Holly Hallam, MD, DesignLSM
DesignLSM is an award-winning, multi-disciplined studio specialising in hospitality interior design. Talking to SPACE Editor, Emma Kennedy, Holly Hallam explains why looks aren’t everything and the importance of strategy.
Co-founded in 1986 by Steve LaBouchardiere and Simon McCarthy, DesignLSM has gone on to become a key player globally within hospitality design. With clients including many of the major brands, its portfolio is as diverse as the services it offers—an all-encompassing list covering more than just interior design. Based in Brighton with a satellite office in Dubai, its multi-disciplinary approach is collaborative and immersive, with a strong emphasis on strategy.
Arriving at an unprepossessing tower block, adjacent to a carpark in Brighton’s city centre, I take the lift to the sixth floor. Walking through double doors, I enter a multi-functional space, with a lively creative vibe. In stark contrast to the blandness behind me, I feel like Mr Benn entering his emporium. Industrious and relaxed in equal measures it challenges the spaces typically attached to studios of this size and calibre.
As I’m momentarily distracted by an Italian Greyhound apparently singing along with the background music, I’m joined by Holly.
Just days before our scheduled interview, news broke of the untimely death of their Co-Founder and close friend, Steve LaBouchardiere. Offering my condolences, though obviously still coming to terms with their loss, Holly reflects on the outpouring of love and support that continues to flood in. “It’s been a great comfort to receive all the accolades attributed to him. He was loved by so many, and we have all been blown away by the industry’s response.”
Despite retiring as MD three years ago and handing over the reins to Holly, he was still very much a part of the business. “Steve was great to work with, and he taught me so much. Not many design agencies have been going this long, so he really did have incredible knowledge—and knew so many people! We complimented each other well, he was very much the designer, and I was all about the strategy. Fortunately, I still have that relationship with Simon, and whatever we do will be a legacy of everything they built and the foundations they created together.”
Assuming Holly’s background was in design, I am surprised to hear otherwise. “No, I studied media and marketing at Brighton University,” she tells me. “I actually began my career in TV and Film, working on Channel Four’s Big Breakfast.” Smiling as I did my not-so-mental maths, she pauses before adding “So, that ages me!” Continuing in production, she worked on various projects before crossing over into marketing, where she took on a role supporting smaller businesses lacking senior structure, with marketing and strategic planning.
Joining DesignLSM in 2015 as Strategy and Marketing Director, she was an obvious choice for MD when Steve LaBouchardiere retired in 2019. Now applying her innate understanding of strategy to a creative environment, she explains how that translates into Hospitality Design. “I always knew that whatever I did, it would be creative” she begins. “My father was a product designer, so I grew up around creativity. My role as MD is to run the business. To make sure it’s not only commercially and operationally viable but to also consider each project from a guest perspective. Obviously with my marketing background, when we start a project, I want to know what the guest experience is going to be; what’s the brand tone of voice that we’re representing and how that translates from a non-tangible experience. For example, the experience you get from the expectation of going to a restaurant or a hotel—how that is delivered physically into a space? At the same time, I’m also looking at how commercially viable our concepts are in regards to a return on investments. All our projects are essentially businesses, they all need to make money. So, as well as the aesthetic, right from the beginning we look at the commercial objectives of that company.”
Given that most designers are all about the aesthetic, I wonder how the creative teams respond to the emphasis she puts on strategy. “Well at first it was a bit of a challenge,” Holly admits.Occasionally the teams would ask me why I was questioning their designs when I wasn’t a designer, and I would have to explain that a hospitality space is about a lot more than just being pretty. To appreciate this from the outset, the beginning of every new project now starts with a complete immersion. If it’s a brand we have worked with before, and we know well, then it’s a lighter touch. But if it’s a new client, then we will look at it holistically. We’ll examine what the overall plan of the company is, what the ROI will be, whether they are looking for just one amazing restaurant or if it is to be part of a chain or roll-out and if there is an exit strategy. This way, when we are designing, we really are designing with intent. Once the foundations are in place for a project, the objectives are nailed down and everyone understands the DNA, then we will start curating a compelling design narrative. At this point, it is the team’s job to go away and design it. I check in on the process and ask the questions; ‘does that match back to the narrative, does that solve the problems we identified—is it ticking the boxes?’ From a creative perspective, it’s theirs to do. I just make sure it’s telling the truth.”
