Talking Hotel Interiors With Designer And Architect Helen zu Oettingen-Wallerstein
Every week to bring you something straight out of an expert’s book, we interview the international designers on Mansionly. The idea is to not just share tips to design impeccable interiors for your space, but also understand the different design philosophies that the topmost in the industry follow.
This time around, we have Helen zu Oettingen-Wallerstein with us. An interior architect as well as a real estate consultant, she comes with over 30 years of experience in the industry. Be it residential or commercial, Helen and her team have worked on some of the finest properties across the world.
With a focus on tailor-made consulting and concept designing, her work includes gorgeous five-star hotels, mansions and blocks of luxury apartments.
So here’s our little tête-à-tête with her.
Great to have you with us Helen and thank you for agreeing to do this. Let’s start with a little about you for our readers.
Helen: I was raised in a family with strong roots in the construction business. So becoming an Architectural and Interior Designer seemed a natural thing to do.
I was not only strongly influenced by the fact that I was raised in a historic building, but also by growing up in a very entrepreneurial family, with strong roots in collecting art and being patrons of numerous cultural projects. Today I do Architectural and Interior Design work and consult investors, and facilitate RE Investments within the EU Zone.
You’ve been in the industry for 30+ years, working as an interior design consultant for some of the most luxurious properties across the world. When did you realize that you wanted to get into the industry? How did it all begin?
Helen: Well, as stated before it sort of came naturally as my family owned the 3rd biggest construction company in Germany. I also had an upbringing which encouraged the love for art and music but also made me aware of the need to develop viable concepts for existing and historic buildings apart from the use of Museums.
So my focus became refurbishment and re-launch of existing buildings and the conservation of historic buildings by developing financial and architectural concepts to bring them to financially viable use.
Very soon in my career, I did my first hotel project which was a dream come true – as the task was to create a new and modern hotel in a historic building complex of 4000 sqm + with one of the most beautiful parks in Germany.
Wow, we’d definitely love to see the very first project you worked on. Each of the five-star hotel properties you’ve worked on has a distinctive design. What is the one rule that you always follow when planning out such amazing interiors?
Helen: First and foremost I listen to the investor and/or his advisors, to understand their needs, ideas and goals. Because there is so much to consider from financial sustainability to the design and management of the property.
I often undertake trips to internationally successful projects with my clients. This always helps investors to make a clear decision on the specific destiny of their investment or say, project. This is not only in connection with the design but also regarding the overall investment and its purpose. It eases our work considerably and saves money as this enables us to come up with a suitable concept and a design to follow, which not only suits the investor’s goals but also fits the building like a glove.
Right. In your experience, what has been one of the fastest growing hotel interior trends across the world and what do you think about it?
Helen: There are many trends and they change as fast as trends in the fashion industry. Today, we see a much clearer distinction between resort hotels (holidays) and city hotels ( business and leisure). So this entails different “trends”.
To start with, the first is becoming more luxurious and the latter is becoming leaner. Certainly, one trend which can be seen in the western world´s city hotel – the old fashioned Grand Hotel is dying. As we look at a variety of target groups today we have varying trends – one “trend” fits all does not exist anymore.
The business traveler of today expects efficiency, trendy city chic and a lot of workable technique in the work and communication space. Public areas are designed with no clear zoning. Reception, lobby, bar, workspace and conference areas are becoming one, due to the overall “trends” in work and lifestyle.
Restaurants are becoming obsolete, as the traveler of today is keen to leave the hotel and experience the town he is in, and communicate with locals.
Rooms in the three-star sector are becoming smaller, but the standard of FFE are of higher quality and space is used more efficiently. On the other hand, the rooms in the five-star sector are getting bigger and more luxurious.
Bathrooms leave their role as functional washing areas and are almost like a private spa zone. Even three-star hotels sport extra big Italian designer tiles, and sanitary ware and appliances are of the highest quality and stylish of course.
Colour combinations and furniture trends change at the speed of lighting and are therefore not the real criteria behind a hotel’s success.
In general, a designer should refrain from following every trend but think about the long term goal of the investor and the target group the hotel is aiming at.
Colors are very much an issue of personal choice, so as a designer you would not get it right anyway. Unless one has an investor, who is overly generous and will have the interior refurbished every year, refrain from trend design. It is the building, its use and foremost the investor who should guide the design – this does not entail, not knowing what the current trends are, especially when it comes to lifestyle – but the use must be sparingly and not dominate the overall design.
Lasting interiors over short terms trends. Each of the five-star properties that you and your team have worked on has a personality of its own, so to say. So when you begin working on the interiors, what is the very first thing you do?
Helen: We listen, listen and listen. We also ask plenty of questions. We explore the area, analyze its structure, population, history and traditions. We do a technical and visual evaluation of the building, which is followed by more listening and discussions on feasibility with the investor.
We might suggest several excursions to successful hotels worldwide, to give the investor a better feel of what he is aiming for. Then we merge the investor’s ideas with the potential of the building, as well as budget and time frame.
