Modern Legacies

Three firms celebrating major milestones reflect on the evolution of the hospitality design business and their own practices.

Each year, Boutique Design’s (BD’s) December edition highlights outstanding work in the industry with its coverage of the Gold Key Awards for Excellence in Hospitality Design competition. The recently released issue not only includes profiles of the winners and finalists in 21 categories—as well as the Designer of the Year, Sundukovy Sisters—it recognizes three high-profile firms that celebrated decades-long anniversaries in 2018.  

Adam Tihany, principal and founder, Tihany Design; Roger Hill, chairman/ceo and Andrew Fay, president, The Gettys Group; and Allen Chan, Matt Davis and Anwar Mekhayech, founding partners, DesignAgency, are the masterminds behind some of the world’s most iconic hotel and restaurant work. (Shown above is the latter practice's design of The St. Regis Toronto.) Now the firm founders are looking ahead, expanding into new sectors and experimenting with cutting-edge technology.

The creatives recall how they got their start, their most memorable projects and what changes they’ve seen in the industry in The Buzz section of BD’s December 2018 issue. For more drilldown from these thought-leaders that couldn’t fit the pages, read on.

Tihany Design
40th anniversary

WHAT’S ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS YOU’VE LEARNED DURING YOUR CAREER?

ADAM TIHANY: There have been many invaluable lessons along the way, and I’m happily still learning. The greatest takeaway over the years has been how to listen. This doesn’t always mean accepting what is at face value, either—it’s the ability to understand what is truly being said. Success is never a guarantee, but the start to every successful venture begins with the ability to listen.
 

The Aviary at Mandarin Oriental New York, designed by Tihany Design. Photo: George Apostolidis

The Aviary at Mandarin Oriental New York, designed by Tihany Design. Photo: George Apostolidis

DESCRIBE YOUR HOSPITALITY DESIGN PHILOSOPHY.

TIHANY: I avoid anonymity at all costs. If a project doesn’t have a story behind it from the beginning, I create one. We go to great lengths to develop spaces that are more than just a beautiful place. Whether on a ship or at an intimate hotel bar, hospitality is fundamentally about people, and I create bespoke, living environments that are designed to cater to and inspire every person who enters.

HOSPITALITY EXPECTATIONS ARE EVOLVING AND THERE ARE MORE OPTIONS THAN EVER. WHICH APPROACHES ARE MOST RELEVANT, AND WHAT CONCEPTS WILL HAVE THE MOST STAYING POWER?

TIHANY: We are living in the experiential age. Guests across the board are looking beyond traditional hospitality expectations and toward a more immersive experience. When it comes to design, interior spaces need to be extremely intuitive and carefully crafted to serve the unique guest aspirations. Surprise, delight, and facilitate lasting memories that will keep them coming back for more.

Adam Tihany at The Grill by Thomas Keller onboard Seabourn Quest. Photo: William Hereford

Adam Tihany at The Grill by Thomas Keller onboard Seabourn Quest. Photo: William Hereford

WHAT NEW HURDLES AND OPPORTUNITIES ARE YOU FACING TODAY?

TIHANY: In many ways, the opportunities are the hurdles. With bigger, more complex and interesting projects coming our way, we have to be strategic in selecting niche opportunities that fit the brand and the direction of the firm. I founded Tihany Design as an intimate atelier; the Italian model. We’ll never be a large scale corporate American design firm. One of our most important endeavors has been investing in the next generation of designers. We have an incredibly strong core team of senior designers who are guiding these talented young designers on the principles we’ve upheld for 40 years—collaboration, authentic creativity and attention to detail

Looking ahead, we’re focusing on new sectors—exciting new projects within the cruise industry, specialized luxury condos … the hospitality horizon is shifting, and we have a whole new set of milestones we’d like to celebrate at the next big anniversary.

Separately, I recently launched Tihany Product Design, which is celebrating this winter's release of the translucent, battery-operated Space Lamp, produced by Kartell.

The Gettys Group
30th anniversary

HOW HAVE YOU GONE ABOUT RETAINING TALENT? HOW DO YOU FIND AND KEEP THE RIGHT DESIGNERS ON YOUR TEAM?

