Before discussing the 'New Models for Hospitality Design' as a panelist at Singapore Indesign Intimate, Karen Hay, co-founder of Stickman Tribe, tells us what it takes to build distinctive spaces that tell their own stories.
Top Image: Karen Hay, Stickman Tribe. All photographs courtesy of Stickman Tribe
What is Stickman Tribe’s backstory? How did you meet Marcos?
I was working for a larger international firm in Dubai as the managing director, and we brought Marcos in from Australia as the hospitality design director. He has a strong background in F&B from both design and operations, having designed, built and ran his own bars and restaurants in Sydney and Perth.
After a stint of working together, we both became a bit frustrated with the corporate nature, scale and bureaucracy of the larger company (not naming names!) and decided to jump ship and start our own for which we shared a clear vision: it had to be a small boutique design studio focusing purely on hospitality and offering our clients an A-Z in-depth, well informed, creative service.
We established Stickman at the beginning of 2009, right in the belly of the financial crash, and almost everyone said we were crazy, and we answered ‘yeah!’ And we’ve never looked back. We hit the ground running with two big scale projects, the Conrad in Dubai all F&B outlets, plus Kerry Parkside in Shanghai, which became The Cook The Meet The Brew. We then picked up more projects in both Dubai and Asia and spent a large portion of our time flying back and forth, hence the reason for opening our Hong Kong office in late 2012. We now have a team of 25 between Dubai and Hong Kong.
What are your individual roles in the company?
Marcos is based in Dubai and runs the Dubai office and looks after the MENA region. I am now based in Hong Kong, where I had previously lived for 10 years before moving to Dubai. I run the HK office and look after the Asia Pacific region.
However, Marcos has a very strong business and financial head so he looks after the business as a whole, it is a well oiled engine! I have the gift of the gab and I am good at networking, so I look after the business development side, and do quite a lot of keynote talks, panel discussions and et cetera. So between us, we cover the business and the development sides, and together we share the creative part respective to each office and region. We are both very hands on with the design concepts and process, and work closely with our design teams to keep the vision and quality.
Why did you choose to focus on the hospitality sector?
It is quite simply our passion! We are both foodies, we love cooking and entertaining, and we love the diversity in creating hospitality venues, where each one has to stand out and be unique. Having worked as an Interior designer for well over 20 years (cough cough), I have designed everything from retail, residences, offices, malls, and et cetera. I designed my first hotel, which was in Beijing around 15 years ago, and thereafter I just loved the hospitality projects.
Since then, I have designed a few hotels, guest rooms and lobbies, and countless restaurants and bars. And I still get a buzz from each project. Marcos has always worked in hospitality, so he has a solid understanding of what makes a good project successful.
Working on so many projects concurrently, how do you constantly “view concepts with ‘new’ eyes”?
We always start with the client and their vision. If they don’t have one, we dig deep and help them to see their vision, or help them create that vision. If its a new brand, we spend a lot of time discussing the target audience, market and brand DNA. Before we start designing, we agree on a brand concept and look for points of reference and inspiration, any historical or indigenous references. And we build the story. Our work has many layers.
We always aim to create a space that is soulful, inviting, comfortable and inspiring. The layout has to work from a customer flow and ease of operations. Then the choice of materials, their application (during which, we often use materials in unpredictable manners) the lighting levels to give a sense of comfort but also drama where required, the comfort and style of the furniture, the artwork and accessories and final styling. It all comes together like a classical concerto. And when it works it just feels right.
We couldn’t agree more. How do you think the hospitality industry has evolved since Stickman Tribe incepted more than six years ago? I suppose the rise of discerning consumers worldwide plays a part in that…
Yes, we have to constantly strive to give the customers something new, we can never get complacent. The world is getting smaller, the volume of people taking flights has doubled in the past 10 years. We work with many of the top five star hotel chains and their guests are seasoned travellers, not just business travellers but families too. They are well educated and opinionated, and they know what are the hot and successful brands, or individual venues across the globe. So we need to stay on our toes and do plenty of research, and invest in travel time ourselves.
Celebrity chefs are now a common feature in all major cities and hotels. The guests want more variety and diversity, but at the same time they are quite conscious of the sources of cuisine, and are sustainably aware. We are also seeing a continental cross over of successful brands, not just in retail as has been the past 20 over years but now in F&B. Western brands are now seen in the Middle East and Asia, and Asian brands are now crossing to the Middle East and Europe.
While working on projects in the Middle East and Asia, as well as other parts of the world, have you encountered strong differences in the definition of hospitality in relation to culture and heritage? How has that influenced the way you work?
I am from Scotland, while Marcos is from Australia, and our offices are in Dubai and Hong Kong, so we are already a melting pot of cultures. Our team looks like a Benetton advert! We are well versed in cultural diversity and we embrace the differences. We have to be sensitive to cultural traits, laws, and quirks. Our clients also have a good understanding of their customer base so we also listen to their advise. Designing for guests in Asia is slightly different from designing in Dubai and the Middle East or India. But quite often the overall concept could be the same but there may be subtle differences in the furniture layout, table shapes, sizes of chairs and et cetera.
We occasionally do design private residences and that is where we would have a recognisable difference in layout and scale. The scale in the Middle East is inevitably bigger and the separation between public and private spaces, and often male and female spaces is a sensitive matter. There is a similarity in dining styles in restaurants, and actually in residential homes too. Guests like to entertain in private dining rooms, and quite often business deals are sealed over dinner so the portion of private rooms differ from the West. Private residences have the main dining room, and in the Middle East, they have “majilis” space which is a public gathering hall to sit and talk prior to or after dinner. The kitchen will be a wet service kitchen for the service staff, with a small “show kitchen” for the family use. This is quite different from western homes.
What are you currently working on?
We are currently working with Shangri-La hotels on a full scope of new brand boutique hotel in Beijing, and an all-day dining restaurant in their new hotel in Hangzhou, which is currently under construction. We are also working on a full scope resort hotel for Fairmont hotels in Fujeirah, UAE and an all-day dining restaurant, as well as the signature bar and restaurant at the top floor of their new Chengdu city hotel.
We are also working with Langham Place hotels and have just completed the refurbishment of The Place (their all-day dining) Alibi – a new tapas style restaurant and bar, and their executive Club Lounge. We are now looking at another new refurbishment for them in their Langham hotel. In addition, we are working on the rebranding and new look of Lei Bistro and Lei Garden restaurants.
Sounds like a lot on your plate. Tell us, what has been your most memorable/inspiring moment as a designer so far?
Thats a hard question to answer! I guess I have been very fortunate as I have had too many to single any one moment out. I have been blessed with doing something that I love to do, and I have many opportunities to travel and stay in beautiful places.
With each project I still get a buzz when a client approves a concept that we have presented, and again when we handover the project and see it being used and enjoyed.