Only then do we produce a room function chart, the overall concept of use and do the first calculations. Once we have done this, and have preliminary approval we start with the design.
Right. What are the five top tips you would give to hotels that want to offer a luxurious experience and make an impression on their customers?
Helen: Impeccable service is the answer, as not even the best designer and his state of the art interior will fool the guest. If the service is bad, good design will not make it into a luxurious hotel. Personal service delivered promptly, by paying great attention to detail, is what a guest remembers first and this is the most important reason why a hotel would be recommended.
The next thing a guest notices immediately is the cleanliness – especially in the rooms and bathrooms. No good design is a substitute for that.
Execution of any work, be it built-in furniture, the floor, wall surfaces etc., have to be of prime quality and accurately done. Downlights not set in a straight line get noticed and will ruin the best of designs – as it leaves the impression of carelessness. Furniture, fabrics and accessories should be of prime quality too.
Designer furniture should be found in prime spots. Decorative art should also be cleverly included – but again it is high quality not cheap quantity.
Work with local materials and make sure the design and the hotel policy reflect environmental sustainability. Apply the latest technical appliances and fixtures, but make them invisible.
Elegance is achieved by using less rather than more – over-furnished rooms with too many knick-knacks, look cheap and badly designed. Luxury hotels should not become a symbol of overuse of gold, silver or any other metal. That is not luxury, on the contrary.
One of the most crucial items is certainly the bed, duvet and pillows – they have to be of prime quality. Studies have shown, this is something most guests recall first when asked about a hotel. A bad quality mattress, duvet and pillows filled with cheap fiber, is a huge killer. Bed linen should be at least made of high-quality cotton or linen to give a luxurious feel on the skin, never any man-made fibers! Towels in the bathrooms should have a generous size and be of prime quality too. Amenities in the bathroom should be ample and of a luxury brand. A good quality hair dryer with a long cable and a mirror with a high degree magnifying element are mandatory.
Generally quality should always stand above quantity.
Seeing each of the properties you have worked on and their locations, we have been expanding our to-visit bucket list endlessly and I’m sure there are others like us. What is it that keeps you motivated to come up with unique interior designs every time?
Helen: First of all it is the passion you have for what you do and the reward you get from doing it right. As mentioned previously – no location, no building and no investor are the same. Traveling all around the world, allowing myself to be open and captured by other countries, their culture and tradition and above all their people, does inspire me.
But also art, fashion, music and strangely reading a book does too. It probably needs the ability to notice things others do not see and having a vivid imagination. I am also inspired by my clients, their views, visions and ideas – it is me who has to bring them alive. In the end if I feel I have really understood my client and can see how happy he is with the result, that becomes my biggest motivation.
We agree, seeing your client happy in the end is the biggest motivation. You’re an industry expert. But are there any other designers that you follow for inspiration?
Helen: I very much try to follow my own handwriting. Too much input from other designers would ruin my ability to come up with my own ideas. I would also feel like a cheat and would have to ask me, why has the investor not booked the other designer.
Of course, I look at great buildings, read about great designers, artist and architects, I follow their path and look and analyze their design. I get a lot of input to think about. A designer and designing is certainly not about an over-inflated ego but about having strong individual handwriting.
Too much inspiration from others leads to copying – this clearly is not designing, but cheating and not honest.
Right. Out of curiosity, out of all the hotels that you have stayed at, which one has been your absolute favorite and why?
Helen: I do not have one favorite hotel because I am curious. So I stay at all sort of hotels from three to six stars, and each has a very strong individual side within their own segment. But just to mention a few that I really liked:
- The Four Season in Florence – Villa Gheradesca
- The Andaz in Amsterdam and New York
- The Pierre in New York (because it is so wonderfully traditional even if it is run down a bit)
- The Savoy in London
- The Cafe Royal in London
- Number 11 Cadogan Garden in London (this is like coming home, very private)
- The Motel One in Vienna
- The Grand Ferdinand in Vienna
- The Amanpuri in Phuket
So no favorites. I could go on and on with a list of hotels.
Just to wrap up the interview, we wanted to know what your design philosophy in one line is?
Helen: Stay true to yourself, without superimposing your ego. Listen carefully, ask a lot of questions, take the buildings history and its location into consideration, and create a unique story.
Well, that’s all we and our audience had to ask Helen. Your answers were extremely insightful, giving us all a peek into the design philosophies and rules that go into designing successful places.
Again, thank you for doing this with us.
We understand that when you’re getting your interiors done, you want to follow all the trends that your target audience is engaging with. But like our expert interior designer, Helen has to say, a trend is not the only thing you should be looking at. You need to look into how sustainable and functional the design is as well. Your focus should always be long-term!
Well, we had an amazing chat with Helen and are not going to let her get back to designing more gorgeous spaces. But you can check out some of her work on Mansionly, here.
Thinking of redesigning interiors or want an expert view? Contact us today.