Following a £40 million pound makeover, Heythrop Park Hotel in the Cotswolds opened its doors in October 2022. Tapping into Holly’s passion for historical buildings, the vast Grade II listed estate, dating back to 1710 is now part of Warner Leisure Hotels. Responsible for the entire front of house, DesignLSM began work in 2019.
Discussing the project, Holly recalls the first time she visited the property. “I was in my element because I love historic buildings and the stories that they tell… maybe I read too much Enid Blyton when I was little. Before we started, I was taken up to the roof, climbing little staircases, and walking through the servants’ quarters, it was just amazing. It is so huge; it literally takes 20 minutes to walk from one side of the building to the other.”
However, with the need for strategic planning as prevalent as ever, Enid Blyton and The Famous Five were gently pushed to one side. “Warner Leisure Hotels are a company who work towards a very definite format with entertainment being a big part of their brand.” Holly explains. “Within our immersion phase we quickly realised that working on Heythrop Park was not just about this specific property but also looking at an evolution of their wider offering to the market. So, we produced a strategic trend piece for them where we identified the need to expand the offer, considering health, wellness, and food, which has growing importance to their key demographic – late forties plus. Our first thought was to see if we could elevate that proposition of food by developing core F&B principles and a suite of new restaurant concepts, which they could choose from to roll out across their estate.”
From there they went on to design six lounges, three restaurants, two bars, a theatre, and a ballroom. Having set the narrative for the whole hotel, they worked alongside design agency HoaHoa, who were responsible for the 337 guestrooms.
Following on from their success at Heythrop Park Hotel, DesignLSM have recently secured its second project with Warner Leisure. Dating back to mid-1500s, Littlecote House Hotel, Hungerford is a Grade I listed Tudor manor. Set in grounds which contain the remains of a Roman settlement as well as an ornate Roman mosaic, its rich history includes James I, the Civil War and a burgeoning love affair between Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. Clearly in her element, Holly tells me “I could geek out about this all day!” Working alongside architects and historians, guiding them on what can and can’t be used or kept in the concept is well underway.
As we discuss the various projects that DesignLSM are currently working on, I ask Holly where the main source of their work comes from. “Because we have been in the industry for such a long time now, we tend to be approached by new clients through word of mouth. We also have a good history of client retention and are invited back as new projects emerge.” Having just won another host of awards, DesignLSM is clearly still at the top of its game.
With fresh eyes, I revisit the DesignLSM portfolio, and everything falls into place. The projects are a true mix in every sense, each one offering something different in terms of design, scale, and approach. From a cutting-edge bar in Manchester to a country hotel in the Cotswolds to a Mocktail bar in Jeddah, there is very little to inform you they hail from the same studio. And this is when you appreciate the importance of strategy. Free from repetition and full of ambition, every project has been turned upside down and inside out to understand what it is and what it needs to be. And in answer to my final question, it is this that sets DesignLSM apart.
- Key projects: Currently working on:
– Curio by Hilton, UK
– DoubleTree by Hilton London
– Littlecote House Hotel
– Cliff’s Pavilion Theatre
– Ashton Care Home
– Multiple UK Gaucho Restaurants
– Busaba, Stratford
– Sam’s Waterside
- Recent projects include:
– Heythrop Park Hotel
– Gaucho Newcastle, Liverpool and Glasgow
– The Alchemist Spinningfields
– Searcys St Pancras Champagne Bar
– Sumosan Dubai
– North Audley Cantine, Dubai, Doha and Riyadh
- Projects in the pipeline:
– Additional sites for Gaucho
– Adnam’s Brewery flagship store
– 5* lifestyle hotel – Europe