Interview with Karsten Schmidt-Hoensdorf for Hotel Spec
This interview was held for the Magazin Hotel Spec. Hotel Spec – The publication is the world’s leading annual source of reference focusing on hotel design and refurbishment.
Interviewer: How did you get involved in hotel design?
Karsten Schmidt: Before, during and after the History and Politics degree I took in France and Germany, I was always intensely preoccupied with Art and Architecture, both actively and passively.
To me, getting myself involved in the practical application of imagination, creativity and emotion seemed more exciting than following a path as a journalist or a historian.
At the age of 30, therefore, I began to study for second degree in Interior Design, and subsequently graduated successfully from this course.
It soon became clear that my passion was for gastronomy and the hotel business. I started with clubs, bars, restaurants and small hotels. I won competitions, and I could read in the reaction from my Clients and the media that I was travelling along the right path…
My passions are for cooking, travel, eating and pleasure. The international hotel industry in which I now operate gives me the opportunity to embrace and inspire emotions, as well as to understand and react to different cultures.
I: That all sounds very engaging and impassioned – does it mean that you see the hotel business a playground?
K: Yes, exactly! But I have a highly rational, constructively-trained side that also needs to find its expression. This is why I’m attracted by the intellectual, rational challenge presented by a building that is as complex as a hotel, and why the work gives me so much satisfaction. The needs of the guests and staff, the functional contexts, maintenance, cost management, staff management – all these are interwoven to form a highly complex blend. As well as creativity, therefore, my work also calls for intelligence, extensive experience and a profound knowledge of the industry in order to keep an eye on everything and take the whole picture into consideration.
It just makes me proud to participate in hospitality project teams, and to make use of my long experience and broad-based expertise!
I: Do you still benefit at all from your history studies?
K: Yes, definitely! I’m a lateral thinker, and my intense involvement with history and art has given me a deep interest and understanding of a very broad range of cultures – both geographically and socially.
From my own point of view and work experience as an interior designer, I can tell you that a cool music club and a hotel for nature-lovers in the mountains of Switzerland are much further apart intellectually than two business hotels located in Kolkata and New York.
However, I enjoy getting to grips with vastly dissimilar people and their different mentalities, expectations, wishes and needs, and then designing spaces to suit them. For me, this is and will continue to be absolutely fascinating.
My design work on behalf of a hotel always touches upon an extremely broad range of factors and issues, including the hotel’s location, culture, nature, history and tradition.
I: Tell me about other aspects and topics:
K: Of course, I carry out a precise, thorough analysis of the usage, goals and expectations of the Client and the users – i.e. the hotel’s operator, staff and guests.
Because of my extensive experience, it is also absolutely natural by now for me to take into consideration the functionalities and the cost consequences during both the construction process and the hotel’s routine operation at a later date.
I: How do you differ from other providers of hospitality design?
K: One of the most significant differences between me and most other hospitality companies world-wide lies in the fact that they emphasise their lack of a style of their own. They “simply” fulfil the wishes of the Client.
This is why most hotels all around the world now look so similar. They sink into a homogenous mishmash, without any clear image, individuality or originality. They don’t have any visual impact and are completely interchangeable – their guests forget them as soon as they walk out of the hotel.
My team and I stand up for character, attitude and originality. A guest in any hotel should experience and remember their hotel’s corporate branding for its distinctive corporate interior design.
I’m interested in outstanding performance, not average output.
I: Do you have a design style of your own?
K: Yes, I’m interested in modern, contemporary design. Anyone who looks at the work coming out of my office would see what I mean by that very quickly. I also love working on old buildings – but here too, I think the attraction and excitement lies in the incorporation of the new into the old. My interior design work is often both opulent and minimal at the same time. In my work “Less is more” also implies rich and luxurious as a modern design approach.
Space is luxury. The quality of one object outweighs vast amounts of trinkets.
I: During my research for this interview, the editor of a leading international design magazine told me that he thought you were currently one of the most stylish hotel designers around.
Do you share his opinion?
K (smiling): That’s all very flattering, though I think that particular editor might tend towards understatement…
Seriously though: the ability to convert lifestyle and international trends in art, design and culture into spatial images and ambient compositions is certainly one of my particular personal strengths.
I: You have worked as an Interior Design and Corporate Identity Consultant on behalf of various national and international brands, such as Sony and Electrolux, and still do so. I’m particularly interested in your activities as the Interior Design Director for the luxury Swiss hotel chain, Swissôtel.
Tell me about your experience with this brand.
K: When the Swissôtel Management invited me to this role three years ago, I was very pleased to take on the assignment.
First of all, I worked with my own team and the Swissôtel operations team to develop a design manual that is now used world-wide and is updated on an annual basis.
A short version of this manual is accessible as an iPad app (Swissôtel C&D) to any members of the general public who may be interested.
Swissôtel is the only hotel chain anywhere in the world that bears the name of its country of origin within the name of its brand. Swissôtel sees itself as representing Switzerland and its values to the wider world.
Switzerland stands out within the international hotel business for its architecture, design and graphics, as well as its history and role.
“Less is more”. For example, a commitment to clear modernity, precision, reliability, functionality and first-class design is also part of the package – in harmony with the requirement for comfort, cosiness and the experience of genuine hospitality.
