STEWART ROBERTSON & FELICITY BECK, PRINCIPALS/DIRECTORS, BAR STUDIO

Posted in Business, People on 7 October, 2019

From organic beginnings to an impressive client base, Stewart Robertson and Felicity Beck of acclaimed Australian interior design firm, BAR Studio, tell Sophie Harper what’s important when it comes to creating a hospitality space that ticks all the boxes.

Specialising in hotel and resort design in Australia and the Asia Pacific region, the team at BAR Studio, headed up by Stewart Robertson and Felicity Beck, have become firm favourites among some big brands in the hospitality industry. Describing the company as “international, collaborative and culturally engaged” the BAR Studio directors give us an insight into the last 16 years of building relationships and offer a glimpse of what’s in store for the future.

How and when was BAR Studio formed and can you tell us more about your individual roles at the company?

BAR Studio was established in 2003 to platform our return from a stint living and working in New York. We got hooked on being out in the world, and creating an international studio allowed us to continue relationships and generate new experiences from our Melbourne base.

STEWART ROBERTSON: I take on the creative direction of the studio and direct each BAR Studio project from conceptual beginnings through to operational opening. My main responsibility is to ensure the project meets both the studio’s high level of expectation and those of the client and operator.

FELICITY BECK: Each project BAR Studio undertakes represents three to five years of the lives of the studio staff, and my focus is in steering the studio toward the projects, relationships and processes that will deliver a rewarding experience for our clients, our collaborators and our studio. I am also developing more opportunities for artisanal design within the studio through setting up and growing our ‘workshop’ space – a creative studio aimed at designing bespoke fittings, finishes and furnishings within high-end projects.

Why did you choose to specialise in hotel design, and do you think it differs particularly to residential design?

SR: My work with Tony Chi in New York, opened the door to hospitality design. Our first BAR Studio project was to create a new hotel in an abandoned shell of a building in Bangkok. The success of this project – from a design, operational and guest perspective – led to more work in the hospitality field and our hotel design reputation has continued to grow. We bring a sense of residential to our design, but there is an intensive design process and scrutiny that goes into creating that sense of ease. There are many more considerations that go into conceptualising and creating a hospitality space. You have to have an in-depth understanding of the operational processes; including front and back of house. When we are designing a hospitality space, we are designing not just for the end customer, but also for the team operating the hotel environment; from the lobby to the restaurant. Making the space efficient delivers a sense of comfort and flow that makes a space feel great.

FB: Hotels are microcosms of cities. The multiplicity of typologies within each project and the relationships between them make for an engaging design problem that has always interested me. The interplay between public and private space – from city street to hotel public spaces to the private realm of guest areas. These relationships exist in residential projects but are taken to a whole new level in the hotel environment.

What’s a typical day at work like for each of you?

We are a boutique studio, which means we are closely involved with all aspects of the business from anchoring design across all projects to business strategy and operations; so ‘diverse and intense’ is the best way to describe a typical day. Our size affords us a close-knit family-like atmosphere, which we work hard to maintain amidst the intensity of delivering on our promise. Our collaborative approach means a constant schedule of meetings and design workshops, both internal and external. Client presentations and project meetings are typically on site, or at the HQs of our owners and operators. Currently that is Hong Kong, Niseko, Tokyo, Hangzhou, Shenzhen, Koh Samui, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Singapore – so that’s a lot of travel in the mix.

You’ve worked on a number of Rosewood and Hyatt properties now, how did you establish a relationship with these brands and what is it like working on their properties?

Longevity of relationships is core to our culture and key to being meaningfully involved in the continuity and evolution of our clients’ identity and culture. When we work with a hotel brand, we really try to understand the hoteliers’ vision and partner on creating the story through the design. We spend a lot of time to get to the essence of the brand, its relationship with its guests and then translate that into each of its unique individual properties. So, if we work on one project, for Rosewood or Hyatt, we really enjoy picking up the story from where we left off as a continuity of design but, at the same time, keep building on it and bringing new and unique characteristics of the place to each project.

Stewart’s relationship with Hyatt began through his work with Tony Chi and has continued for us throughout our studio’s history. We first met Sonia Cheng, CEO of Rosewood in 2009 after her return to Hong Kong from New York, with the ambition of shaping a new hotel brand. It is astounding what Sonia has achieved in those ten years, and it has been a privilege to have been part of shaping her vision from its beginnings at what is now the Rosewood Beijing.

Is it more or less difficult working on the refurbishment of an existing hotel in comparison to starting with a blank canvas?

We really cut our teeth working on refurbishment projects. An existing hotel can give you a framework and a set of challenges. It can provide a great base to respond to as a part of the design process. For example, we recently completed the renovation of Grand Hyatt Seoul (you can find the review on page 106) where it was a privilege to build on the legacy of John Morford’s original design. It was a great opportunity to combine the old and the new to create a contemporary hotel with layers of history, to continue to build the story and character of this significant hotel.

Our way of thinking and conceptualising on new and existing builds is similar. We always look to how the hotel will engage with its local environment: how it will connect and respond.

