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Karim Rashid On 'Experiential' Hotels, Sweating the Details, and Giving Guests a Vision of the Future

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The Egyptian-born designer Karim Rashid has built his 30-year career on bold product innovations ranging from Umbra's Oh chair to Bobble's filtering water bottle to dog bowls. Ten years ago, Rashid turned to hotel design with the Semiramis hotel in Athens, Greece, where he oversaw everything from the interiors to the silverware to the employee uniforms to the restaurant. Since then, the designer, who has quite a way with words on Twitter and whose Manhattan apartment is currently listed for sale, has designed Berlin's Nhow Hotel, the MyHotel Brighton, and the Bremen, Germany location of Prizeotel, the first in what will eventually become a series of Rashid-designed budget hotels. That means, of course, curves and technicolor for everyone! Here the Canadian-raised, NYC-based Rashid, whose hotel designs are focused on a "momentary existence in a space," speaks about hotels showing "a way to live in the future" and giving guests a "two-day experience."

Generally you're best known as an industrial designer, how did you go from industrial design to designing hotels?

By 2001, I got an interior project, to do Morimoto Restaurant in Philadelphia. That was really my segue, or not really a segue because I'm doing both, but that's when I started doing a lot of interior design work. In 2002, someone who saw the restaurant, [the gallerist and curator] Jeffrey Deitch, contacted me and loved Morimoto and told me a friend of his was building a hotel in Athens, Greece, the Semiramis. So we met and we chatted and talked about doing a hotel, and I went off to Athens to look at a site, and I got my first hotel project, so it all happened serendipitously.

How does your product design background inform your hotel design process?
It was interesting for me because number one, I spent a lot of time traveling—I've worked in 42 countries—so I've spent an amazing amount of time in hotels. So it was really nice to, with all the critique i've had over the years and all the places I've been, to formulate a better hotel, not for me personally, but for the people who stay there. A lot of time when I'm designing hotels I think extensively about the human experience, what one goes through in the period of 48 hours or 72 hours in a hotel. I think you almost answered the question when you asked it, because I'm such an industrial designer firstly, I work in such a human scale, in a really hands on scale, and I really think about everything one touches and interfaces and how we can have an easier and more seamless and more experiential life. So as I started rolling out space, I thought more about human scale than I did architectural space.

In that first hotel project you designed everything, right? From the interiors all the way to the uniforms.
Exactly, because I had already done cutlery and flatware and other things for companies, so some of that stuff I brought in, some I did especially for the restaurant. It was all micro-to-macro, it was everything. All the brand identity and the uniforms, and I even got so fanatic about it and ambitious that I wanted to make the carts for the cleaning attendants, to go down the hallways, because I always thought those things weren't really designed very well. So I designed the uniforms so they could carry everything that they needed when they go into a room. It was fun. Since then it has allowed me to do exactly that, I do the entire sensibility—or let's say, a holistic project.

When you start with a project, conceptually, do you begin with a larger theme or do you focus on specific objects and work upwards?
Its the additive versus the subtractive. There's a theory they say about making the world's fastest car. You build the lightest frame possible and then you drive it and it falls apart and you add to it. Or the other way around, you build it the way you would think it would move the best and then take parts off it and see if it continues to perform. For me, I have to say, it is both simultaneously. I'm doing a hotel in Tel Aviv right now and my first thought is what does Tel Aviv have to offer? How can one have an atypical experience in a hotel in Tel Aviv? And if I'm there, what am I there for, what's my intention, what kind of human experience am I going to have, how does the history of the place play out? How does the street that I'm facing and the views and vistas play out? I think I have become very sensitive to the place. In industrial design, I make a chair that sells two million or a water bottle that sells 20 million—you're effecting globally, you want everyone to have the same experience. But when you're doing an interior, hopefully, if you're doing something original, you can give somebody a unique experience.

