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Design Drivers: How Universal Culture Impacts Hotel Design

By David Ashen, partner & founder, dash design

This article was published originally on Hotel Executive April 8, 2018

Not long ago, I went on a business trip to Tokyo with Toto, the Japanese company that manufactures the Washlet, a clever device fitted to nearly every toilet in Japan—even one at a 7 Eleven, at least according to one of my tour-mates who needed to use the convenience store’s bathroom.

The Washlet, a registered trademark of Toto that refers to electric toilet seats with water spray features for intimate body cleaning, was first released in June 1980, with more than 30 million sold by early 2011. Washlets, and other versions of the device that transform a typical toilet into a bidet, are becoming the norm in Japan and other parts of the world, including hotel bathrooms in the countries. It’s akin to using toilet tissue in America.

This leads to an important point. What might be an expected amenity in one culture might not be a detail to consider in another. For instance—and again, in reference to toilets—I was told that at a luxury hotel where I often have stayed when visiting Istanbul, the architect or interior designer in charge was not fluent in the cultural norms of Turkey, including that, like in Japan, water is used to clean oneself after using the toilet by using a manual bidet integrated into the toilet.

This luxe property was a standout when it was built and situated in a sought-after neighborhood, with no detail left unturned—or at least the designers thought so. But because the property neglected to include a bidet in the guestroom bathrooms, the hotel did not go over well with Turkish travelers looking for overnight accommodations in Istanbul. As a result, the owners discovered that all its stylish, brand new toilets had to be replaced, stat.

Global trends in toilet-ware aside, it’s important for designers, owners and operators to see what is happening around the globe and to take note. I often work with owners and operators who look to me to understand what is trending. An integral part of my job is to look beyond the borders of North America and glean insights into what might be on the wider horizon by understanding what’s happening in the major global cities and other destinations around the world.

During part of the year, I live in Chile, which gives me the good fortune to live in two different hemispheres. Chile leads the world in ecotourism. With so much natural beauty and a coastline that extends from the desert in the north to the icebergs of Patagonia, the country has one of the most breathtaking landscapes imaginable. There, designers of hotels have embraced nature and ecology to create destination properties that lightly touch the earth and connect the guest with the environment and then, in turn, themselves.

Of the many examples of this, one interesting brand to watch is Tierra Hotels. The brand has three properties which I have yet to visit, however, Tierra Chiloe is the first on my list. The hotel was developed by a friend in Chile and sold to the Tierra brand. The property is a leader in sustainable architecture and its design was inspired by the local houses that are built on stilts, overlooking the water. Great care was spent in using local trades and craftsmen to create a place with the charm of the local culture, as well as a sumptuous and modern appeal thanks to the clever work of the property’s architects. The brand’s other two hotels, including one in Patagonia and one in the Atecama desert, are sensitive to the landscapes of their regions and use traditional craft and design, served up in a fresh, cleanly designed and memorable manner.

For hotels to resonate with guests, a balance of the brand’s sensibility and the desire to create global standards is ideal, but they also still need to celebrate cultural differences. I recently met with representatives of a large hotel in Santiago for an interview to renovate the property and oversee its design. There was a need for the designer to understand Chilean culture, as the mainstay of the property’s guests included not only American and European travelers, but also a sizeable contingent of locals. Despite the cultural emphasis, a concern about the local design community’s grasp the hotel brand’s principles and design philosophy arose. I was brought in because of my perceived understanding of the brand’s ideals, including a sensitivity to the area’s culture and nuances of the Chileans. It is a difficult balance, for sure. As I cited local places I frequented and talked about their cultures, I came to see what the brand representative was after: a property that offered a world traveler’s respite with Chilean flavor shining through.

Another example of a brand’s balance of its culture, global influences and the local ethos is Home Hotel in Istanbul. The property reminds me of Bijblauw in Curacao for the similar ways that both brands accomplish that sought-after balance between accommodating guests’ needs and infusing regional culture, in the case of Bijblauw, a Dutch aesthetic.  

