Category Archives: Designer Spotlight

The Art of Storytelling

Jennifer Busch

Mike Suomi Headshot 1_web1Michael Suomi, Principal and VP of Design at Stonehill & Taylor in New York and founder of the think-tank organization Futuregreen Hospitality Forum, leads the way on design and sustainability



IF  How would you describe your design process in one word?

MS  Storytelling.

IF   Where do you turn for inspiration during your creative process?

MS  I am drawn to both the well of history and the vanguard of contemporary art for inspiration.

IF   How have you seen the hospitality industry change over the course of your career?

MS  The cross-pollination of ideas from everywhere (nightlife, fashion, nature, museums, nesting, handmade materials, crowd-sourcing, etc.) has evolved into exciting forms of hospitality we could have never imagined when I started as a designer 25 years ago. The “micro-room” hotel, Airbnb, and the ubiquitous “branded bed” are examples of radical shifts that have now become quite common in our industry. It is thrilling to imagine what the next 25 years will bring!


IF  You are a leading proponent for sustainability in hospitality design. What are the most important trends in sustainable design in this market segment at the moment?

MS  What excites my designers right at the moment is “upcycling”, which we are looking at for a major project in St. Louis. Later this month the think-tank organization that I founded, Futuregreen Hospitality Forum, is exploring the inherent sustainable opportunities that could come out of the current trend of “smaller, faster, cheaper” production. 

IF  Other than sustainability, is there anything in particular happening in the design world right now that inspires you?

MS  Many — The visual representation of data by people like Aaron Koblin and Edward Tufte; the DIY creativeness of the band OK Go; the intersection of interactive theater and dining; pop-up; glitch art; forgotten spaces; always authenticity.


IF   How does flooring help set the tone for a hospitality space? What does the flooring solution contribute to the overall design solution?

MS  The floor, like the ceiling, is usually the largest expanse of material in a space. It sets the stage for all the other layers of design to determine the overall tone. Based upon material, finish, pattern, color, and texture, flooring can make a space feel relaxed or formal, energized or calm, classic, intimate, flowing, historic, bold, crisp, hygienic, or any other vision the designer wishes to convey.

IF   If you were able to give one piece of advice to young designers interested in the hospitality market, what would it be?

MS  Listen.

IF    What is your favorite space that you have ever been in?

MF  Gustave Caillebotte’s “The Floor Planers” in the Musee D’Orsay.

#3 - The Floor Planers

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Designer Ken Wilson Takes a “Rational” Approach

Jennifer Busch

Ken Wilson, FAIA, FIIDA, LEED Fellow, Design Principal, Perkins+Will

Ken Wilson, FAIA, FIIDA, LEED Fellow is one of the A&D community’s earliest and most well regarded sustainability leaders. His own firm, Envision Design in Washington, D.C., was known for its pioneering approach to sustainable design principles, and also had some 90 design awards to its credit when it was purchased by Perkins+Will last year. Now, as a design principal for the firm’s DC office, Wilson leverages the resources of his larger firm to continue his binary approach to his own work and that of his team, standing firm on his belief that good design and green design are one and the same, and the industry should be 100% committed to both.

Good Fellow

IF: How would you describe your design process in one word?

KW:  Rational.  (As defined by the Encarta Dictionary:  “governed by, or showing evidence of, clear and sensible thinking and judgment, based on reason rather than emotion or prejudice”)

IF:  What do you enjoy most about your work?

KW:  I really enjoy working with engaged clients who understand that good design will help their business.  I equally enjoy the collaboration I have with my design teams, promoting innovation, and building enthusiasm for our projects.  I am invigorated by how good our younger staff is.


IF: You were an early advocate and design leader in the shift toward sustainable design practices. How have you seen the industry evolve in terms of that shift?

KW: There has been a huge evolution since 1999 when we designed the headquarters for Greenpeace and LEED was in early development. I give the USGBC credit for changing completely the way the design profession thinks about buildings and interiors.  LEED gave us a common vocabulary with which to talk about green design and showed that green building isn’t just about energy reduction.  A lot of people today continue to criticize LEED unfairly and I just don’t get it.  Sure, LEED is not perfect but it has done unbelievable good.  I can’t imagine where we would be without it.  With regard to building products and furnishings, almost everything has gotten better.  Problem areas have been identified and creative solutions have emerged.  But there is still a lot of room for improvement.  What concerns me these days is that the design community and our clients have become complacent. Everyone seems to assume that green design is just going to happen when we should be pushing for even better designs and products.

IF: What do you believe to be the primary value of good design to your clients?