ANDREW FAY: The key for us has been always having the right people around the table to assess the current environment and make thoughtful, strategic decisions for our firm. This has allowed us to continue to evolve based on the changing needs of the industry and our clients. We’re committed to hiring great talent with creativity, flexibility and passion. Some say, “People are your greatest asset.” We believe they’re our only asset. From designers to brand strategists, to development specialists and procurement experts, we ensure that our team members are empowered and have lots of opportunity for growth. We’ve hunkered down and made sacrifices, but have emerged each time wiser, leaner and more creative about how to get the job done.

ROGER HILL: The culture of family is a cornerstone to how we retain talented team members. We treat people like they’re part of our family and in turn, they pass that attitude along to our clients. Encouraging growth and supporting our team members’ individual strengths allows them to show not only our clients but themselves the incredible things that are able to achieve.

The Blackstone, Autograph Collection, Chicago, designed by The Gettys Group. Photo: Christopher Villano

The Blackstone, Autograph Collection, Chicago, designed by The Gettys Group. Photo: Christopher Villano

HOW DOES YOUR TEAM HONE ITS SKILLSET?

FAY: Our design, branding, procurement and development teams are dedicated to staying on the cutting edge of their service offerings. We encourage them to be a part of industry associations and attend professional development events in order to stay tuned in to what new and different tools and resources are available. It never ceases to amaze me the innovative and outside-the-box ideas that our team members consistently bring to the table, all with the end goal of creating truly extraordinary, authentic experiences for our clients and their guests.

WHAT’S THE KEY TO THE GETTYS GROUP’S HUMAN-CENTRIC APPROACH?

HILL: Today’s increasingly sophisticated consumers expect and demand great design from every hospitality experience. Hotels are now selling a holistic experience that offers strong emotional connections forged over a number of detailed touchpoints, service rituals and signature moments. These details are the things that make them shine and set them apart from the crowd. Guest retention is much more about experience than price.

FAY: The future of hospitality design and development is all about experiences and really understanding your clients and their customers. Our focus on a guest-centric design approach will continue to lead brands, owners and operators to The Gettys Group because when they work with us, we get the work done better, faster and they have fun from the start of the process to the end.

Roger Hill and Andrew Fay. Photo: Courtesy of The Gettys Group

Roger Hill and Andrew Fay. Photo: Courtesy of The Gettys Group

HOW DO YOUR PERSONALITIES AND MANAGEMENT STYLES COMPLEMENT EACH OTHER?

HILL: Part of our success is due to the fact that Andrew and I have different strengths and personalities. That has worked well from both a leadership perspective and as it relates to strategic decision-making when it comes to the business. However we are different, those differences are complementary, not in opposition.

FAY: We’re opposites in many ways but have great personal and business chemistry. There’s great power in opposites. Roger is a lot more blue sky. I’m a lot more pragmatic. Roger has been a lot more focused on the future while I’ve been dealing with the day-to-day present. Having complementary talents and strengths is essential in building an entrepreneurial business.

We’re very honest and transparent about our strengths, weaknesses and limitations. We communicate openly about everything. It’s much easier for us to do what we do because there’s implicit trust and deep mutual respect. Having each other’s back at all times makes it much easier to sleep at night, in whatever time zone we find ourselves. We committed very early on to keep the lines of communication wide open at all times. We take the time to express our concerns and differences of opinion. Sometimes we agree to disagree, but always present a unified vision to our team.

We’re always available and accountable to one another and no task is beneath us, although I’m terrible with paper jams in the copier. We have never taken ourselves too seriously and have been sure to maintain our sense of humor.  Laughing together at all of the crazy situations and problems we’ve encountered isn’t only cathartic but essential to making life better! Having fun is a critical component for a successful business. “Think Big, Go Bold, Have Fun!” has been our longstanding mantra.

We spend time together and vacation outside of work with our partners, kids and dogs. We have the same commitment to hard work, dedicating the necessary time and effort and understanding that there will be many sacrifices in order to succeed.

Claridge House, Chicago, designed by The Gettys Group. Photo: Nick James Photography

Claridge House, Chicago, designed by The Gettys Group. Photo: Nick James Photography

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON WORK-LIFE BALANCE?

HILL: In order to build a company from the ground up like we have, we’ve all made sacrifices of our personal time and energy. Looking back on the last 30 years, those sacrifices were absolutely necessary to achieve what we’ve accomplished. It has also taught us the importance of finding a good balance. We’re at our happiest when we find harmony between doing our best work and living our best life with the people we love. We strive to create an environment for our team members that allows them to achieve that same balance.

