Practice Profile – Wilson Associates

James Parker reports on an established and growing international practice which is renowned for its luxury interior architectural design.

Wilson Associates, founded in 1971, now has a truly global reach with eight offices across six continents, its success built on a reputation for creating sumptuous interiors in the hospitality sector. With over 300 design and architecture professionals often working on an inter-office basis to produce the goods for its demanding clients, the firm says it aims to “create new definitions of luxury for an era that’s increasingly well-travelled, connected and culturally diverse.”

The company prides itself on its “dynamic talent” and “collaborative spirit” which it uses to “inspire and engage” its clients. This involves a painstaking approach to getting the details exactly right in order to achieve results which are not only cool, but also culturally appropriate for the setting. Across its offices in Dallas, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Shanghai and Singapore, the firm offers a “full range of design services.”

Wilson Associates was founded by Dallas-based interior architectural design specialist Trisha Wilson and has its headquarters in the city. Wilson got her start in the interior design field in 1971 when she designed a train-themed restaurant, which was a “smashing success” according to Maud Capet, senior designer in the Dubai office. Having found her calling, Wilson went on to design a number of restaurants in the brand-new Hilton Anatole hotel in Dallas. Their popularity led a South African businessman, Sol Kerzner, to commission Wilson to design a resort just outside Johannesburg.

Since its humble beginnings Wilson Associates has grown organically with the simple goal of creating great design. This was despite the fact that Trisha Wilson “never planned to have the company expand the way it has,” according to Maud Capet.

Since the 1990s, Wilson Associates has designed some of the world’s most iconic addresses. Ranging from royal palaces and Michelin-starred restaurants to a designer hotel inside the world’s tallest building (the “opulently minimal” Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa), they are all the product of Wilson’s personal mantra: “It can be done.”

Beyond design flair, social responsibility has been another key objective for Wilson and remains a fundamental part of the firm’s operations. Long before the term Corporate Social Responsibility was coined, she instilled the approach into her associates, and even established her own non-profit in 1997. The Wilson Foundation continues to help young people in the Limpopo province in South Africa through health and education initiatives.

EMBEDDING INTERIOR DESIGN

Getting aesthetics right in luxury hospitality interiors is often about respecting the structural aspects in order to achieve holistic design. To this end, when the opportunity arises, the firm will consults the project architect to ensure the interior design theme harmonises with the overall structural approach. According to Capet, this is best achieved “when there is an existing relationship with the client.”

She explains:

“In order to ensure a project will be built as per the design intent, it is crucial to involve the interior design process at an the early stage of the architectural design. For example, often it is easier to make a request to the structural engineers or the architects to change the structure to accommo- date better space.” Capet gives the example of where the architectural “grid lines” between load-bearing walls might be too tight, and “we won’t be able to meet the requirements for the standard guest rooms.”

“In other cases,” she continues, “such as creating a main feature in an entrance lobby, we may need to coordinate with the architect to realise the possibility of creating a double-height volume.” Generally, says Capet, the sooner the interior designer is involved, the better the design is likely to be.

Wilson Associates creates 3D visuals of interiors to examine factors such as the limitations of the structural beams/columns, but also the services such as AC grilles. “We reflect on all aspects in the 3D renderings to make sure it looks as close as possible to the final interior.”

HOLISTIC LICENCE

According to Capet, the practice is keenly focused on achieving a holistic, textural feel for interiors – but the firm is also conscious of the need to avoid being too clinical in the effort to be ‘modern’ – while addressing the durability needs of high-traffic environments.

“The modern era has become too sleek, too clean, too perfect,” she says. “It is the smartphone generation: the lines are straight, the finishes are very smooth, very cold. There is no texture, we are losing the human aspect.”

She continues: “There is a palpable trend in the design industry to come back to the simple human aspects in the use of materials and colour schemes. Instead of using polished stainless steel and aluminium panels, interior designers are tending to choose finishes that one can touch and feel, and which elicit emotions when entering a space.” She gives the examples of using reclaimed wood, and textured concrete panels as key trends, and warmer, natural colours such as forest green.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

Wilson Associates places a high value on a meticulous approach, but the firm is aware of practicalities when it comes to realising a project.

“Design is like a piece of art, you can always improve it,” says Capet. “But to make the projects a reality, we need to draw a line and decide when to stop creating and when to start detailing.” She says it’s important that a project is “well documented,” in order to “make sure it will be built as per the design intent.” This includes “following up with the fit-out contractor on site, until the project opens its doors to the public.” She asserts: “This is the only way to assure the final quality of the project.”

Part of creating a truly notable interior design is challenging clients’ expectations or approaches, says Capet.

“It is essential to listen to the client and answer their expectations. But it is our role as designers to show the client another vision of things, and to challenge the original approach and brief in order to create a ‘never seen before’ interior.”

She gives the example of a “luxurious residential tower,” where the client wanted a crystal chandelier in the middle of the space, as a main feature – what she says is a very traditional approach.

“We try to break from the expected norms of interiors and to propose new ideas, new shapes. So we convinced the client to have a structural element in the centre of the space instead.” Modelled as a floor-to-ceiling light sculpture, the result looks more like a piece of art than a traditional chandelier. “By changing the approach completely, we have created a surprise when entering the lobby,” Capet notes.

CULTURE

When working in a variety of international settings, getting an interior’s ‘culture’ right to suit not just the client, but also a diverse array of customers, is paramount. However, could designers’ attempts at cultural appropriateness backfire?

Maud Capet admits that dealing with cultural aspects “is very delicate.” She gives the example of a recent hotel project: Anantara Ras Al Khaimah in United Arab Emirates.

“Despite the fact the hotel was located in an Arab country, Anantara is an Asian brand, and the client wanted to create an interior inspired by Thai culture. While they agreed that we could use a little Arabic inspiration, it was to be very discreet and blended.”

Capet explains:

“It was very challenging, since depending on how you detail a panel, for example, it could be ‘too Asian’ or ‘too Arabic’. For example, in Arabic culture it is not appropriate to include animal representations, but in Asian culture they are very common. The answer was to be very meticulous in our choice of pattern and finish.” She concludes: “There is a very thin line between a well balanced, successful design, and one which is too themed.”

CONNECTIVITY

Always focused on customer needs, Wilson Associates is increasingly creating flexible spaces that let them stay ‘connected’. However, is enabling customers to be on the internet at all times sometimes at odds with the creation of unified and elegant design?

Capet notes that a successful interior should provide “easy connectivity,” adding that “nowadays clients expect spaces to be more flexible to their different needs; you are less likely to see a dedicated area for working and a dedicated area for relaxing. People tend to work with their laptop on their knees a lot more often than on an actual desk.”

She says that while this means offering various type of different seating arrangements with well-integrated USB and power outlets, interior designers can foster connectivity by “providing it in a discreet way, integrating it within the joinery of the interiors in an elegant manner, so it doesn’t change the aspect of the interior.”

The firm itself is making connections to help it grow further. In March 2014, it joined forces with ArcPlus, the parent company of the East China Architectural Design & Research Institute (ECADI), to create a “dominant new force in the design industry.”

Based in Shanghai, ArcPlus is one of China’s largest and most influential architectural and engineering design firms, providing a full spectrum of services. Over the past 60 years, it has grown into an integrated architecture, design, planning and consulting group, incorporating more than 15 professional subsidiary companies.

The future certainly looks bright, and Capet says that the firm’s biggest challenge now is to continue to exceed client expectations and remain a leading interior design player, able to offer design services to any size and complexity, anywhere in the world.