KW: The primary value is money, plain and simple.  It is astonishing how many clients still don’t get this.  You don’t need a Harvard study to tell you that a happy and healthy staff is going to be more productive, will have less absenteeism, will have less turn over, and be the best recruiting tool you have ever seen.  Good design supports all of this.  Of course it is important for a company to have a good culture as well, but you can’t have a good culture and bad design.  On an annual per square foot basis, businesses pay 10 times (and often more) for the cost of their staff compared with the cost of their space.  Given that disproportion, a relatively small investment in a better design can yield huge results.

IF: What are you working on currently?

KW: I’m working on a very progressive law firm that is in the process of rebranding itself completely.  It is a perfect time to design a new space that supports the new branding effort.  The legal profession is changing and I have really enjoyed working with them on what that might look like.  And of course they want to be LEED-CI platinum.  I’m also involved in a number of other projects that are all over the map in terms of size and project type.  I love variety!

IF: How does flooring contribute to the overall design solution for a project?

Flooring plays a big part because it is everywhere.  You want the flooring to be supportive of the overall design strategy but never THE design strategy.  Nowadays, with offices being so open and walls coming down, flooring is taking on new importance in defining different areas within a project.

IF: If you were able to give one piece of advice to young designers just starting out, what would it be?

Work on being as well rounded as possible.  Design is only a small part of what we actually do.

IF: What’s next on the sustainability horizon?

KW: There is greater emphasis now on human health and wellbeing.  This includes taking a hard look at what is going into the materials we specify and what their lifecycle is.  We spend over 90% of our time indoors so the design of healthier interiors could even be considered preventive care.  Imagine that?

IF: You are the ONLY person who has achieved FAIA and FIIDA, and is also a LEED Fellow! How cool is that?

KW: Last I counted, there were about 11 or 12 of us who have fellowships in both the AIA and IIDA.  We used to joke about forming a club.  I suppose it is pretty cool to be the only one in the world that is also a LEED fellow.

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Design Strategist

Jennifer Busch

david-01lowres_web1David Ashen’s eponymous New York-based firm, dash design, has been delighting the senses since 2001, from the global retail concept for Godiva Chocolate, to a nation-touring pop-up shop for rapper Jay-Z’s Rocawear brand, to the 2003 reinvention (now defunct) of the infamous Limelight nightclub on 6th Avenue in Manhattan. Yet for all Ashen’s seemingly “cool” connections, what lies underneath is a regular guy who feels strongly that “design equals strategy” and believes first and foremost in creating projects that are innovative and thoughtful for his (mostly) hospitality, retail and restaurant clients. The fact that his work regularly draws media attention has not changed his attitude—a noteworthy point in this era of design stars—that his work is not about him. “My success is solely about whether our work helps my client succeed,” he says. And inevitably, it does. Interface caught up with David Ashen in New York City to find out more about his winning ways.

IF: How would you describe your design process in one word?

D Ash: Strategic

IF: Where do you turn for inspiration in your creative process?

D Ash: I need to get out of my office. I like to walk around. I walk into stores, exhibits, to see anything visual. I like to drive. I get in my car and I drive around neighborhoods to see what’s new. On Saturdays and Sundays I drive through the boroughs [of New York City], and try to stay a little off the beaten path, or I drive to my country house.

IF: What do you enjoy most about your work?

D Ash: I like interacting with my clients and getting into the problem solving, understanding their businesses. I like developing the big idea with the client, then stepping back and watching it all get executed by my team. The most joyful part is developing the relationship with the client and helping them grow. And I like to learn from each project.

IF:  What do you believe to be the primary value of good design to your clients?

D Ash: I think design is one layer of a formula. It’s an ingredient…a really solid ingredient. In retail good design will help drive your customers to buy things. In hospitality it will make people feel good. If it looks good and functions well it should drive some experience or behavior you are trying to elicit.

IF: What are you currently working on?

D Ash: I just finished a retail banking concept for Akbank in Istanbul, The Lexington Hotel in New York, and a restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Shanghai. I am working on a hotel renovation in Aruba, the second Urban Farmer restaurant for Sage in Cleveland, Mikimoto in Hong Kong, and the next generation of Godiva stores. I’m also working on a restaurant for Iron Chef Jose Garces, in Moorestown, NJ. [Interestingly, Ashen has designed hotels and stores in New York City, but never a restaurant.]

IF: How does flooring contribute to a space?

D Ash: We often start with the flooring. It is sometimes the hardest surface to work through. Floors and walls set the tone for a space. Carpet is often very personal. In hospitality, carpet either makes a statement, or it doesn’t make a statement.

IF: If you were able to give one piece of advice to young designers just starting out, what would it be?

D Ash: Listen.

IF: What is your favorite space you have ever been in?

D Ash: I had a weird, spiritual experience in La Tourette, a convent designed by Corbusier. I visited the chapel there when I was in grad school. The space was so specifically designed for sound and light. It could only work for what it was designed to do.

