In prime urban locations, savvy hoteliers are downsizing guestrooms while giving the space back to guests through chic common areas. Rebecca Lo takes a closer look at the trend

In Asia, space is often equated with luxury. Urban areas and CBDs in Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong are prime real estate territory where the bigger the room size, the more expensive the rack rate. Increasingly, though, design is becoming the new luxury where space is a difficult constraint to overcome.

More guests are seeking authentic experiences where a cookie cutter room simply won’t cut it anymore, no matter how much marble or many chandeliers are installed. And owners and operators are responding with beautifully designed hotels chock full of personality, where common areas are given back to guests to make up for mini-me guestrooms.

Perhaps one of the best-known DesignHotel hoteliers to be associated with this trend is Singapore’s golden boy, Loh Lik Peng. A lawyer by profession, Loh bought a dilapidated colonial property in the red light district of Singapore’s Chinatown when he fell in love with its architectural bones. It was only after the deal closed that he decided to transform it into a hotel, named Hotel 1929.

He intentionally left the concrete raw and unpolished, choosing instead to use it as a well-worn backdrop for his expansive collection of furnishings. Due to the architecture of the building, guestrooms were all irregular sizes and many were very small. Yet as the neighbourhood offered a number of authentic hawker stalls and a vibrant street scene, he knew that guests at Hotel 1929 would never be bored.

Loh followed his initial venture with New Majestic Hotel, also a member of DesignHotel and in another singular property within Singapore’s Chinatown. Essentially four shophouses gathered around an internal courtyard, he retained local architect Colin Seah of Ministry of Design to oversee its interior renovation.

Loh also enlisted a host of Singapore’s brightest creative personalities to give each guestroom its own distinct aesthetic; from graphics designers to theatrical directors. New Majestic’s tiny rooms transport guests to fanciful, somewhat surreal environments where bold, dynamic images dominate. To take advantage of the available space in smaller rooms, the bathroom is sometimes deconstructed to allow for a shower and toilet cubicle, with a sink open to the room.

For a 30-key boutique hotel, there is a lot of stuff going on outside of the room, too. There’s a spacious all-white lobby dotted with Loh’s handpicked designer furnishings. There’s a lime green all-day dining restaurant called Majestic situated underneath a swimming pool with glass insets; every once in awhile, diners get a glimpse of bodies swimming by above them. There is also a gym and lounge area by the pool set in the internal courtyard.

Upping the ante

pentahotel, the hip lifestyle brand under Hong Kong-based Rosewood Hotel Group (formerly New World Hotels) has taken the urban guestroom up a few notches as well. Its Hong Kong property, opened last year on the heels of Shanghai and Beijing, was designed by Shanghai-based Neri & Hu Design and Research Office.

The husband and wife team of Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu are known internationally for edgy aesthetics, and were picked by Rosewood’s CEO Sonia Cheng to rebrand penta’s look and feel. “penta was previously a traditional four-star Europe-based brand,” she notes. “When we took it over, we saw a gap in the market and developed it into a concept more relevant to today’s traveller – the next generation of young travellers.

“Spaces are less defined and the hotel is a stylish, cool place to go. It’s about informal hospitality. The lobby, for example, is an energetic gathering space. We envision penta to be a neighbourhood lifestyle hotel, and in Hong Kong that translates to an authentic, local experience. Lyndon gets what I’m talking about. We gave him a free hand but a very detailed brief.”

A new-built property in the former industrial area of San Po Kong, penta is a 695-key hotel that has a boutique ambience about it. Due to the less than 200 square foot area of each guestroom, Neri and Hu eschewed walls and instead treated the wardrobe, desk and bathroom as a kit of furniture inserts. The partitions not only take up less space, they depict black and white street scenes of Hong Kong to establish a sense of place.

“We used a big pendant light for the room instead of a small one, to change the room’s proportions and the way people relate to the space,” says Neri. “We built in seating along the window ledge. We pared down the furniture so that they can express their structure. You see chairs floating in the room.”

The common areas, by contrast, are where hotel guests and the neighbourhood mingle. A large all-day dining venue, with various typical Hong Kong food stalls, lets people try different local delicacies, while the reception is a large lounge with pool tables. Downstairs, a wood burning pizza oven dishes up piping hot pies with a casual bench seat.

Industry chic

Ovolo Southside, the flagship property of the Hong Kong-based brand, soft opened in August with interiors courtesy of KplusK Associates. The warehouse conversion was a labour of love for both Ovolo’s founder Girish Jhunjhnuwala and architect Paul Kember, co-founder of KplusK.

With its Aberdeen location and 162-keys, Ovolo continues to refine its brand concept of being a hip place that reflects its community. Some rooms are even smaller than at penta, yet KplusK have worked out an efficient bathroom layout that includes sliding doors to save space. Kember left the ceilings exposed and creatively worked out a system for the duct and pipes running along them to achieve a raw, industrial-chic look.

“Our challenge was to keep guestrooms feeling spacious when they are in fact very compact,” he says. “The open wardrobe features lattice work that is based on traditional Chinese patterns. When the light hits it, there is a beautiful shadow created.”

Ovolo Southside gives back extras to its guests through common areas such as a 24/7 self-service laundry, gym, lounge-like reception area with happy hour snacks and drinks, and an all-day dining with a green al fresco dining terrace.

The roof is a hip bar with a room for private parties and broad views that stretch to the sea at Deepwater Bay. There is even a small meeting room inspired by communist Chinese party events, complete with contemporary lazy boy chairs along the walls and oriental floral wallcovering.

“Ovolo Southside will appeal to travellers who want the convenience of being close to Causeway Bay, but the fresh air of being south side,” says Kember.