Hotel designers that find clever ways to manipulate volumes and maximise spaces are changing the overall experience; Rebecca Lo embarks on an Asian tour to find out more.

It is widely acknowledged in the industry that travellers may not want the same experience every time, but they do want each of those experiences to be memorable. Whether it is a getaway splurge, a business trip or a designer holiday, the experience of staying in a hotel has as much to do with the hardware as the software. With their Instagram friendly angles, spaces that offer unusual volumes, changing vistas or cleverly framed views are going to get a lot of likes. And that applies to every aspect of a hotel: a lobby’s first impression, an all day dining outlet’s thoughtful demarcation of zones, or an efficiently beautiful guestroom.

Novotel Century Hong Kong unveiled a new look for its lobby in November that thoughtfully repurposes how its wide range of users commandeer the space. The busy business hotel is often operating at full capacity due to its close proximity to Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and popularity with flight crews, yet it also receives foot traffic from people who cut through or use the lobby to meet friends. Hong Kong based Aedas Interiors previously conducted a refurbishment of Novotel Century’s lobby, bar and restaurant in 2006, though the lobby was redone in 2014 by another designer. Last year, the hotel’s owner looked to Aedas Interiors again to open up the space for the more than 500-room property.

Urban Oasis

“We envisioned an oasis in the middle of Wanchai’s traffic and chaos,” recalls Leslie Lui, senior associate with Aedas Interiors. “It is a transitional space that connects two busy roads—Lockhart and Jaffe—and we wanted to make it welcoming both for locals and hotel guests.” Working with nearly five metre ceiling heights in parts of the lobby, Aedas Interiors focused on minimising the furnishings, with an 8.5 metre long bench that dominates the space like sculpture. Finished in wood, it offers seating oriented in different directions and covered in a green grass like material that echoes the preserved moss found behind the reception kiosks. Aedas Interiors replaced a traditional counter with a quartet of freestanding pods shaped like the pebble and rock seating scattered throughout the lobby. “The pods break down barriers between the staff and guests, since there are only one or two terminals per kiosk,” explains Greg Farrell, executive director with Aedas Interiors. “The check in or out experienced becomes more personalised.”

When a property is purpose built, however, it has the advantage of being restricted only by its owner’s budget and its designer’s imagination. For Fairmont Chengdu, the outlets had to make a statement while also catering to the neighbourhood’s needs. Situated in the heart of the Sichuan capital’s new high tech zone in the south, and within walking distance of Century City New International Convention & Exhibition Centre, the property is the fifth Fairmont in greater China. The luxury Toronto based operator’s 336 guestrooms and suites are complemented by a bevy of stunning outlets: Cube lounge and Chang Yi Sichuan restaurant by LW Design, and all day dining Spectrum and top floor signature outlet Manhattan by Indulge; both design firms are based in Hong Kong.

Dining for All

“Spectrum was essentially a big open space,” notes Karen Hay, Indulge’s founder and creative director. “We broke it up into three zones to suit Fairmont Chengdu’s different clientele: an area in front of the kitchen so that families with children can be entertained by the open cooking stations; a lounge like area in the middle with large chairs and comfortable sofas, and a library with tea room on the left that’s quieter for business travellers who may want to conduct a casual meeting.” At the rear, an outdoor space become an al fresco dining area during Chengdu’s warmer months, while screens help to separate the tea room and open area; the screens are nods to the Chinese practise of using translucent dividers while also being functional elements to gently demarcate different zones. A change in floor material from floral tiles to hardwood further delineates different spaces without interrupting sight lines.

If Spectrum is Fairmont Chengdu’s daytime indulgence, then Manhattan is where the party’s at come sundown. The 14 metre high ceilings was originally intended to be a small ballroom, and lent itself to a dramatic intervention in the form of a column design based on a Victorian lighthouse. A staircase wraps around the column, which includes glass sections that become fluting as they move up. A DJ booth on a hydraulic pad is positioned inside the column, while floodlights on the underside of the mezzanine floor highlight the Art Deco and fleur-de-lis patterns on the timber and The Great Gatsby inspired wrought iron details. “We were tasked with creating the best bar in China,” deadpans Hay. “Fortunately, we had an owner who believed in our Great Gatsby concept and supported us all the way after seeing a full set of renderings and mood boards.” Manhattan is slated to open around Chinese New Year 2018.

Breathing Room

Guestrooms, too, can be maximised with thoughtful ways to open up spaces originally intended for other purposes. Bangkok’s Hypothesis was entrusted with adapting an abandoned apartment block near Thonglor BTS station into Ir-On, a hip boutique hotel in the predominantly residential community. It looked to the industrial background of the owner, Premnon Lerdporncharoen of Oneput, for design inspiration and clad the entire building in iron screens as tribute to his steel manufacturing past. “From the original layout of the apartment block, the bathroom area was very small—too small for a decent hotel bathroom,” states Yarinda Bunnag, design director with Hypothesis. “So we decided to bring the sink outside the bathroom in order to make the shower and toilet areas larger. The grill suspended from the ceiling has a double function. Since our budget was tight, we used it to create interesting light and shadow effects on the bare wall surfaces as well as to conceal the M&E works.” The grill reiterates the façade, while keeping the industrial chic vibe prevalent throughout the property.

Farrell believes that smart spatial refurbishment of hotels with “good bones” help to make a cost effective impact that caters to how its spaces are currently being utilised. “Refurbishments add value while offering a healthy financial return for the owner,” he acknowledges.