Many new-build hotels are now a component of a larger building; a residential tower or a business development – or both, which can create challenges around being able to shape the overall guest experience. For example with Rosewood Phnom Penh, located at the top 14 floors of the Vattanac Capital Tower, we worked hard to create a guest arrival experience that took guests on a journey from the the porte-cochère, to the arrival lobby and on to the 35th floor sky lobby to create a retreat-like transition from the busy city.

What, typically, is the first thing you do as soon as you’ve secured a new project? Do you go and celebrate with the team and then start scrutinising briefs, or is it straight to the drawing board to work on ideas?

We’d love to say that securing a project is one celebratory moment, but the reality is it is often a process that can last months. Whenever we are looking at a potential project, we are immediately interrogating how to make a great project. We are already thinking creatively and often by the time we’ve won a job, we already feel very connected to the project, fully parked at the drawing board and ready to continue on our design journey!

Our Friday afternoon drinks and snacks are a staple of the studio, so we use them for celebrating signing on new projects with the whole studio team!

What, in your opinion, is the most important aspect of design for a hotel?

It’s how everything works together – guest comfort, operational design, resonance with place, the interior details, meaningful art collections and features that tell a story, strong architectural bones and a great materiality that is beautiful to experience, but also enduring. All of those things have to be completely interlinked to deliver the ultimate guest experience.

Our design approach is all about the guest experience, supporting the hoteliers’ purpose of making guests feel welcome and at ease in the space. We believe today’s truly luxurious hotels must be warm, inviting and flexible, with a natural sense of comfort. It’s easy to design something that looks good, but it’s immeasurably more difficult to design something that feels good. Some spaces wow you in the first minute, but then start to disappoint. Whereas we want our spaces to be better the tenth time you experience them than the first.

Is it important to have a strong theme or story within the design of a hotel, or are there other factors that guests can connect with?
We aim to capture an intangible ‘spirit and soul’ that goes beyond superficial styling and provides a sense of place while, at the same time, making guests feel at home. We want our projects to resonate with their location, but we don’t want to dictate a story to the guests. It should be an open-ended process of discovery.

Whether looking at art, the typology of the local architecture, geographically inspired colour palettes and materials, or a locally sourced piece of craft – it all adds up to a set of stories and a sense of the location. You get a sense that this hotel couldn’t exist anywhere else, but at the same time it is a part of an international culture of hotels.

What do you think guests are looking for in a hotel in the 21st century?

Guests are looking for a stronger sense of the experiential, engaging with the place on a more personal and neighbourhood-based level, with an expectation of discovery, but in a subtle way. Travellers want to be engaged in the narrative of the hotel and the destination, with an ability to discover things for themselves.

Also, the blurring of boundaries between business and leisure travel is driving an increasing need for hotels to present adaptable multi-functional spaces. Room design is all about the guest experience and how the guest will interact with or ‘live’ in the space. We concentrate a great deal of effort on getting the guestroom absolutely right. It’s critical within a hotel to make a guestroom beautiful, comfortable and unobtrusively, intuitively functional.

What does good design do for a hotel?

Good design will impress with its looks, but more importantly will feel good, uncovering new layers of the stay each time a guest returns to the space. Good design is also intelligent design; design that creates operational flow and, in turn, a seamless experience. We also believe in bespoke, high-quality materials to create longevity and a real sense of residential comfort.

How much time do you dedicate to sourcing products and suppliers for the projects you work on?

We spend immense amounts of time sourcing products and materials that help express the uniqueness of each of our projects. From the carpet design derived from traditional Japanese boro in our latest project, Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono, to the extensive use of timber and sandstone at The Westin Perth and Park Hyatt Sydney to reflect these cities’ beach-inspired lifestyle, the decisions are meticulously reviewed and considered. We work closely with our suppliers to develop custom finishes, designs and furniture.

We also pay particular attention to art and lighting. We spend a lot of time designing custom lighting to create unique fixtures, and we work with local and international artists on original work commissions for our projects.

We are always interested in making connections and finding new partners to work with but also have long-standing relationships. For example, you will find Melbourne’s glass artist’s Mark Douglass’ work in a number of our projects.

Where do you see hotel design in the future?

We see hotel design moving towards deeper authentic experiences and more engaged with the local through design and amenities, like the F&B and leisure activities.

We also see a stronger desire to connect to the community with flexible and inspiring places for locals and travellers alike that really give something back to their city or neighbourhood.

And finally, being more mindful in our use of resources by embracing locally-sourced materials.

Is there anything exciting in the pipeline you can tell us about?

We have recently acquired a new building in Melbourne’s suburb of Collingwood, where we plan to move our studio in 2021. This exciting two-storey warehouse-style space will give us the room and ability to develop our workshop space further, as well as hopefully showcase the work from some of our partners, creators, artists and collaborators. We hope to create a craft and design community of like-minded people under one roof!

What’s next for BAR Studio?

We are working towards the opening of our next project, Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono on January 20, 2020. We are also hoping to dedicate more time to the design of custom objects and lighting, so watch this space!

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