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Rengy John: How to design luxury hotels
SINCE 2006, BLINK Design Group has risen quickly to become the leading luxury hospitality architecture and design firm in the region. Its portfolio of properties is as remarkable as the properties themselves.
Recent triumphs include the Raffles Maldives Meradhoo (opened in 2019) and The Capella Shanghai (2018). In 2020, it will unveil the Andaz Xiamen in China, The Regent Phu Quoc in Vietnam and The Setai, Miami in the US. In 2021, it will see the opening of The Ritz-Carlton Jiuzhaigou in China and The Mandarin Oriental Manila in the Philippines.
When you look at these hotels, what they have in common is a precise minimalist aesthetic, with tasteful touches of luxury, and an overall promise of refuge from the outside world. They make you want to give up your electronic devices at the door, and surrender yourself to the slow rhythms of the sanctuary.
BLINK Design operates out of Singapore, Bangkok and Shanghai. It was founded by Japanese-American Clint Nagata who hails from Hawaii. Its managing partner Rengy John was born and raised in South Africa, before marrying a Singaporean and becoming a Singapore citizen. Mr John, 49, and his wife have two kids.
On your website, it says BLINK is “rooted in its philosophy of crafting bespoke and transcendent experiences through design”. “Transcendent” is a big word – especially in a world where technology gives us easy access to new experiences. How does an architecture and design house go about delivering “transcendence”?
Designing a hotel or resort is a complex process. It takes many years of experience to understand how to do it. A hotel is almost like a self-sustaining community. The guest enters, the room is made up, the food appears, everything runs like clockwork. And yet there is a whole bunch of operations behind the scenes that the guest can't see. So the first challenge is to make everything beautiful for the guest, and hide everything else. The second challenge is that it is a business. The design must meet the owners’ requirements, the operator’s vision and philosophy, and attract the requisite numbers of guests to recoup the costs of building and running the property… So you need a lot of experience and creativity to bring all that together and create something that’s great to look at and great to experience, and connects these philosophies. And because there are so many people involved in the process, if you can achieve about 70 percent of what you initially set out to do, I would consider that a success.
BLINK has a very simple approach to our design. Our founder Clint Nagata is a fourth-generation Japanese-American from Hawaii. And he has a very Zen and minimalist outlook. Our designs are very architectural but also very uncluttered. We’re always looking for ways to simplify the hotel’s operations and the guest’s journey such that they feel a sense of calmness as they walk through the property. That’s the first thing. The other thing is that we always seek inspiration from the site itself. We don't want to transplant what we've done before in a location. We want to root the actual design in the location. We want to draw from its history and traditions, its architectural details and local craftsmanship, its sense of materiality – all of which go into making the property, from its building materials to its furnishings.
Could you give an example of how you integrate these elements?
In the case of Raffles Maldives Meradhoo, which opened in 2019, we asked ourselves: How do you preserve the grandeur and history behind an iconic property like the Raffles Hotel? How do you transport a Singapore brand to the Maldives, which has an entirely different culture and doesn't have any of the existing colonial architecture of the Raffles? We took a very modern approach to it. We looked back at the hotel’s history and how it has hosted all kinds of celebrities, from presidents to pop stars. We focused on their celebrity lifestyles and asked ourselves: If we were celebrities, what would we want from our beach holiday? The Maldives gets a lot of Eastern European, Russians and Germans in winter. It also gets a lot of young Asian travellers, especially couples on their honeymoon. Now if you’re from Europe, you’ve seen colonial architecture all your life and wouldn’t want to travel to the Maldives to be reminded so much of home… So we freshened up the colonial blue color palette and added some touches reminiscent of colonial architecture. We recreated the Long Bar, something the Raffles is famous for, but this one is open and you can look at the sea. We respected the Maldivian culture and its people, the way they are relaxed and welcoming, the way they live clutter-free. So we kept the resort minimalist, allowing guests to feel the sand under their feet. The experience of the guest is a large part in the Maldives experience, the feeling of having space and freedom. We see our architecture as a platform for that precise experience.
BLINK has achieved a lot of success in under two decades. Apart from your design philosophy, what do you think is the professional ingredient that keeps the company ahead of the competition?
We know how to be quiet and just listen. Many a time, designers are very keen to share their vision. They want to show their creativity – and they are indeed creative. But for us, the creativity part is a given. We prefer to listen. We function almost like a design concierge for our clients. Our clients are often HNWIs who don’t like to be told what to do. We tell them what we think, but we take their views seriously. We work with them in a highly collaborative way. We keep the relationship healthy. Beside that, we’re also particular about our projects – we want to be as excited about the project as our clients are.
How do you see the expectations of luxury hospitality evolving in the coming years?
The demands of younger luxury travellers are different from older luxury travellers. All luxury travellers want to be able to tell a unique story about their trips, the things they saw, the authentic goods they purchased. But the younger luxury travellers want to be able to tell that story instantly. They want to be able to post the photo five seconds later on Instagram, so they must be availed of the opportunities to do that. And I think that's the reality, whether you're a luxury traveller or a backpacker. That’s become a part of who we are now, sharing everything instantly.
Right now, Covid-19 has hit the hospitality industry hard. Older luxury travellers are cautious, because one of the challenges of exotic locations is that they may not have the healthcare expertise should something happen. Younger travellers are more likely to take small risks, especially with the discounts on flights and hotels. They know if they follow certain guidelines – wash their hands frequently, don’t touch their faces often, use hand sanitisers, and so on – they can still have a great vacation.