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Into the Wild

Jennifer Busch

Jason Gamache - Lucas Weisser_blogThere are few better places in the world to connect to nature than Alaska, so it stands to reason that Jason A. Gamache, AIA, NCARB, LEED-AP BD+C, of McCool Carlson Green in Anchorage, is passionate about sustainability—and particularly passionate about sustainable learning environments. He pioneered contemporary sustainable design concepts in Alaska, managing LEED certification on the State’s first three LEED certified schools (and its first two LEED Certified buildings for the municipality of Anchorage), is the founding chair for the Alaska Green Schools Committee, represents Alaska in Washington, D.C., as a congressional advocate, is a board member for the Cascadia Green Building Council, and was a founding member of the International Living Future Institute. Gamache is also the only USGBC Faculty in Alaska, and holds one of six positions on the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools Advisory Cabinet. If that’s not enough, he is currently the president of the Alaska Chapter Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI), where he facilitates the State’s CEFPI middle school student “School of the Future” design competition. Alaska boasted international winners for three consecutive years.

IF:  How would you describe your design process in one word?

JG: Immersing

IF: What do you enjoy most about your work?

JG:  One of the most interesting aspects of practicing architecture in Alaska is that the work often includes adventurous travel and your office can require a few hours on a Boeing 737 to get from one side of it to the other. The immense space that we work in lends to great opportunities in vast environments. One day you might be working on a small health clinic on a remote island or a rural native village, and the next day you might be designing a major international airport or large sports arena in a denser urban area.


IF:  How has your geographic location influenced your design philosophy?

JG:  Our geography has heavily influenced our work in Alaska. It includes four major climate zones—Arctic, Continental, Transitional and Maritime—where temperatures can range from the 90s to the -50s and the weather ranges from dry to wet. In addition to the temperatures you might also be designing for summer conditions with endless sunlight, as well as short winter days with prolonged darkness. For an example of scale, Alaska is twice the size of Texas, more than one fifth the size of the contiguous 48 states, and would stretch from the east coast to west coast at its farthest points. These environmental design criteria drive us to be diverse, efficient and practical in our solutions. Not only do we design for harsh environments, but we also give special attention to project planning, material procurement, and construction scheduling, which prove to be critical elements of the process. We are working on the development of sustainable design in Alaska, reconnecting indigenous building practices with modern innovations. The mission is to create beautiful buildings that exist harmoniously with nature, complement the landscape, and can be sustained through diverse climate conditions. The need to be sustainable is an inherent condition.

IF:  What do you believe to be the primary value of sustainable design in the education environment?

JG:  The heart of sustainability comes from implementing smart design strategies and transcends the act of being “green”.  The term “green” has sabotaged the idea of sustainability. “Green” and “sustainable” are not interchangeable terms, as you can have a green idea that is not at all sustainable for a particular project. When you institute smart design as the baseline, sustainability is an outcome of good planning. Looking deeper, being sustainable is about being able to sustain… to sustain life, life sustaining. It’s a sustaining ability. Focusing particularly on educational facilities, I believe in an approach to sustain life and do that by creating healthy, safe learning environments (for faculty and students) that are cost effective and energy efficient (economically sustainable). Faculty and student health is critical regardless of the facility type, and it’s also essential for teaching and learning. Unhealthy learning environments are not only potentially harmful to the body, but also create barriers to education, especially in a classroom where the transmission of knowledge occurs in a traditional sender-receiver format.  We can make great strides in educational environments when we can connect the facility directly to the learning so the school becomes a teaching tool, going beyond the school as a teaching space.

IF:  What is the most interesting thing you are working on currently?

JG:  The office has many interesting projects in the works. Our focus is on public facilities, which is rewarding because this type of work is often created to add value to communities and improve the quality of life. At the moment we are working on a large sports arena for the local university as well as several other school projects. Schools are particularly interesting because they tend to become vital community centers. One is a CareerTechnicalHigh School. The project is an expansion of a new school that we completed seven years ago and has more than overcome the stigma that was once associated with the antiquated term “Av-tech”. This nontraditional school blends great design with a full academic program that is built around career pathways, and it has quickly become the community’s “school of choice”.

IF:  If you could give one piece of advice to young designers just starting out, what would it be?

JG:  Be flexible to change, allow for adaptability, and become vested in your communities. Share what you learn along the way with your competition if you are truly committed to building sustainable communities. Good architecture is created by immersing yourself in the design challenge, not reacting to the problem. Utilize the team around you to build good solutions. Architecture is not created for us. It’s created for the occupants of that building or community, and they should be fully engaged in the process.

IF:  What inspires you?

