Design Diary: UNICO 20°87°
A first-hand look at how the brand’s debut hotel in the Riviera Maya redefines the look and feel of all-inclusive luxury.
Luxury isn’t what it used to be. Just ask AvroKO. Early this spring, the New York design and concept firm—led by partners/principals William Harris, Greg Bradshaw, Kristina O’Neal and Adam Farmerie—took the wraps off its first-ever, all-inclusive project: UNICO 20°87° Hotel Riviera Maya. When it comes to wowing today’s high-end travelers, the 448-key property shows how careful curation is increasingly crucial to crafting a relevant visual narrative.
About a month after the hotel’s opening, Miami-based AIC Hotel Group (the sales/marketing arm of owner-operator RCD Hotels) invited BD and 15 other journalists to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for the first press look at the UNICO Hotels’ debut property. As someone who spends a lot of time curating project and product photography based on what will pop on paper, I found the visit to be a refreshing reminder of how a tonal, minimalist palette can deliver maximal visual impact with the right materials.
The suite where I stayed at UNICO 20°87° Hotel Riviera Maya. All photos: Taken by Christina Green with an iPhone 7 Plus for Boutique Design
“We had worked on hotels that are close to the same scope, but are more vertically oriented and in urban environments,” said Bradshaw in a follow-up email Q+A. “However, this was our first project of this scale in a resort context.”
The designers’ goal was to strike a balance between refined and casual, setting the tone for a high-end beach hotel that would appeal to a sophisticated clientele who typically goes for a non-inclusive luxury offering. But achieving that interplay on a sprawling scale took more than artful eye; it required intensive, on-the-ground research.
“We visited a number of comparable resorts in the area that were not all inclusive, like Rosewood Mayakoba and NIZUC Resort & Spa,” recalled O’Neal. “We also knew that this would be an adults-only property, and that the restaurant concepts and the hotel’s architecture [by Mexican firm ARTIGAS Arquitectos] had already established. But beyond that, the client was really looking to us to provide the look and feel for the entirety of the project.”
The all-day dining venue, Restaurant 20.87, at UNICO 20°87° Hotel Riviera Maya.
While buzz words like authentic, handcrafted and eco-friendly made their way to the forefront of the creative brief, the contemporary result was not what I would have expected from a stereotypical Latin American beach retreat. (No plastering the palette in vibrant Mexican patterns or mosaics here.) The regional factor was micro-local. Everything felt indigenous to the site, which is near a Mayan village.
“Our typical approach to any project is to utilize the materials and skills of the location in which we are working,” said Farmerie. “We also gravitate towards finishes that are more natural. So designing for sustainability was not a difficult task for us.”
The design team worked with local fabricators to incorporate native materials and then played up their natural qualities. That meant spending a lot of time teaming with area artisans and agents on wood finishes and material sourcing. “We also found that slabs of local stone were sometimes cheaper than tiled surfaces in this process,” added Farmerie. “As a result, we ended up with a higher quality feel at a lower budget.”
But collaborating presented its own challenges. Farmerie said that in terms of the materials, most of the hurdles came from fabricating the metal finishes. “We certainly learned a lot about how to better design to the skills of the local artisans there,” he added.
Even finding those local craftsmen took insider help. “We were fortunate to have both a contractor with many local connections already in place, as well as a client that had completed multiple projects in the area,” said Harris. “Therefore, we had some built-in vendors to work with.”
Beyond that, the designers took a number of trips to Mexico City, Guadalajara and Xuohaca to find local crafts and materials for the project, including a collection of ancient Mexican sabers and armor that decorate the resort’s lobby lounge, whose concept takes cues from a mythical patriarch’s library.
Design details within the lobby lounge at UNICO 20°87° Hotel Riviera Maya.
Overall, the biggest challenge was tuning the designers’ vision to the local construction processes. “We had to adapt to the techniques of the region, while pushing for certain details we felt were important,” Farmerie said. “The most rewarding aspect, however, is always seeing everything come to life, when the individual operators start to buy into and take ownership of the various stories and narratives that informed the design, and imbue these concepts into the food, bar displays, the music and the service.”
Speaking of F&B, the firm also designed all of the hotel’s five restaurants and six bars. “With each space, we tried to find a unique quality while maintaining a level of tonal and material consistency throughout,” said Bradshaw. Each restaurant takes its inspiration from an industry or landscape in Mexico. For example, the Japanese restaurant celebrates the cultivation of indigenous agave plant, sisal; the Mexican restaurant pays tribute to mescal and tequila production and distilleries; and the beach bar nods to exploration, mapping and the area’s ruins.
Cueva Siete restaurant at UNICO 20°87° Hotel Riviera Maya.
To me, it’s these dining and nightlife concepts that really inject energy into an otherwise relaxed—almost ethereal—atmosphere. For instance, the mid-century-, Cuban-inspired bar has a classic Rat Pack feel, decked out with plush fabrics, seashell motif wallcoverings, strings of beads, dynamic mood lighting and a lot of color in contrast with the property’s other spaces.
Helping solidify that vibe, AvroKO’s Brand Bureau division collaborated with the hotel’s ownership in creating the naming and graphics for each restaurant and the food and drink offerings, as well as the development of the property’s website. “They were able to bring a lot of operational know-how to the project to help follow through on the interior design with unique plate ware, glass ware, uniforms, etc., which really helped to create a sense of consistency in each space,” noted O’Neal.
For more on my visit to UNICO 20°87° Hotel Riviera Maya, check out The Buzz section in Boutique Design’s July/August edition.
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