Soft Sells

Today’s coolest hotel collections and soft brands make superb styling and experiential expertise their book of standards. This trendsetting trio shows how.

Guests want every hotel to be a hidden gem. They just don’t want to play detective to find them. Enter the 2017 version of a soft brand. Hotel industry giants are turning the tables on boutique hoteliers, leveraging the stronger-than-ever power of loyalty programs and global reservation systems to make finding that dream room effortless.

From the recent launch of Hilton’s Tapestry Collection to A-list hotels coming under the umbrella of major companies’ have-it-your-way flags, this is the heyday of soft brands and collections. What does that mean for design? Read on to find out how the (very different) solutions that are the heart and soul of these groups of rugged individuals take shape in a wine country retreat, a retro urban oasis and an era-melding city hideout.

Las Alcobas Napa Valley
The Luxury Collection, Marriott Intl. 
St. Helena, California

The design brief that Las Alcobas’ managing partner Samuel Leizorek developed (along with interior designer Yabu Pushelberg (YP)) for the brand’s second outpost—the first, in Mexico City, was also a collaboration with YP—reads like a rundown of every buzzword in boutique style. There are the strong local elements, courtesy of antique barns and a protected historic building; the emphasis on natural materials and indoor/outdoor fluidity in design; and the uptown/downtown mix of a mega corporation’s marketing reach and the microcosm of a two-hotel flag.

That’s where any similarity to the Aces and Hoxtons of the world ends, says Leizorek. There’s no target guest. His dream travelers could be 30 or 70. And, the reason for their stay is as likely to be attending a conference as celebrating their wedding. “This is not a niche ‘lifestyle’ product; we want broad appeal,” he says. So, that made the hands-off approach of The Luxury Collection a great fit.

That meant sitting down with the design team to hash out a multi-pronged strategy for the 68-key hotel’s interiors that layered in elements to craft a demographic and psychographic-crossing cool. First up, according to George Yabu, co-founder Yabu Pushelberg, was adding a narrative context. “We re-imagined this site by developing a fictional narrative of a family that has lived there for generations. So, the original farmhouse becomes the social center, with other more modern out-buildings that appear to have been added over time,” says Yabu. Adds co-founder Glenn Pushelberg: “Interconnected pathways meander throughout, offering a connection to both nature and to the various amenities. Each imagined generation is alive in the architectural language of the buildings and in the collections of objects and photos housed within them.”

The buildings each evoke a different chapter in the area’s history, from the past of the historic farmhouse through the current wine country references of the barns to the “future” of contemporary structures that house the guest rooms. The materials palette is similarly diverse, including aged cedar, stonework and metal railings.

It’s also time for designers to take a more theoretical view of what makes an authentic experience. Napa Valley’s cosmopolitan past gave Leizorek the key to marrying global sourcing (many of the raw materials were found in Europe) with a California vibe. “It’s more about capturing the feeling of the place than strictly where the elements come from,” he says.

That’s especially true when that feeling is spread over an entire site instead of a self-contained hotel. And, as Yabu notes, the actual site is compact, so there’s a certain amount of trompe l’oeil called for. Glass walls around the pool turn the landscape into an art piece. The outdoor pathways that take the place of hallways provide a natural link between building and land. Call it organic design. No preservatives required.

Hotel La Comtesse
Elegancia Hotels | Paris

Every guest walking into the Hausmannian building that’s now the Hotel La Comtesse is on the fictional noblewoman’s invite list. The Elegancia Hotels member property, like its branded boutique peers (think Room Mate Hotels) puts its stock firmly in the idea of a presiding personality for the hotel’s design and identity—especially key for a soft brand where there’s no overarching corporate roadmap.


Not that hotel owner Corine Boulay was taking a literal approach, either to the concept of the comtesse or the 18th-century references that are scattered throughout the property. Instead, she and architects Cabinet A3+ turned tension into the driving force behind the look.

First, there’s the dichotomous persona of the countess. “She is mysterious and complex and likes solitude that’s conducive to reflection and reading. But, she’s also very festive and social. So, we designed the hotel to reflect that,” says Boulay. An ultramodern marble origami-like reception desk brings a rococo palette into the 21st century. An 18th century painting becomes a contemporary statement when it’s reimagined as door art in the hotel’s hammam.

How did the team tie the 40-room hotel into Elegancia’s DNA? While the company didn’t have a direct hand in the design, Boulay and the architect channeled the hotelier’s signature love of saturated colors and historic architectural details. Touches like elaborate molding and elaborate tables pay tribute to the intricacy of the French aesthetic. Marble accents around the bathtub offer an elegant accent. Cup of chocolat, anyone?

Yoo2 Rio de Janeiro
Yoo Hotels and Resorts

Cut the drama. That’s the catchphrase for some of today’s hottest boutique properties. Yes, eye-catching styling is a must and design has never been more important than it is to social-media-obsessed guests booking—and judging—hotels based on their looks. But designers are shifting the balance from “wow” toward “aah.”

Case in point: YOO2 Rio de Janeiro. Bright colors and a bold geometric tiles are not exactly quiet focal points, but they get a counterweight from nature-inspired statements such as ferns that look like they are growing out of the wall of a cafe or stylized palm imagery that creates a verdant ceiling of the YOO2 Family room (one of the guest room configurations).

To do that, YOO Studio's (the umbrella brand of YOO Hotels and Resorts) head of design Mark Davison and his team looked to a simpler time to distill the vibrant chaos of modern Rio into an urban oasis with equal parts yin and yang.

“We immersed ourselves in Rio’s culture, especially the nostalgic notion of its heyday in the ’50s when it had the iconic status as the biggest beach resort in the world, and the music and films of the time,” says Davison. “These influences were woven into every detail of the design, from the choice of materials to the color palette and especially the bold graphic elements used throughout.” That plays out not only in outsize statements like the elevator, but in the gold, teal and bronze headboards. Aqua cushions on rooftop seating evoke the beach. Green wallpaper in the restaurant plays off the actual plants on the walls.

While YOO, unlike many soft brands, has an in-house design team, Davison also worked with a local design team to bring in area artists and artisans. That resulted in a commissioned bold graffiti mural in the elevator shaft designed by Marcelo Ment, a Rio-based based street artist and tiles made by a 100-year old Brazilian firm.

So, it’s not about putting a brand stamp on these properties. Instead, designers need to think about crafting a signature ethos for each space within the hotel, whether that’s expressed in lush artwork or reclaimed wood. Forget about the easy trademarks. Swap out books of standards for reams of inspiration—if all the world is a stage, then it’s up to the design teams to dress that set.