FAY: You can’t do what we’ve done without a team of very dedicated, excited, motivated, passionate people who are thrilled to come to work every day and do what needs to be done. That being said, we do our best to reward that dedication by finding ways to equalize their hard work in the office with their happiness outside of it. We consider our team an extension of our family. It’s those team members and the sense of family that we’ve created throughout our organization that allows people to continue to design beautiful things, solve problems, create value and have fun while they’re doing it.

DesignAgency
20th anniversary

WHAT CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE EARLY ON? WHO WERE SOME OF YOUR EARLY CLIENTS, AND HOW DID YOU GET THEM TO BUY INTO YOUR OFFERING?

ALLEN CHAN: We started working on a lot of nightclubs. That was where we honed our skills and learned to understand and create experiences. We were really living in that scene and were part of it, so we understood what was new and hot and “of the moment”. If you’re there to experience it and observe it, then you can see the successes and failures and start to understand the formula. We still work like that today.

ANWAR MEKHAYECH: The main challenge at the time was focus; we were doing a lot of things all at once and didn’t have a strategy or plan. We just wanted to find cool projects and clients. Most of this was done by networking and promoting our early hospitality projects such as sPaHa and Lobby.
 

The Broadview Hotel, Toronto, designed by DesignAgency. Photo: Worker Bee Supply

The Broadview Hotel, Toronto, designed by DesignAgency. Photo: Worker Bee Supply

HOW DO YOU KEEP YOUR DESIGNERS MOTIVATED AND INSPIRED?

MATT DAVIS: For us, great leadership and communication are key. Our goal is to help create strong leaders in the studio who can inspire our staff to continue to learn, grow, and most importantly, feel proud of the work we’re doing.

MEKHAYECH: We think we have an honest and fun approach to design. Our designers come from all over the world to work with DesignAgency because they’ve seen and loved our work. By creating a culture that fosters innovation and collaboration in a studio atmosphere that has minimal ego and B.S. has helped assemble an amazing team of designers in five cities around the world.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR MOST MEMORABLE PROJECTS?

MEKHAYECH: The Generator projects, particularly Generator Barcelona, was a game changer for us. That location changed the way people perceived both DesignAgency and Generator. More recently, we’ve been excited about the numerous great chef’s and owners we have been working with on restaurants; working with David Chang and his team for the last eight years on all of their Momofuku restaurants has been an amazing partnership and we’re honored to work with him as he grows his company. Last year we helped our friends establish The Restaurant at Pearl Morrissette and were thrilled that they were awarded Canada’s Best New Restaurant by EnRoute/Air Canada, the highest accolade for a restaurant in the country.

Matt Davis, Anwar Mekhayech and Allen Chan. Photo: Saty + Pratha

Matt Davis, Anwar Mekhayech and Allen Chan. Photo: Saty + Pratha

TELL US ABOUT THE LAUNCH OF GENERATOR. HOW DID YOU LAND THE COMMISSION FOR THE LONDON LOCATION? 

MEKHAYECH: The Generator journey started in 2007 when I met Josh [Wyatt] in NYC—he had just started the concept and invited DesignAgency to join him and be the creative vision behind the brand. Generator was the first and most ambitious “urban design-led hostel” platform with scale in Europe and the U.S. We started by developing the brand concept and went on to complete all of the location’s interior, as well as spearhead brand growth and creative strategy, eventually helping Patron Capital sell the company in 2017.

Generator Barcelona, designed by DesignAgency. Photo: Nikolas Koenig

Generator Barcelona, designed by DesignAgency. Photo: Nikolas Koenig

WHAT’S NEXT?

MEKHAYECH: After 20 years, continuing to work with amazing designers and collaborators remains paramount to us. Our biggest goal is to work with people we like and believe in and that understand and respect the design process. We have more competitors now but we also have much more experience, bandwidth and outreach, and people who want to work with us. The challenge is finding that sweet spot that brings together the best clients with passionate design teams and creating incredible results. So far so good.

DAVIS: The landscape of business is changing so rapidly—clients are changing and expectations are changing. So as we grow, we are rethinking things all the time to make sure that our clients and our team shares our passion, curiosity and drive.

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