Is the fact that the guests' experiences are temporary influence you at all?
Yes, of course. A good example of that is, well, a lot of hotels have a lot of drawers and cupboards and you realize that that's not necessary whatsoever. As long as you're providing a place to put their luggage and their clothes, you don't need the rest of the stuff. A lot of times hotels are modeled after this notion of "home," trying to replicate what exists at home. Recently, I was in a hotel in Toronto and there's this credenza sitting in front of me, a huge, long credenza with the television sitting on it. It's all drawers; it's obviously a very expensive piece of furniture; it's kind of absurd. If you think about this notion of a momentary existence in a space—and in a space it's a little peculiar, because it's public and yet when the guest is there its private, just for that certain amount of time—you can really rethink how that space should manifest itself based on the guest experience. For example, right now, the rooms are so small that I'm making the beds super multifunctional, basically I'm thinking about the experience from lying in the bed, so that you can work, watch television, listen to music, read the newspaper, eat, everything on the bed, more or less. When I'm in hotel rooms, I tend to find myself doing that anyway, living on the bed. Even when I get home now, from traveling, I find myself gravitating always toward the bedroom first. That's what's interesting about hotels, you're kind of living around this bed, and the bed becomes the focal point and center of the room. That's a very different way of thinking about space in a hotel versus domestic living.

In looking at your hotel portfolio, there does seem to be an emphasis on small rooms and not so many suites. Is there a reason you're drawn to that? Is it for the efficiency or is it something that the client demands?
It's the greatest challenge. Every time we design a hotel, the first thing I do is think about the smallest room in the hotel, because you know that if you can get the smallest room right, then as they get bigger they get easy. But also, I'm working on a line of budget hotels in Germany, called the Prizeotel, which is €59 when you go to stay there, no matter when you stay there, whether you book online a month in advance or you walk in the door. It's one price, all the rooms are identical, and it is super high design. It feels like, when you're in the rooms, that you're in a four or five star hotel. The rooms are quite small, though, so I have to be super clever, and performance and function drive a lot of it. How do I get the bathroom and shower the right dimension? What materials would make the space feel bigger or more casual or more comfortable? When you're in a small room, I make sure all the corners are soft, so you never really bump into the foot of the bed or the coffee table. I don't put anything in there that is going to become an obstacle. Hotel rooms are full of that, just a bunch of obstacles. They put the stuff in there to give you the sense of, I don't know, familiarity maybe, or "home." So you have to be really critical and reductive when it comes to this notion of a small room. And then at the same time, you can't be so reductive that it becomes like a prison cell, right? So now it has to have some character and beauty.

What are some of your favorite techniques to achieve a minimalist character?
You know, I don't really think that way. I don't really constantly repeat myself, because I think that's my challenge: how to stay creative and push myself. But I will say one thing: this idea of thinking about the room with the least amount of physical obstacles, where the room becomes as transparent as possible, is going to make [the guest] feel better. Many materials can do that. Using blinds instead of curtains, and also using some more high performance materials. My budgets are so tight, to build the hotel, that I'm looking for materials that I can do fantastic new things with, that haven't really been used in this context. We always tend to revert back to old archetypes, we always sort of end up repeating history. "Oh, hotel room, I'll make a wood floor?" Well wood floors are incredibly expensive, they scratch like anything, over time in public spaces they're totally the wrong material. Okay, so what else could I use? In one of the hotels I'm working on now, in the bathrooms, we're doing the whole floor in rubber. And rubber has existed for ages in commercial applications and gymnasiums, so why don't we just make the floors rubber? It's a soft experience; it's cheaper than putting down tile; it's more technological. So I try to build this relationship between new materials and the human experience and end up with something a bit more original.

Is it easy to be original when you have a hotelier as a client or do they have their own, conflicting priorities?
Almost all the hotels that I've done, with the exception of the Nhow hotel in Berlin—which is part of the NH chain—all the rest were small entrepreneurs. All of them have a personal taste, let's say, and I hate that word, "taste," it's flippant. One minute you have a certain taste and the next thing you know media convinced you to have a different taste. Sometimes I've had a client say, "I wouldn't stay in that room." And I'd say, "Of course you wouldn't. It's not for you. This is a room for a whole different market. You're a rich guy, this is an inexpensive hotel, etcetera." You can't get so personal about it. I'm doing a hotel in Moscow and the client said to me, "this isn't really Russian taste," but the hotel isn't really for Russians. Seventy percent of the people who are going to stay in this hotel are foreigners. Then they thought about it for a moment. In order to do really great hotels, one has to be objective, for one, but two, this is what the design hotel has done for the world. It is trying to give people experiences that they wouldn't have otherwise or they wouldn't have at home. That's is very different from 40 years ago when Holiday Inn was promoting "home away from home." I remember being in Morocco 20 years ago and staying at the Hilton and I could be anywhere. I'm not in Morocco and I'm in the same sort of banal interior. There was a breakthrough in the 1980s of the boutique hotel, thanks to [Ian] Schrager and the Starck relationship, etcetera, that hotels can be unique landmarks in themselves, something that's sought after, something you can go to and not have the generic hotel experience.

