Defining Details

Design director of Wilson & Associates, Leonard Lee, talks to CID about designing the Kempinski Hotel; working in Dubai from his base in Singapore and his predictions on the future trends in hospitality design.

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By  Charlotte Butterfield Published  June 1, 2006

|~|Q&A-bodypic.gif|~||~|Design director of Wilson & Associates, Leonard Lee, talks to CID about designing the Kempinski Hotel; working in Dubai from his base in Singapore and his predictions on the future trends in hospitality design.

CID: What led you down the path of commercial interior design?

Commercial design, particularly hospitality design allows me to be more creative as each owner/operator has different ideas, concepts and challenges. The space continually evolves according to the people who use it, from hotel guests to the bell-boy to the general manager. Technical knowledge of how a hotel is run is of the utmost importance.

CID: Can you give us a brief career history?

I started out designing restaurants and retail outlets with a local architectural firm here in Singapore, DP Architects. I joined Wilsons back in 2000 as a senior designer and have now been with it for over six years. I am presently a design director with the company and currently handling about six hotel projects in Dubai, China, Korea and Taipei. I am responsible for the overall design concept and development, documentation and implementation of the interior architectural design of each project.

CID: What are your most recent completed projects and what concepts did you go for in each?

With the Kempinski, Dubai, we went for a sleek and modern contemporary design with an interplay of textures. The Sheraton Hainan; Shangri-la Hotel, Zhongshan and Westin Hotel, Guangzhou are all contemporary Chinese, while the Conrad Hotel, Bangkok is an example of modern contemporary Thai.

||**|||~|q&abody.gif|~||~|CID: How has your style evolved and can you say you have a trademark style?

It is hard to adhere to a certain style when it comes to designing hotels. Different hotel operators have their own perceptions of how they foresee the end product to be, so you need to be adaptable. However, I do lean towards a modern contemporary approach to design. This allows me to pay attention to minute details and how junctions of finishes should be detailed so they terminate smoothly. As the saying goes, ‘God is in the details’. That’s something I strictly adhere to. It’s funny that you ask about a trademark style. I never realised I had one until a colleague of mine passed a remark when he viewed a visual I had done for a presentation, not knowing who the designer was, his comment was ‘that’s very Leonard’. I tend to carry finishes and elements from the floor up the wall and ceiling, sometimes forming ledges or counters. That ‘style’ is very apparent in the Kempinski.

CID: How does Dubai measure up in the design stakes alongside countries that have had a long tradition in designing and building commercial spaces?

I love working in Dubai! Although Dubai has joined the construction frenzy very much later and is a rather ‘young’ city, its people have unlimited imagination and demand that from their designers. It is very different in China where they are much more conservative in their approach to design.
I actually feel that in Dubai, the structure and management of the projects are more organised than some of the countries in Asia. Not all projects in Asia have a management team to liaise and coordinate with the different consultants and the client. This is very useful especially for fast-paced projects.

CID: Where do you get your inspiration from for each individual project and how do you keep your ideas fresh and innovative?

To keep my ideas fresh, I ensure that I keep myself abreast of what the competition is producing in the various markets. This is very important in hospitality design where trends tend to change very quickly. The primary driving force that starts the process is the client’s requirements. Next comes the location factor.
One has to be sensitive and not design totally out of context. There must be certain elements, be it architectural or soft furnishings that relate to its culture and give the design its identity. I would in most cases undertake extensive research on the country and culture with which the hotel is located in.

||**|||~|q&abody2.gif|~||~|CID: Where do you source your raw materials from - is the UAE a good source of products - what could it do better?

Most of the materials are sourced from Europe and Asia although there is a fair bit of stone that is available from Iran and Egypt. It is more a matter of natural resources that are available in that particular country. Asia for example is blessed with a tropical climate, which is perfect for certain types of timber like teak and rosewood whereas the South American walnuts are also quite spectacular. China and Europe, especially Spain and Italy, have exceptional mountains to quarry stone from.

CID: What are the current trends for commercial interior design and how does this differ to 5 -10 years ago?

I see hotel design becoming more innovative in its interaction with the end user. Hotels want to have that certain ‘wow’ factor in the lobby, be it a large water feature, interactive art or expensive glowing chandeliers. I’d like to introduce here what I call interacting with the five senses. For example, you hear the soft trickling of water, you see the shadows cast on textured surfaces, you touch these textures on walls and you smell the aromas of food.
I am also seeing less walls or ‘barriers’ in guestrooms. No longer is the bathroom confined to four walls but it is now part of the ‘furniture’ in the room. This is great as it visually enlarges the room and allows for more interaction between spaces and not to mention people staying together. That is why you see many big players in the sanitaryware market engaging designers like Marc Newson, Phillip Starck and Antonio Citterio to design sinks, bathtubs etc.

CID: What do you predict for the future of commercial interior design? What trends can you foresee emerging in the next ten years?

People these days are very well travelled and can now afford to stay in luxurious accommodations. I think in the quest to woo customers, hotels will explore different avenues from which they can provide that different experience. Spas are becoming a huge marketing component in guestrooms. We are seeing that already, most notably the Hyatt chain. You may even be able to watch a movie on your glass partition that separates your bathroom from your bedroom!

||**|||~|q&abody3.gif|~||~|CID: What is your favourite project that you have worked on? - And the most challenging?

The Kempinski in Dubai. This project was unique as it offers three different types of guestroom experience. The client was also very open-minded and educated with bold concepts. It was very challenging and difficult as we came on the project very late. The building was already up and the various mechanical and electrical services in. This meant that I was restricted in terms of what I could achieve. In a period of less than nine months, I had to redesign the rooms, lobby and restaurants and then present them for approval. Then only could the team churn out all the necessary construction drawings. For a hotel of this size, it would typically take about a year to perform all this.

CID: And finally, if you could have worked on the design of any project worldwide what would it have been?

Without a doubt, the Hotel Puerta America in Madrid. The building was designed by Jean Nouvel and each of the 13 individual floors were designed by the who’s who in architecture and design. Zaha Hadid, Marc Newson, Richard Gluckman, Ron Arad, Sir Norman Foster etc. ||**||

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