorf Astoria Shanghai.

Two of O’Callaghan’s projects of ethnic beauty include:

Siam Kempinski Bangkok, Thailand – Designed around its historical site as a royal lotus garden, the luxury hotel exudes comfort and modern Thai beauty amidst the bustle of Bangkok.

Jiang-Nan Chun restaurant, Four Seasons Singapore – This Cantonese restaurant is inspired by fishing villages along the river in China, and their rich cultural lifestyles. The thick carpet symbolising the Yangtze river, the richly handcrafted carved millwork accents, the flock of plump ceramic songbirds and the fish net lighting fixtures all capture the colours and energy of the fertile land and its river culture.

A Chat with Paula O’Callaghan, Senior Associate at HBA

In what way does Siam Kempiniski Hotel, Bangkok represent the natural beauty of Thailand?

The natural beauty of Thailand lies not only in its lush, tropical geography, but in its diverse and rich culture. The Thais have a high regard to arts, culture and ceremony, expressed in almost every manner of daily living. From a humble roadside meal of khao lao to the majestic nagas perched upon their temple rooftops, there is an acknowledgment and care ingrained within Thai culture towards the beauty in life, be it natural or man-made. It is this essence of Thai “natural beauty” that is celebrated in the design of the Siam Kempinski. The hotel sits upon a former royal lotus garden.

HBA was asked to create an interior that paid homage to this legacy but reflected in a modern and sophisticated manner. Many of the carpet patterns and artwork in this hotel are inspired by the lotus, along with the purple and chartreuse colour scheme. Centrally located water features symbolise the lotus ponds, their stepped forms recalling the unique features of a temple roof. A nod to Thai high culture and ceremony is also made with the appearance of the sinewy, metal-filigree wall sconces that line the marbled halls of the public areas, recalling the delicate jewelled finger accessories worn by apsara dancers.

How do you engage the botanical garden around the hotel in the design? 

Inspired by the property’s history as a royal lotus garden the architectural concept for this property was based upon an “urban oasis” which fully engages  with a landscaped zone with low-rise guestroom wings that encompass a centrally located pool deck and lush garden. This allows the orientation of the architecture away from the surrounding urban bustle of Bangkok, creating an insular, peaceful experience. Inset seating pods dot the pool and garden, with a sala bar anchoring the garden and pool. HBA’s exterior scope was to soften a rather austere architectural surround with the same stylistic elements as within the hotel interior.

How long was the design process for Jiang-Nan Chun restaurant at Four Seasons Singapore – seeing that it has such rich ethnic elements?

The whole process from start to final installation was about 8 to 9 months. We had about 2 weeks to pull together the concept story and about another two/three weeks for the actual schematic design development and re-planning, followed by a few weeks for design documentation. Some of the details, such as the carved panels, could not be drawn or documented traditionally, as they are meant to appear like genuine, handcrafted, “found” elements. For these, we had to work closely with the contractor who sourced them in China.

How do you approach ethnic and culture-rich hotel projects such as these without being cliché, jarring and predictable?

Do your research and do not be afraid to bounce ideas off of people who are of that particular ethnicity or culture to see what their perception of your idea is. If they tell you something is too themed or cliché, you have to be sensitive enough to listen, learn and amend the design. On the Siam Kempinski project, I constantly sought the judgement of the Thai project manager and local furniture contractor during the numerous prototype reviews. After they realised that I was genuinely interested in their opinion, they openly offered their perspective. There were many candid, fruitful discussions on what elements were uniquely Thai versus Chinese, Indonesian, or simply generically “Asian”.

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