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Welcome Home: Hilton

Alia Akkam and Stacy Shoemaker Rauen • Photography and renderings courtesy of Hilton • December 11, 2017

Recent Projects: Hilton

Seven and a half years ago, Hilton Worldwide set the “audacious goal to become the fastest-growing luxury hotel company,” recalls John Vanderslice, Hilton’s global head of luxury and lifestyle brands. Propelled by the growth of the Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts and Conrad Hotels & Resorts brands, Hilton has yet to slow down since that bold declaration. Among the some 2,200 hotels in 104 countries in its pipeline (as of September 30th), almost 50 of them are classified as luxury, with 16 Waldorf and 17 Conrad properties in the works (currently there are 27 and 33 open, respectively).

But this approach wasn’t quite ambitious enough, Vanderslice says, so in 2014, “we decided to introduce what we call an accessible lifestyle brand, a celebration of the neighborhood. The opportunity was there to make it successful for consumers from a price standpoint and for our owners from a development cost standpoint.” Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Centre opened last year, the first hotel in the brand’s portfolio, which is rapidly growing. Twenty-nine additional projects are in the approval process in locations including Portland, Oregon; Dallas; West Palm Beach, Florida; Ithaca, New York; Jersey City, New Jersey; Minneapolis; Toronto; and East London.

Canopy by Hilton
With interiors from local firm Apparat, the 112-room Reykjavik hotel, awash in hues of ocean blue and gray volcanic rock, “is doing exactly what we thought the hotel would do from a guest perspective,” says Gary Steffen, global head of Canopy by Hilton. “At least once a week I go on TripAdvisor just to read the comments identifying the staff, the service, and the culture that’s involved with the whole positive-stay journey. I pick out my comment of the week and send it around to the entire team.”

These comments might also mention the abundance of local art anchoring the hotel in Reykjavik’s 101 neighborhood, the café where it’s possible to snag Icelandic music to listen to back in the room, or the white-tiled, brasserie-style restaurant Geiri Smart. Canopy hotels favor comfort over tradition, as revealed by a front desk that is merely a table and the transfer lounge, where early-to-arrive guests can shower and store their luggage. In addition, complimentary evening tastings help them unwind. “Canopy Central has to function as the heart of the hotel,” says Larry Traxler, senior vice president of global design, “and so it has to be activated at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

Hilton has done its homework with Canopy, too, first working with New York designer Mark Zeff on establishing a theoretical aesthetic. “How do you make something organic, eclectic, and totally different from what Hilton’s ever done, but still finishes at a quality high enough that we can get to that accessible lifestyle level?” Vanderslice explains. Several concepts were initially tested and only a few proved successful, placing a premium on the guestroom, often an afterthought in the lifestyle sphere, he says. The female-friendly just-right rooms, a Canopy hallmark, scrap underutilized closets, adding gel memory foam mattresses and a proper table for laptop work. Before launching the brand, there was a nine-step journey where groups accustomed to lifestyle properties weighed in, even in model room reviews after launch, suggesting, for example, that the hallboy, a full-length mirror with a shelf built into it, shouldn’t make the final cut. “The research created the brand. We have to start with the consumer at heart and then figure out what the articulation is of that,” says Vanderslice, adding it is the most researched brand in Hilton’s history with some 13,000 judgments from the U.S., UK, and China.

At the core of each one of Hilton’s luxury projects is a richly detailed narrative about 120 pages long that “we deliver in person to the owner, designers, and decision-makers,” says Traxler. The design approach is no less intense. “We march through the guest journey from the time they walk in the door until they make their way into the room. Each of the different key components of the hotel is broken down, and we describe what it is we’re trying to achieve there,” he continues. Then, there are the localized briefs, in which designers tackle questions about the neighborhood’s past and future before it flows into the concept design stage. Working with the right designers is key, especially while Canopy is forging its path. Select firms from across the globe were chosen for deep brand immersions, culminating in partnerships with Toronto’s Studio Munge, London’s ACME, and Coral Gables, Florida-based EoA.