For your projects is that uniqueness derived from the location? Or is it really about the vision that you have for that particular hotel?
I think its really about the vision. The location is, really, once you step out the door. It's the vision that one has, as a creative person, to be unique in a certain place. And be unique, but at the same time, not be kitschy. Or unique, but not so literal. There's all kinds of ways to be unique, but its not necessarily relevant. We live in a very very contemporary world. We're spending seven hours a day in virtual space and we go back and forth from the virtual to the physical world, so it seems to me that the physical world needs to be as interesting—as seductive, as provocative—as the digital. It's almost like the physical world needs to compete with that virtual world. In the hotel, I want that energy, that same sort of connectivity that I have in the virtual.

Do you bring actual new technologies into your designs or is it more of an inspiration?
We bring a lot of technology. At the Semiramis, the elevator automatically goes to your floor, because its reading the card that is in your pocket. That was a new technology in 2004, we ended up getting a software company to work on that. Then you get to your hallway and a string of LED lights leads you to your door. In the floor we had scrolling LEDs that you could program from inside your room to send different messages. It could say "do not disturb" or, you know, "clean room," or anything you wanted. I would walk down the hallway and see people writing "hey, I'm alone, stop by." That was kind of fun and an opportunity to bring a lot of new technology at once. Today, another hotel I'm doing has a physical souvenir that functions as your room key. The door automatically opens because it reads the chip in your pocket. It's not even like you have to wave a card or put the card in the slot. These technologies are moving very quickly and I like the idea that you can go and have this new interesting technological experience in a hotel, even when you get home and find you still have physical keys. It's almost like the hotels can show a way to live in the future or the way that everybody could live.

Are you concerned with any of this technology becoming obsolete?
It all eventually becomes obsolete, but it will get replaced by something else. The reality is you just change it. So there's an issue with the door after seven years, you change your locks, it is not a big deal. I mean it's minor really at the end of the day. That's just the world we live in now. Technology becomes obsolete at some point and its always getting better and better and better. But that doesn't really effect the overall experience that you're designing.

So you're not really worried that someone else could be coming in and replacing that piece with something of their own design?
Not really. I've never really felt that way, never worried about it. Honestly, the way I design, I design for the moment in time in which we live, and, for me, life is very momentary. If you design a mobile phone, you spend two years with the company working on it, it is only on the market for six months or so and its replaced. So you're spend an amazing amount of time working on a phone, you'd be better off spending two years working on a chair, which would be around for 50 years, if you're worried about that kind of thing. I think, frankly, times are changing so quickly that there's nothing permanent anymore. I was reading that interiors are more or less changed and gutted something like every seven or eight years. It used to be 30 years. You'd build a hotel or something and, like Morris Lapidus in Miami, that interior would stay in there for years. Now it's much more of a disposable world we live in.

With that in mind, is there anything in your past hotel projects you would go back and change? Now that you have the luxury of hindsight.
Subconsciously, I'm probably changing it with every new project that I work on.

So it's more of an evolution?
Yes. I go and stay in some of the hotels I've designed and I see what's not working. I put that knowledge into the next project. It is really fascinating to design hotels, there's really something amazing about it. You can do things in hotels that can be very experiential and things that are much more radical than domestic interiors. You have less of a permanency there; you're giving someone a two-day experience.

· Karim Rashid [official site]
· Semiramis hotel [official site]
· Prizeotel [official site]
· Nhow Hotel Berlin [official site]
· All Hotels Week 2013 coverage [Curbed National]