Band of Brothers
The co-founders of INC Architecture & Design—2017’s Gold Key Designer of the Year—detail how their distinct but complementary strengths create memorable hospitality destinations.
INC’s designs are born out of intense collaborations among co-founders Adam Rolston, Gabe Benroth and Drew Stuart. Rolston is the big-picture guy, working to make sure that the sum of a project is greater than its parts; Benroth seeks to leverage the power of technology in the studio to build a better world outside it; and for Stuart, the DNA is in the details that translate a good idea into great design.
INC Architecture & Design. Photo: Krisztian Eder
That modus operandi has resulted in numerous noteworthy projects by the 11-year-old firm in a variety of sectors, including hotels, restaurants, fitness centers, galleries, retail spaces and private residences. Its recent work on the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, created in conjunction with Marvel Architects, won two 2017 Gold Key Awards for Excellence in Hospitality Design: Best Eco-Conscious or Socially Conscious Hotel and Best Guest Room Luxury. (Coverage of that project and all other Gold Key winners begins on page 20 of Boutique Design’s December 2017 digital and print editions.)
The Sutton, New York. Photo: Annie Schlechter
In addition, New York-based INC has been named Designer of the Year by the Gold Key competition’s esteemed judging panel. Read on for a deep dive into how the firm’s self-described “Unholy Trinity” of co-founders have used their unique work style to create innovative environments for Starwood Capital’s Barry Sternlicht and Equinox Holdings’ Harvey Spevak, among others.
How did the three of you meet, and what led to your forming INC?
Rolston: We all met in another New York studio, Tsao & McKown Architects. I was in charge of that firm’s internship program and hired Gabe and Drew as interns there. Drew then took over and hired two interns who subsequently became senior associates at our new firm. So, we’ve all been working together off and on for 17 years.
Benroth: We gravitated to each other in the previous studio because we had complementary skills and talents, and we did some of our best work in that studio as a team. So, we decided to do that full-time by striking out on our own.
121 E. 22nd ST., New York. Photo: Annie Schlechter
What’s the significance of INC’s name?
Stuart: There are two meanings here. One is about the integration of the design disciplines. We don’t see a separation of architecture and interior design—they’re one incorporated discipline. The INC acronym is also a Latin reference to the three partners’ discrete and complementary talents: Iucunditas, for joy; Nessecarius, for utility; and Creo, for craft. Adam is the cheerleader, or joy; Gabe is the technologist, or utility; and I am the craftsman, or craft.
What’s the origin of the “Unholy Trinity” label you use for yourselves, and how are those roles/relationships reflected in the way you work together?
Rolston: At this point, we’re like a family. We love each other like brothers, so it goes without saying that we fight like cats and dogs as well as make beautiful things together. The label itself started with an eye roll and a snarky comment along the lines of, “We are like the Holy Trinity,” followed up by, “No, more like the Unholy Trinity.” And that stuck.
1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge. Photo: Eric Laignel
How did INC land its first commission —and what was it?
Stuart: A fishing trip in the Long Island Sound cemented a friendship with developer Scott Milsom that led to our first commissions, which were conversions of two multifamily complexes into high-end residential projects in New York’s Battery Park and the Upper West Side, respectively.
When and why did you decide to break into the hospitality sector?
Rolston: While INC’s first commissions weren’t in hospitality, we had deep experience in that sector from our work at Tsao & McKown. Nevertheless, our high-end residential development connections led to an invitation in 2008 to compete to design for what would have been the first 1 Hotel in Manhattan for Sternlicht. Although that commission became a casualty of the Great Recession, we went on to work with him on multiple projects prior to the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge.
Equinox Dumbo, New York. Photo: Eric Laignel
What is the size of INC today, and what different kinds of skill sets does its staff bring to the table? How many projects has the firm done?
Stuart: We are 25 architects, interior designers, decorators, product designers, graphic designers, coders and makers, all with a shared interest in the built environment. We’re at 160 projects so far.
What’s on the firm’s boards as we head into 2018?
Rolston: Three highlights in New York are a Momofuku Noodle Bar at Time Warner Center, portions of the TWA Hotel at JFK Intl. Airport and a Six Senses Spa.
1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge. Photo: Eric Laignel
How wouId you describe the firm’s ethos/culture, and how is that reflected in its work?
Rolston: Us is more. We create collectively. We are an open-source studio where all ideas are created equal and everyone contributes. This fosters a collaboratively combative atmosphere where the strongest ideas emerge. We see ourselves as portrait artists, where every project is imbued with the aspirations of our clientele.
Where do each of you draw inspiration from?
Benroth: Technological advancement and its influence on design.
Rolston: Art and its ability to communicate and distill cultural values.
Stuart: The built environment and the tectonics of form and construction.
The Line D.C., Washington, D.C. Photo: Adrian Gaut
How do you get buy-in from clients for your design ideas—and how do you get clients to let go of their preconceptions/budget restrictions, etc.?
Rolston: There is nothing more infectious than an idea. Once posited, it’s impossible to forget. A passionate idea is the strongest organizer of all human effort.
INC won two Gold Key awards for its work on 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge. How did you land that commission?
Rolston: For the first 1 Hotel commission we won in 2008 that was mentioned earlier, no brand book existed, nor did any 1 Hotels. So we made our own. To this day, Barry Sternlicht and Kemper Hyers [Starwood Capital’s senior vice president of design] reference it as the inception of the brand’s visual language. When the economy picked up in 2012, Sternlicht approached us for the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge.
What’s it like to work with Sternlicht?
Rolston: Our best clients are strong leaders with a vision. He has both in spades. He can be tough, but only in service of the best possible design and product. We have the highest respect for his talent, acumen and the team he assembled.
What other high-profile clients has INC worked with?
Stuart: Harvey Spevak of Equinox, Tyler Morse of MCR and Andrew Zobler of Sydell Group are all equally strong leaders with great visions that make them a pleasure to work with. They’re all equally demanding, and we’ve produced some our best work for each of them. We’ve designed three Equinox Clubs in New York for Spevak; the events center and some related spaces within the TWA Hotel that’s planned for the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal at the JFK airport for Morse; and the new Line Hotel DC for Zobler.
Industry City Athletic Club, New York. Photo: Eric Laignel
Speaking of Equinox, what trends in wellness design do you see being brought into hotels?
Benroth: Wellness is no longer something that’s pursued in an isolated room in the basement. It begins with check-in and incorporates all aspects of the guest experience, from the lobby to the guest room to the F&B outlets.
A related question: What trends do you see in the design of hotels’ public spaces?
Stuart: We don’t see trends; we see new sets of problems and cultural conditions that require unique solutions. As a culture, our desire to connect has never been stronger or more necessary. Social space is the new black.
One of your firm’s main mantras is, “Context is King.” I’d like to end our conversation by delving into the idea of contextualizing a project —especially hotels. For example, what happens when hotels dis place tenants in big cities or, as in the 1 HOTEL Brooklyn Bridge, encounter some community opposition? How can design bridge that commercial /residential priority gap?
Rolston: At INC we define context very broadly. Context can include the historical, cultural, physical, political and even the project delivery method. All of these can be critical and important ingredients in the development of a design. When it comes to the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, we made every effort to create a design that is as much for the local community as it is for the guests.