JG:  I find inspiration in acts of kindness, the generosity of others, and the behavior of living systems in nature, which are resilient and regenerative.

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Designer Spotlight: Christian Davies

Jennifer Busch

1 Davies, Christian_FITCHThe work of British designer Christian Davies’ of FITCH has been recognized extensively in the industry, including multiple first place category honors from every major retail design award in the U.S. His recent experience has covered a wide variety of assignments including Luxottica, McDonalds, Harley Davidson and Tiffany & Co. – with projects in the U.S., Europe, China, India, and Brazil. A recipient of a Chain Store Age 40 Under 40 award and a past Business Week Designs of the Decade winner, Davies recently added yet another accolade to his impressive resume by being named a 2012 Retail Design Luminaire by DDI Magazine.

Interface: How would you describe your design process in one word? 

Christian Davies: Driven.

IF: Where do you turn for inspiration during your creative process?

CD: Increasingly away from the world of traditional design and to things on its periphery. I’m totally obsessed with craftsmen right now, by builders, makers – especially those that use their hands. I want to learn how to make more and more things, to understand that the making is often more important than the object itself and to find ways to bring that into my process. I’m designing and building a garden for the first time in my life and I’m learning so much through that, none of which is really about gardening but more about proportion, sense of scale and the importance of texture and color. I’m coming back to photography after a few years ignoring it. And I’ve never had a good relationship with art, but as I’m getting older that is starting to change.

IF: What do you enjoy most about your work?

CD: The urge to design comes from a yearning to improve things. While I truly believe we are all born creative, I think you know from a very early age if this idea of making things better is something that you enjoy or not. If it is, it’s primal, hard wired, it’s always there, kind of like an itch you can’t scratch. So, the days I enjoy my job the most are the days I figure out how to scratch it. But of course, just like an itch, it’s back pretty soon.

IF: What do you believe to be the primary value of good design to your clients?

CD: I almost don’t know where to start. Good design can achieve so many things. Most of all though, a commitment to good design says something to the world about a company or a brand. It speaks to what drives them, what is important to them. I’m increasingly seeing the word design being used in manifestos and pieces on corporate culture, which is a very good thing. Of course, following through on those words is a little more problematic sometimes. But that’s where designers come in.

5 things inspiring Christian Davies


IF: Is there anything in particular happening in the design world right now that inspires you?

CD: Lots actually. I’m thrilled to see a return to simplicity, to minimalism. In my work, design is a vehicle to deliver experiences. Over the past few years we have evolved to a point where design is no longer ‘fussing’ with those experiences. Rather it’s just working to serve them up to people in the best way possible. I like that idea very much, the idea of design being a facilitator. Not always having to shout.

But against that backdrop there’s a lovely whimsy creeping back into design too. It feels very ‘20 years ago’ to me but there’s more and more design making me smile now.

IF: What are you currently working on?

CD: Wish I could tell you.

IF: What does the flooring solution contribute to the overall design of a space?

CD: I’ve worked a lot with the flooring industry and there’s almost nothing else that can have such a profound effect on a space. It is transformative in a very visceral way, and it’s always — like good lighting – something that people notice. It’s such a statement, even when it’s designed to be recessive. One of my favorite things to watch is sunlight on a floor, to see how a room changes throughout the day because of the flooring.

If you were able to give one piece of advice to young designers just starting out, what would it be?

CD: I’m seeing a real lack of passion amongst our young designers today. I’m waiting for the next big thing to come around, and I really hope it comes from someone young, but I don’t see the “spark in the eyes” as much as I would like. I teach a lot, which I enjoy a great deal, and its becoming increasingly rare for me to find truly original thinking. Before being constantly ‘connected,’ we had to go on a ‘journey’ to find the things that inspired us. (Sometimes literally.) Now it’s just too easy. And I think its getting worse. I’m reading an amazing book by Kenya Hara right now and in it he talks about the lack of depth in our modern world. As he puts it, it’s not that the human mind can’t process vast amounts of information, it’s just that today, most of that information is not very good. And so I would encourage young designers to come up with their own thoughts.

IF: What is your favorite space that you have ever been in?

CD: Very early in my career I lived in London and I remember the first time I visited the Conran Shop in Brompton Cross. That was a moment for me when it all fell into place and I understood what great design was about. I think I literally spent most of the day there. It’s in the Michelin Building which has such an awesome sense of place and of history, but then the modern stuff just slides in there. It’s an amazing sleight of hand and one Sir Terence has always been very good at. He did it at the Design Museum too, and in some of his restaurants. Sort of blurring the edges just enough that the old and the new sit side by side. I’ve always been a fan of that.


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Posted in Category Design Inspirations, Designer Spotlight | 1 Comment