A boutique property among many in Istanbul, Home Hotel was started by a local family and bridges the right blend of international norms and local cultural nuances. For example, the interior looks modern but incorporates reinterpretations of Turkish patterns and Middle Eastern elements in subtle ways. Additionally, the property’s furniture was crafted from local manufacturers, allowing guests to see local influences in the space through references to Turkish shapes and materials without being locked into traditional Turkish designs.  

International brands have raised the standard of hotel design. American travelers have moved beyond the days of packing portable conveniences like soaps, should their accommodations not have them, to spending their overnights in properties that offer not only common essentials but also a mix of global comforts and local aesthetics. Today, travelers worldwide seek accommodations that fit that sought-after sweet spot: a comfortable place to stay along with a familiar, world feel along and a hint of the local aesthetic.

During the past three decades, Americans have moved from their top spot as the majority of travelers, leading hotel brands to step away from their habit of only catering to the sensibilities of Westerners on the move. Today the range of people venturing out is enormous—including the affluent middle class from other counties—and the places they’re visiting circle the globe. In South America, alone, travel is on the rise by the people of Colombia, Peru and Chile.

As a result, cultural differences are influencing hotel designs. But because global brands like Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Wyndham and Hyatt and others, are based in the United States, their approach to design often comes from an American-centric point of view. For example, there’s an overriding tendency in America to over-emphasize design elements, where an excessively repeated pattern, for instance, can slip from pleasingly recognizable to kitsch or Disney-esque. What would be better is to interpret design elements in a fresh, relevant way that international travelers can identify with, rather than to exaggerate qualities that overstate a property as a U.S. brand. Think of the Dutch or Turkish traveler that, like other international travelers, want familiar, luxury amenities that don’t go over-the-top in their expressions of local color. Most important are the quality of the linens and bathroom amenities, like the soap, shampoo and towels.

Successful hotel design is more complex than what’s created from a limited perspective. Winning hotels incorporate plenty of details, architecture, furnishings and finishes as they comfortably accommodate overnight guests. With that, there’s a discipline in North America, where interior design typically is practiced in a way that’s not fully developed for designing in other markets. Fortunately, some American brands and designers are taking note of the differences between our more developed discipline of interior design as compared to other parts of the world, where, unlike here, the line between interior designers and decorators often is blurred. The reverse is happening as well, where some countries, like China and others in Europe and South America, have opened design firms. Despite these widening views, the overall tendency still is for U.S. firms to focus on the interior design of a hotel, while other countries typically put the architecture of a building in the lead. In the end, however, desirable hotel design isn’t about interior design or architecture; it’s about architecture and decoration merging.

The concept has American brands looking at cultural norms and how to incorporate them in their overseas properties, such as those in Africa and South America, whether it’s by connecting to the property’s landscape like the Tierra Chiloe has done, pulling in local elements through furniture or through other measures. As mentioned earlier, the toilet is one example of how, when overlooked, even subtle nuances can result in a costly misstep and missed opportunities.

 Yong Yi Ting at the Mandarin Oriental in Shanghai / Entry / Wine Bar. Photo:  Xu Fei

Yong Yi Ting at the Mandarin Oriental in Shanghai / Entry / Wine Bar. Photo: Xu Fei

One project, my firm’s design of the Chinese restaurant, Yong Yi Ting, at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in the Pudong area of Shanghai, presented challenges related to expected cultural norms. As Westerners designing a Chinese restaurant aimed for local guests, solving the project’s scope was an impressive task. Among the cultural aspects of the project were specific elements related to its private dining area, an expansive wing that housed eight private dining rooms in thousands of square feet. Because business-related meals held in a restaurant’s private dining room are seen as higher in hierarchy than those conducted in public dining rooms, the demand for the private spaces would be high. Moreover, we learned that in the interest of privacy, patrons of the private dining rooms were not to move through the main dining area on their way to the private ones. For the Chinese, it wasn’t not about being seen, but about utmost privacy. In respect of those ethics, we incorporated sensitive voyeuristic elements, such as a one-way mirror, along with window treatments that provided a total visual “blackout”, as needed.

By looking at world trends, local architecture and cultural norms, properties can be developed as more relevant on both macro and micro levels; that is for global brands and the hotel’s guests. The Mandarin Oriental’s restaurant and Tierra Chiloe’s sensitivity to their locations address those ideals in modern ways. 

It truly is a small world, after all.