It was quite a challenge to encapsulate all this in a book – the Design Manual – but for me personally, it was a rewarding experience and a real exercise in research.
I: What exactly do you do on behalf of Swissôtel?
K: My specific consultancy activity begins with recommendations to our investors about which particular interior designers they should contact about the work.
Once the interior design company has been appointed (which sometimes follows a competition between invited participants), I brief and coach the teams. The design manual, additional studies into individual topics and, of course, my own experience and competence play the main role at this stage.
I usually get to know the investors and the interior designer at an initial kickoff meeting.
Later, I provide feedback on the assignments, presentations, materialisations, etc. to the interior designer, in collaboration with our Swissôtel operations team and the various individuals involved in the project. This stage may involve many people: architects, landscape architects and lighting designers, kitchen designers and FF&E and OS&E suppliers, to name but a few.
Quality Assurance is an important factor, as is adherence to the design philosophy.
Of course, as the coach to interior designers who may be scattered geographically all over the world, I always need to be one step ahead in relation to new technologies, creative solutions, knowing about how to calculate the ROI (return on investment) and so on. The Swissôtel Metropole Hotel is a good example for this.
I: New technologies and creative solutions are catch-all phrases: can you give me any examples?
K: These days, every professional is familiar with discussions about ipads, checking-in without going to the reception desk, the integration of room management systems with check-in for regular guests, etc. I will always need to think all this through properly, examining very carefully whether we have really reached the point where all our guests can understand and use these kinds of systems intuitively.
An interior designer needs to keep a firm grip in this respect – to be able to soberly resist all those “tempting” hi-tech sales pitches.
There’s a lot going on in other areas too. These days, a hotel bathroom can provide a spa experience or a taste of wellness.
For example, the shower might be fitted with a steam generator, or the bathtub might boast jacuzzi nozzles (by now, hygiene problems are a thing of the past). These products are now available at a reasonable price – you just have to know where to buy them and how to include them in your budget.
This type of item is also useful for differentiating between room categories, e.g. where different prices need to be charged for rooms that have the same size of floor plan.
Sensor engineering has also found its way into bathroom technology – and there you have another catchphrase. Imagine using a touchscreen, such as an ipad, to operate all the functions in a bathroom (water volume and temperature, type of shower, lighting, sound, TV, etc.). This could easily be integrated into a mirror glass or a shower screen.
Or how about creative solutions? Almost every hotel aims to provide a thriving all-day dining service. My team and I have carried out far-reaching research and studies in this area, and I believe that we can demonstrate surprising, successful concepts and create new options here too. These challenging problems are just what spur me on to see if we can’t provide more than what’s normally on offer.
I: How do you find working with other design offices?
K: Completely positive!
What I really find exciting in my work is that I meet so many, mostly younger, designers. I find them absolutely open and curious with regard to our design and quality requirements.
I feel then as if I’m playing the role of a teacher or a professor, assessing the level of each of his disciples, and acting effectively as an educator to achieve the best possible results with the greatest of respect and pleasure.
This is how I first made contact with many interior design companies world-wide, and I still follow the same route. Some of these companies employ up to 900 designers. As a result, I gain an insight into concepts, trends and country-specific features. I also get to see a wide range of the working methods and organisational structures used in design offices. One of the things I have discovered is that different organisational structures will also lead to differences in the quality of the design.
I: What do you mean by that?
K: The larger offices are usually led by a commercially-trained management, which employs interior designers to carry out the firm’s contracts. During the course of one project, I experienced frequent changes of personnel within the design team, which unfortunately usually resulted in a loss of expertise.
Things are different in a design-oriented office, where an interior architect acts as managing director. Once a project has been taken on by the office, the interior architect takes personal responsibility and manages the project from beginning to end.
I: Does that describe the structure and operating principles in your office, IDA14?
K: Yes, exactly so. I don’t want to run the biggest office or carry out the most projects. What I want to do is to develop the most fantastic projects, and to be there in person, acting as a driving force and sounding board for the Clients and the team.
This is the only way I want to work … the only way it can become a personally enriching experience – an experience that makes it worth taking the whole, frequently demanding process upon my own shoulders in the end.
I: The journey as its own reward?
K: Quite clearly, the reward for us all should be the outstanding final achievement – a beautiful, well-functioning hotel, regardless of whether it is located in a new building or a renovation:
Guests who feel at ease. Guests who move about freely and feel welcome and accepted on an individual and personal basis. Guests enjoying an ambience that repeatedly takes them by surprise, stimulating both their senses and their zest for life – and guests who then wax lyrical on TripAdvisor about their unique experience…
And the workforce, of course:
A motivating environment that enables both staff and management to feel good, and to pass this feeling on to their guests. A working environment that allows them to develop the best possible framework for their jobs, and to make an unhampered contribution to the success of the hotel.
It just has to be this way – and no other.
I: What are your hopes for your own future?
K: I am happy with the path I have carved out for myself, and with the opportunities it presents to me.
I feel that I still have a great deal to pass on … my experience in the hospitality industry, my artistic talent and my cultural insight.
My hope for myself is that I will be able to continue living and developing my life to the full.
by Karsten Schmidt
Dipl. Ing. Innenarchitekt
CH 8005 Zürich
T: 0041 44 463 12 33