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Interview: Darrell Long

October 27, 2016

Darrell Long’s 20 years in the hospitality design industry have netted him a stellar reputation and strong portfolio—including the recently opened Hilton Wenchang resort in China. Now a partner and design director with HBA in the firm’s Los Angeles office, Long is working on projects including the upcoming 8950 Sunset Boulevard hotel in West Hollywood and Qatar’s JW Marriott Doha. Here, the designer shares how he forwent his initial career dreams, some details on his forthcoming work, and his love of modernism.

Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in a military family with a white picket fence, brothers and sisters, and 2.3 dogs. I was the runt—a very skinny and timid kid. My siblings were blond, blue eyed, smart as hell and very popular. They took after, and followed, my father’s (military) engineering track. My mother noticed I was a quite a bit different and introduced me to the arts. She took me to museums, live musical performances, and the opera. Though she would never admit, I know her thoughts were, ‘Well you might not get their looks, but you will be smarter.’ Like most men of my age, as boys we loved comics—I drew Batman every waking moment of my youth. As the rest of my siblings took the schematic side of thinking in college, I first studied studio art with an emphasis on painting and art history. I also took an exceptional advantage of ‘being an artist’ by trying my hardest to not work, other than a few times a week as a courtroom artist for the local NBC affiliate and spending my summers in the Outer Banks of North Carolina as a lifeguard. Architecture and design came a little later in life.

When did you know you wanted to be a designer?
It all started as a direct result of having zero rhythm. I dearly wanted to be a musician: a skinny white guy with earrings, tattoos, and long hair type of musician. However, I was blessed with the rhythmic integrity of Elaine Benes’ dancing on Seinfeld. And since counting to four and taping your foot simultaneously is essential regarding the musical arts, well that foolish pipe dream ended slow and not so easy. So out of my love (and actual schooling and talent) for the fine arts, I became obsessed with museum exhibition design. I furthered my studies in (interior) architecture, cut my hair, bought a suit and voila, 20 years later.

What are some of your first memories of design?
Drawing. I still feel it is the lynchpin to great work—the perfect vehicle for artistic thoughts.

What has been your career arc with HBA?
I’m going on four years at HBA. It’s a great firm with a plethora of history and opportunity. I was made an associate after my first year, shortly thereafter design director, and in a little less than two years ago, partner. I truly do love where the firm is heading, in particular the Los Angeles office, as it is filled to the gills with talent and it’s an absolute honor to work with the likes of such.

What interests you most about hotel design specifically?
It ain’t easy. More particularly, it ain’t easy if it’s done right. Good design at its least common denominator is form and function. It’s what is carved and extruded and organized. Take the building, turn it upside down, and shake it until everything falls out. Turn it right side up and that’s the design. Get that right and you’re onto something. The formal principles of modernism are still to this day completely correct.

What are the most exciting and challenging aspects of your job?
I really dig the inventive and artistic side. I work with a brilliant team of creative misfits that inspire and challenge me every single day. If you think about it, we in this industry accomplish some really cool things. But respectfully, you really can’t take yourself so seriously. We’re not ending famine or curing cancer; we’re more akin to rain dancing for water in California.

Is there a challenging recent project that you are especially proud of?

I’m going sound really stupid and completely predictable now, but everything we are working on now is pretty challenging, though not externally but completely self-imposed. Nothing irritates me more than the industry’s current typical deliverable called concept design. Gone are the days of challenging the project (and ourselves) with an actual design narrative. It’s now far too easy to show precedent images of other people’s project to exhibit (to the client) what their space will look like—that’s not a concept, that’s piracy. As a team, our concept deliverables are more about how we are going to design the space, and the formal design language and tools we will utilize to do it.

Can you give some details about your current new-build hotel projects? What is exciting or noteworthy?
8950 Sunset Boulevard [in West Hollywood]. It is the most beautiful monster I’ve ever seen. We have a great client with impeccable taste and our collaboration with the design architect (Three Living Architecture out of Dallas) is nothing short of brilliant. We have a bouillabaisse of incredible design tools to choose from. It truly is a project of a lifetime.

But I sincerely cannot discount the Hilton Buena Park project [in California]. The client has a passion for Southern California midcentury modernism. He digs our approach to not plagiarize the past, but to utilize the design philosophies and visual qualities of the period.

How about the upcoming JW Marriott Doha?
The JW Marriott Doha is moving swimmingly. It’s not your typical JW. We dug pretty deep with the narrative, utilizing an abstraction of Arabic architectural mathematics and design; everything has a purpose.

Is there anything else coming up for HBA that you are anticipating?
We do have another very cool collaboration with Three Living Architecture in Orange County that we will start soon. I can’t elaborate on it now but from the preliminary work, it’s going to be pretty neat.

Is there an architect or designer you most admire? Why?
I’m obsessed with modernism and modernist architects like Le Corbusier. The reasons why we design gets me moving—i.e., form follows function, honesty of materials, and density to transparency, etc. I like the idea of picking a fight with the norm. Of the contemporary, I’m a fan of Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano.

What would be your dream project and why?
My dream project—my own house.

Any non work-related hobbies or interests?
Music. I absolutely love playing and listening to music. And happy hour; happy hour is good for the soul.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be doing?
Watching the wheels go round and round.

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