Steffen credits thorough due diligence and the celebration of ideas like honest, natural materials and residential, eclectic touches that contribute to the brand’s commitment to a timeless aesthetic. “The overall design and the feeling doesn’t go away,” he says. “That’s another critical factor in how we’ve designed Canopy: it’s true to the neighborhood.”

The recently opened Canopy by Hilton Washington DC The Wharf, with a design from New York firm Krause Sawyer, is part of a massive multiuse redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront on the shore of the Potomac River that mixes hotels, retail, and restaurants (many of which will be local standouts) with residential and office components. The reimagined Wharf stays true to its roots with the renovation and expansion of DC’s iconic Municipal Fish Market, the oldest continuously operating fish market in the U.S., “re-establishing DC as a true waterfront city and destination” says cofounder Tracey Sawyer. “The strong narrative for the area worked as a starting point for us when developing the interiors of the hotel. The spectacular architecture with floor-to-ceiling windows and amazing views are a major attraction, and we wanted to make sure the design felt fresh, exciting, and welcoming, with a clear point of view and a story to tell.”

By delving into the area’s heritage, as well as the evolution of the marina and the fish market over time, the Krause Sawyer team captured the essence of the Wharf by playing with “contrasting materiality from rougher woods and metals to reflective, liquid finishes and shimmering glass— smooth to rough, dark to light to give a rich overall experience when inside the space,” says cofounder Kajsa Krause.

Upon arrival, floor-to-ceiling wood and metal installations reminiscent of stacked fish crates and large shutters greet guests. Behind the welcome desk, a wall featuring the works of local artists is a highlight, as is the stone fireplace, surrounded by stepped seating and a large piece of art on reclaimed painted beadboard, and Canopy Central’s full-height, backlit bar crafted from wood tile and butcher block. In the guestrooms, light gray-washed flooring and an oversized headboard emblazoned with abstracted fish crates and containers reinforce the story.

Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts
An Art Deco legend dominating a block of New York’s Park Avenue, the circa-1931 Waldorf Astoria shuttered in 2017 for an exorbitant renovation by local firm SOM and Paris-based Pierre-Yves Rochon (PYR) that promises to restore the hotel’s glorious historical detailing. But the temporary shuttering of the brand’s flagship property has become an opportunity to revel in the brand’s future. Waldorf is a brand that embodies “service, inspirational environments where your heart beats a little bit harder when you walk in, and authentic moments,” says Vanderslice. From Chicago to Dubai, the Waldorf properties are reflecting the profound shift in luxury thinking. Consider the Waldorf Astoria Beijing, designed by Chicago’s Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture and Toronto and New York-based Yabu Pushelberg. At just a quarter of the size of the Shanghai on the Bund property—which wraps an entire city block and is located within a Baroque-style building from the early 20th century—and with height limitations, “it forced us to think about what Waldorf could be in the contemporary vein. It’s still very timeless and classic, but rooted in modern architectural style,” says Traxler. “Beijing guides everything else that comes along.”

For the Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam, designed by London-based G.A Group, a collection of historic canal houses once occupied by the mayor and a bank were converted into the hotel with airy, double-height ceilings and a bar in the former vault. “You’re seeing real plaster molding details from the late 1700s and early 1800s, and we had to create a vestibule,” says Traxler. To do that, they “inserted a clear, glass box so you don’t touch any of the walls. It’s a new intervention into that space.” Meanwhile, the clock, a focal point of all Waldorf properties, is reinterpreted as an armillary sphere that pays homage to Dutch shipping history.

Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills

An old Trader Vic’s tiki bar, adjacent to the Beverly Hilton, is now the home of the 170-room Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, which opened this year with a design courtesy of Gensler and PYR complete with an indoor-outdoor secret garden. “People are shocked by the views they never thought existed in Beverly Hills,” says Traxler. The key was taking the fantasy of what Waldorf Astoria was in New York and making it relevant in California, he adds. The Streamline Moderne design of the limestone-clad exterior telegraphs the Golden Age of Hollywood, and “a sense of cinematic glamour begins with the dramatic arrival to the porte-cochère with a sweeping bronze canopy; guests are welcomed through bronze doors adorned with crystal pulls,” says PYR founder Pierre-Yves Rochon. Recalling film noir, the interior mingles light and dark, combining the likes of Italian marble with black lacquer. “Subtle palm prints in a mixed variety of delicate applications in carpeting, wallcovering, and fabrics throughout give a quiet nod to surrounding lush California landscapes, as well as a throwback to patterns popular in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s Hollywood,” he adds. Jean-Georges Beverly Hills also channels Old Hollywood by blending rosewood furniture with lemon trees and bronze accentuated terrazzo flooring.

