Robbyn Carter, Founder, Studio Carter

Posted in People on 19 June, 2024

From heavy metal to high-end luxury, Robbyn Carter discusses hotel design through the lens of an artist.

WORDS BY Emma Kennedy

Robbyn Carter has wander lust. Within the first minute of our conversation, in reference to her home, studios, projects and team, she has covered Dubai, Amsterdam, London, Madrid, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, San Francisco, Pasadena, and Santa Monica. Talking fast and answering questions before they have been asked, I am momentarily left scanning my notes for subjects that haven’t been covered, before pushing them aside and deciding to simply go with the flow. It’s going to be a lot more fun, and a lot less stressful to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Kimpton Qiantan Shanghai. Photographs courtesy of Studio Carter.

“I always thought I wanted to be an artist,” she begins, “and started working for Sculptor, Albert Guibara in San Francisco – you know, and taking classes in casting and welding,” she adds, as if it’s something we have all done, “But, like most starving artists, nights were spent working in restaurants. It was then that something started to grow inside me, and I knew I wanted to create spaces that were more sculptural – approached from an artistic perspective.”

A course in Interior Design at UCLA – which she deemed too decorative – was swiftly followed by a degree in Environmental design where she was taught to think, “not just about the space, but how to create exciting environments and spatial experiences through either space or objects.” Clear in her ambition to pursue a career in hospitality design, on graduating, Carter went on to work at a number of studios, and the rest – as they say – is history.

Today, Studio Carter’s designs are a masterclass in form and function. They are contemporary and slick, and above all unique. Without falling into well-rehearsed genres, they are diverse and align perfectly with her original ambition to create sculptural spaces. Reflecting on the influence those formative years have had on her work today, she pauses before telling me, “I guess it really defines a lot of what I do. But one of the biggest things it all taught me was to understand composition – how sometimes you can shift something slightly, and suddenly it all magically falls into place. It was also about learning that negative space is just as important as the thing that you’re building – to look at spaces from both a sculptural and compositional standpoint. So, I guess in that sense, that whole experience has informed my designs in so many ways.”

Mondrian Singapore Duxton boasts a lighter aesthetic, with each space showcasing a creative mix of forms, colours, and materials.

Since the launch of Studio Carter in 2019, Robbyn and her team have worked steadily across a heady collection of luxury hotels and resorts – from the Kimpton Shanghai to Indigo Hangzhou to the recently opened Mondrian Duxton, Singapore, and I ask which hotel she felt was a turning point in her career. “Well, it still hasn’t opened yet, but I think it was the Mondrian Gold Coast. When I was living in Amsterdam, I worked for Marcel Wanders who had designed Mondrian’s before – so I knew them well as a brand. I was suddenly working for an operator that I looked up to and realising that they believed in me. It was a beautiful moment – Studio Carter still felt new, and I thought “Okay, this can work – I can do this on my own.”

Robbyn’s design at Kimpton Qiantan Shanghai expertly merges European influences with modern elements, creating a space that effortlessly balances drama with intimate charm.

With an impressive portfolio, bursting with big brands and even bigger designs, I would have been interested in hearing about the design concept behind any one of them. But given that Mondrian Duxton is the latest opening, it seemed as good a place to start as any and I begin by asking Robbyn about the original brief.

At Mondrian Duxton, you arrive in an energetic, bustling restaurant with the reception off to the side. We wanted to disrupt the whole philosophy of how hotels are typically zoned.

“Okay, well I’m having to go back a while here… it takes years to open a hotel!” she tells me. “The brief that came from the operator – was to hold on to Mondrian’s DNA that designers like Phillipe Starck, Marcel Wanders and others before me had created. So, we looked at how we could take that DNA into the future and create a new look that was fun and energetic, but also something that was affordable for the clients to build. Historically some of the Mondrians are very ornate, so we wanted to refresh the look and make it relevant. It was then about injecting F&B into the spaces – for example, when you walk into the Mondrian Duxton, you arrive in an energetic, bustling restaurant with the reception off to the side. We wanted to disrupt the whole philosophy of how hotels are typically zoned.”

Taking in the images of the Mondrian Duxton, the first thing you notice is the design synergy between the exterior and interior design. “We worked closely with DP Architects – and it started with the master zoning. Where would the restaurant be, the suites – the garden? We were tossing around all these ideas, before settling on the design concept of ‘Deconstructed Shophouse’.”

At this point it’s worth pointing out that Robbyn had previously lived in Singapore for six years – and drew upon the area’s colonial architecture and local history when settling upon the design concept. “The suites became Shophouse Suites, and we brought in details from Singaporean Shophouses – like archways which we fitted with shutters – all filtered through a contemporary lens. Then working with the operator, we went on to design them in a way that meant they could also be hired as event spaces which has proved hugely successful in generating revenue.”

Mondrian Singapore Duxton’s Shophouse Suites exude unique style, blending traditional Singaporean architecture with contemporary design.

There’s an incredible feeling of space throughout all Studio Carter’s projects, though it’s fair to say that many of them are indeed set in generous spaces. Does she particularly like working on large scale projects? “I do, but to be honest, when we approach a project, regardless of size, my first thought is: Okay, what opportunities do we have here? I start by asking questions and the biggest question is invariably “What if we keep this as an open space, or should we subdivide it and create zones to meander through?” Ultimately it depends on what experience we’re trying to create. But what I do love about the larger properties is designing the spas, restaurants, and bars as well as the guestrooms and the suites – it feels good when there’s a lot to grab on to and conceptualize.”

The sculptural quality of all Studio Carter’s interiors is apparent in the unique form and use of the furniture. Whether its curved sofas formed of stacked tubular bolsters, leather chairs folded into a Z shape from a single piece or deep modular seating with low slung back rests, the look is bold, often futuristic, and always bespoke. I ask Robbyn about the challenges of creating new collections for each project. “When I was a young hospitality designer, I made a lot of mistakes. I would specify original pieces, without realising that I didn’t have control of what the owners would do with my designs. Often, too late, I would discover they had copied the designs and put them out cheaper. So, now this is a hard no for us, and we do everything custom. When we design something, we have the exact spec agreed with the owner, and if they can’t afford it, we will redesign it accordingly. It’s important our pieces aren’t value engineered – it’s what helps make our hotels original and unique.”

Original and unique succinctly sums up the diverse body of Studio Carter’s portfolio. With a swathe of projects in various stages of development, I for one can’t wait to see what next is going to grace the upper echelons of the design-led hospitality scene.

Join our mailing list

Click here to Join
  Join our mailing list