Leader Board

Meet three influencers who have masterminded new design directions for everything from wish-list hostels to bucket-list five-stars.

Designers are more than artists—they’re also managers, collaborators, branding whizzes and diplomats. With impeccable style, of course. The industry powerhouses profiled here let you in on the strategies that enable them to write their own stylebooks, and how they keep the business side of their practices on the same innovative course.

Matthew Davis, founding principal, DesignAgency

Matthew Davis

Matthew Davis. Photo: Courtesy of DesignAgency

Hostel environments don’t scare Matthew Davis. DesignAgency's sector-defining work on the Generator flag, spanning locations across Europe and with a Miami outpost in the works, brought an iconoclastic but grown-up take on “cheap and cheerful” budget stays that magnetize guests as much for their strong design narratives and quirky one-off pieces as for their price point.

It’s not a surprise, then, that Davis readily offers a roadmap for developing brand DNA and keeping it vital across multiple locales. “It’s a balance of three factors,” he says. “First, continuity: the foundation and core elements and experiences that define the brand essence; second, responsiveness: allowing for elements and experiences to change, staying current and allowing part of the hotel/hostel to be in this state of flux; and third, disruptiveness: looking outside of a segment or even industry provides a form of intangible insight that often allows us to model what is coming next.”

So far, so good. But, it’s all too easy for firms to get typecast by their own success, especially in the context of a co-created brand. So, Davis and his team developed a check-and-balance work process to keep fresh perspectives flowing on each new project (recent ones have included a steakhouse and a restaurant in a high-end department store). They are also broadening their geographic horizons with the opening of a Los Angeles office.

“Our first step is to listen, research and learn,” he says. “We will often internally map out scenarios and test concepts within and between our studios. Next, we’ll collaborate with the owners and their teams to further vet the experiences. Our designs flow from program blocking into more refined detail as we move through the testing and feedback phases. We use all methods of design expression internally, though we often find that clients respond best to different mediums at different times throughout the process. Sketches early on will become more refined, realistic renderings as we progress deeper into the design process.”

It’s a great approach for idea generation for today’s designers—and, yes, the play on words is intended.

D.B. Kim, designer

A stunning design without an equally compelling (and trouble-free) execution is beauty without brains. No, there aren’t too many awards dished out for “best client meeting” or “best research” but those things are as key to a great project as the aesthetic. Clients unwilling to settle for mediocre styling or cost overruns demand that designers be just as much artists in the way they lead their teams and deliver on the bottom line as they perform with CAD tools. Just ask D.B. Kim, whose international career spans work for hotel giants like then-Starwood Hotels & Resorts (now part of Marriott Intl.) and Dalian Wanda Group, as well as interior design firms Daroff Design and Pierre-Yves Rochon.

“I tend to consider return on investment for the client rather than simply being a radical creator,” he says. “I don’t label my concepts as ‘out-there’ ideas—when I present to a client, I consider all objectives before preparing concepts and do my best to offer distinct solutions for each case. I approach each project with simple elements in layers, then provide options.”

That doesn’t mean he’s at all risk averse. “I want to be taken as a creative collaborator, not a sycophant,” he says. Pulling from a vision board that goes beyond the purely visual and conceptual gives him the flexibility to wow within clients’ needs.


“Being a fan of the creative and performing arts gives me the toolkit to create experiences in my interiors. There is a symbiotic relationship between materials and our concepts. I don’t conceptualize the space from materials, but I appreciate that the materials help us to create our designs,” he says. At a recent Shanghai skybar project, the client wanted to monetize the location, so Kim and his team channeled that quick thinking into swapping an initial suggestion that called for devoting more space to tableside service for one that drew attention to the views. “I had thought that maximizing service would be a strong revenue generator, but the client felt that we were better off minimizing the amount of bar surfacing and using the Pudong skyline as a draw,” says Kim.

Whether it’s a lightning-fast rethink or an unforgettable stroke of genius that’s called for, designers need to lead by example. “I will burn the midnight oil with my team whenever needed, even if it means going straight to the site from a late flight once in a while,” says Kim. “I take risks by pushing the limits on everyone by posing out-of-the-box design questions to the team. I take risks by challenging the status quo without knowing how things will be executed technically.”

And, he adds, it’s key (both to the client and the team) to be willing to get your hands dirty first. Kim values precise scheduling and encourages designers to print out a meeting agenda—he’ll be there five minutes early himself. He’s also the first one to turn up the pressure to over-deliver on the idea side—again on himself and his own work. Yes, today’s influencers are superstars, but it’s never been more important to play in an ensemble cast when needed.

Lauren Rottet, president and founding principal, Rottet Studio

You’re not going to recognize a Rottet Studio project from a mile away. You also can’t miss the impact that Lauren Rottet’s work has had on the industry, from projects like the Surrey Hotel in New York to an upcoming hotel in San Francisco (which Rottet Studio is working on alongside world-renowned architect Renzo Piano).

That’s exactly how the former architect wants it. “I always say if you start to recognize what you are designing then you are not designing,” she says.

The same attitude is also why her visual signature works as a subtle trademark for sharp-eyed guests and clients, not a banner ad. “If you look closely, you will see that all of my interiors possess a rhythm of calm and crescendo to the points of visual interest and they all possess hidden sources of light that animate the space,” she says.

What does go into the Rottet signature design cocktail, whether it’s an aesthetic blend for a motel or a cruise ship? Not just putting in her time on site visits and doing all the extras—staying around the site to experience the location’s vibe and attraction, though she points out that that is still key to delivering authentic experiences. It’s cutting out the clutter, visually and in client meetings.

“Andreé Putman told me a beautiful story about her favorite time in her life, when she had been away from Paris, moved back, and had a small apartment full of everything her parents and everyone had given her. One day she took it all out and had only her bed,” says Rottet. “That approach inspired me as well. I’m a minimalist at heart, even though I like historic architecture, art and well-edited decoration.”

She applies that same curation to the practical aspects of design. “Deciding where best to allocate funds for the interior design versus art selection is a fun process. Sometimes less is more and the interior design of the space can actually serve as an architectural piece of artwork in which you are completely immersed.”

Designers need to think like their clients, she adds. “It is also important to understand the cost impact of major architectural, structural and infrastructural decisions as they can devour the budget and yet not be visible to the guests,” she says.

Grounded thinking and soaring architectural volumes equal a recipe for design genius. Up next is everything from the aforementioned Piano project to a hotel with Herzog & de Mueron in Washington, D.C.

Being an icon in the design world of 2017 and beyond means throwing over the Instagram version of superstardom. There’s no flashbulb moment. Working smart pays off—and working hard still counts (sorry, no shortcuts allowed here).