Another buzzy new addition to the portfolio is Waldorf Astoria Chengdu, a 289-room, 52-story, mixed-use development in the city’s high-tech zone. New York design studio Champalimaud spearheaded the design (including numerous residences in the building) with two restaurants and a wine bar from New York-based Jeffrey Beers International, including the clubby Limited Edition Grill with a glassed-in kitchen, and an upcoming rooftop bar from Paring Onions Design in Hong Kong. Artwork is particularly staggering here, incorporating handmade, individually glazed ceramic tiles “and glass leaves that have a kinetic fiber optic light, so it can slowly transition over time from a warm gold color into a brighter space,” says Traxler.

Chengdu is a “casual, relaxed city—the greenest in the country and often referred to as the Seattle of China,” says Champalimaud principal Jon Kastl, and the design reflects that with an open-plan concept for the public areas with a flowing series of spaces. “The décor is tailored, crisp, and a celebration of beautiful woods, metals, and stones combined in a sophisticated manner.” Inspired by Chendgu’s tea house culture, flora, pandas, and silk embroidery traditions, the hotel is referential to both its home city and the original New York location. Since large-scale art and murals are brand touchpoints, an installation of colorful 3D bas-relief lacquered shapes reminiscent of peacock feathers “that read in a contemporary pixelated way” graces Peacock Alley, while the chandeliers in the ballroom are based on abstracted stalks of bamboo. A double staircase knits together public areas of the hotel spanning three floors. “As the space unfolds and opens up, one can see up and down into various lounges, restaurants, and bars,” says Kastl. “It’s a wonderful clubhouse in the sky.

Conrad Hotels & Resorts
“We are on fire with Conrad in Asia,” says Vanderslice. “More than any other brand, Conrad has lived the narrative that we created. You can see the thread that goes behind it.” High-tech touches, for instance, where guests can check in for flights and valet their cars a day in advance via the touch of a screen, is a strong example of how luxury has changed, while programs like the 1/3/5 experience tailor activities to time-strapped travelers for one, three, or five hours. At the Conrad Manila, for example, guests eagerly pore over books that explain each of the hotel’s art pieces. “Our whole service model is about staying inspired and flawless delivery. Design and art programs are integral to Conrad. Not contemporary, not modern, but worldly design that’s still local, but informed from a sophisticated standpoint,” explains Vanderslice.

Conrad Osaka

Designed by Tokyo-based Hashimoto Yukio, the 164-room Conrad Osaka, housed in the Nakanoshima Festival Tower, shuttles guests to the 40th-floor arrival lobby, which is surrounded by wraparound views of the city and 20-foot-tall pieces of art, abstractions of the gods of thunder and wind. Throughout, there are notable Japanese flourishes, like a chandelier fashioned from delicate origami swans nestled together to appear as a solid piece of glass, as well as individually painted washi paper, a 15th-century art that morphs into wallcoverings.

Conrad Guangzhou is another newcomer, a collaboration by Hong Kong firms AB Concept, AFSO, and CCD. Situated by the Pearl River, guestrooms reflect traditional Xiguan residences through materials like old wall bricks and lacquered folk paintings. “Suites use bright green as a touch of color in the ordinary homes and streets whose basic tone is set by Lingnan gray brick and solid wood,” explains Joe Cheng, CCD’s chief designer. “It also stands for the evergreen four seasons of Guangzhou, the straightforward and bright nature of the Cantonese, as well as the restless rhythm of parties in the lives of the modern, young elite.” It’s a testament to the new state of luxury.