If you took the time to submit any of the more than 400 entries to the 38th annual Gold Key Awards for Excellence in Hospitality Design, you’re probably already skimming down to the link revealing this year’s finalists. Fair enough. Every one of the projects considered in the 2018 competition is a piece of some design firm’s collective soul. Behind each beautiful space, each Instagram moment, there’s a backstory about the all-nighters trying to make the deadline, the missed meals/events with family and friends while looking at the materials library one more time to find that perfect fixture and the what-do-we-do-now crises when a plaster wall crumbles or a snag in permit approvals puts a project on hold—sometimes for years. With the bar for hospitality design set as high as it is currently, should every firm that entered assume it had a chance to be a contender? Frankly, yes.
That’s not just Zen talk. I’ve got the metrics to back that up. This year, we instituted a preliminary review to curate the field of submissions down to a shortlist that would be reviewed and voted on during the in-person judging held in New York at the end of August. The prestigious 12-member judging panel didn’t find much to cut. Obviously, some projects ticked all the boxes for excellence in the overall concept, execution, innovation and wow factor. But very few failed to provide elements that were thought-provoking and worth that, “Can we see that again?” comment from the judges. (For this competition, judges who had any interest in a project had to recuse themselves from the room during the discussions. And, all submissions are anonymous.)
Okay, it takes a long time to have a serious discussion about projects in 21 categories as well as selecting the Designer of the Year. But, this year, the conversation about how hospitality design is changing and how these projects are driving that change ran from the late morning well into the evening. The best part? No one was ready to stop. The ideas presented in the entries provided the theme of the judges’ dinner conversation at The Grill at the Seagram Building, a very special evening co-sponsored by Gold Key title sponsors Valley Forge Fabrics and RH Contract, and co-hosted by Neil Locke & Associates—and in emails to each other in the days that followed.
So, what were the takeaways? As you’ll see in the finalists’ list, a few names show up with several nods, but, for the most part, 2018 was not a year when one approach or one project just dominated. While it’s no surprise to see a range of concepts and styles, what’s different now is that form and function have never been more closely intertwined. Judges’ complaints about difficult circulation patterns, problems with proportion and scale and a failure to “pull through” a narrative into the overall space as well as the details were key factors in deciding who made the cut.
Another major misstep: anything that looked like get-‘er-done sourcing. As the judges pointed out repeatedly, with all of the innovative hospitality FF&E on the market, every element the designer specifies should tell some aspect of the conceptual story. No showstopping feature counterbalanced boring basics. “Didn’t we see that same sofa two entries ago?” or “The carpet looks too corporate and the furniture looks ordinary” kind of comments equated to “next”—regardless of the category or budget.
What they did like: (No surprise) original thinking. That’s a concept that’s taking on new meaning. As in fashion, hospitality design has certain trends. How hotels look can be a response to everything from the economy to how safe/adventurous society is feeling at the moment. Maybe it’s time we accept that there are going to be some fundamental solutions—laid back lifestyle lobbies; public space libraries; guestrooms with shelving units instead of pegs or armoires. The lesson this year’s Gold Key judging taught was that the designers who add ideas that make their expression of those trends fresh really are saying something new. With the emphasis on experience and continuity, overall, there’s less ascetic minimalism and a lot more layering. This year’s judges, like a lot of travelers of all psycho- and demographics, are just done with the dorm room. But, they’re just as “past” anything that smacks of being over the top. Real-life lifestyle looks can be not only appealing but inventive.
Take a look at the projects our judges voted as the game-changing finalists for this year. Our thanks to all of the visionaries who shared their passion for design and served as this year’s Gold Key judges:
Gary Dollens, global head design/product and brand development, Hyatt Hotels Corp.
Nigel Hatcher, vice president, design & project management, luxury brands, Marriott Intl.
Lori Horvath, managing director, project & development services, Jones Lang LaSalle
Daniel Hyde, president, Artist Guild Hotels
Matoula Karagiannis, vice president, design, Sydell Group
Michael Kitchen, vice president of acquisitions & development, Aparium Hotel Group
David McCaslin, executive vice president, Hersha Hospitality Management
Michael Medzigian, chairman and managing partner, Watermark Capital Partners, LLC
Jagruti Panwala, president and ceo, Wealth Protection Strategies; vice chairwoman, AAHOA, 2018-2019
Thomas Prins, principal, TQP Capital Partners, LLC
Shirli Sensenbrenner, senior vice president, design + development services, Two Roads Hospitality
Larry Traxler, senior vice president – global design, Hilton
The winners will be announced at the Nov. 12 Gold Key gala that caps off Boutique Design New York, our ninth annual trade fair and conference being held at the Javits Center in New York Nov. 11-12. Join us as the industry honors the best in the business.