With a new division and big plans, the planet’s largest hospitality design firm is bringing its signature styling to private residences.
To hear René Gross Kærskov tell it, Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), his 50-year-old firm, is just giving its clients what they want. After decades of dominating the realm of hospitality architecture—high-end hotels, restaurants, and the like—and growing into the largest firm of its kind on the planet, the Los Angeles–based company has launched HBA Residential, which concentrates on home design. “Over the years, people have stayed in our hospitality projects, and they want us to design their homes as well,” says Kærskov, co-CEO of HBA. “We’ve responded to clients coming to us.”
Ian Carr, Kærskov’s co-CEO, says the time is right. “The main reason for formalizing the undertaking is that for 10 to 20 years, HBA has been the world’s largest residential designer and we never really spoke about it as a distinct service that we do,” he says. “In a world that needs increased specialization and focus, the time was right for us to set up a dedicated team.” Though HBA has quietly fulfilled requests for private homes since the firm’s founding in 1965 in Beverly Hills (residential work makes up about a quarter of HBA’s projects), it now has a dedicated division, based in Singapore, that can step up its response to a key trend: People want their favorite hotels to look more like their homes, and they want their homes to look more like their favorite hotels. “Residential is hospitality, and hospitality is residential. That’s the easy answer,” says Kærskov. Carr, while stopping short of saying that the stylistic line between the two forms of architecture has been blurred out of existence, acknowledges the link between booking an overnight in an HBA-designed hotel and later asking HBA to design a home. “Many clients come to us because they stayed in our hotels, so obviously there’s a very clear connection between hotel design and residential design,” he says. “And many people end up living in our hotels permanently or semipermanently, treating it as their home.”
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Unveiled in 2014, HBA Residential is the latest HBA spinoff, joining a collection of purpose-built endeavors that HBA has debuted since 2009. Its predecessors include Illuminate, a lighting design consultancy, and Canvas, which is skilled in handling all aspects of artwork, from commissioning to procuring to installation. “I’d love to say we were brilliant and figured it out, but it was clients coming to us, saying, ‘I need help with lighting. I need help with art.’ We responded to the needs of our clients,” says Kærskov. It is, he says, this focus on listening to the people who hire them that has helped HBA to grow into a behemoth that employs nearly 1,600 staff members in 17 offices worldwide and delivers both giants of luxury hospitality and the most exquisite private homes at the same time.
Among these giants is the Dalian Castle Hotel, which opened in September in northeast China. It is very much a castle, with turrets and towers and impressively outsize proportions: 684,000 square feet and a further 11.9 acres for landscaping and traffic areas. The “design narrative” that HBA wrote for the project states, “Ultimately, we wanted to convey the notion that this castle was brought over from Europe, piece by piece, and was carefully and meticulously reassembled in the hillsides of Dalian, China.” It replaces a previous castle-like property built on the site in 2001, and it retains the memory of the first building in the form of flourishes such as the walkway visible at its left. What makes the Dalian Castle Hotel a success is its believability and workmanship. “Everything about the castle is real. It’s not Disney,” says HBA partner Kathleen Dauber, who was vital to the Dalian project. Its lobby communicates a sense of wealth and European flavor, with opulent choices of stone and a ceiling that calls to mind the interior roof of the Grand Palais in Paris. Dauber’s contemporary castle avoids the traps of calcifying into a museum or drifting into Mad King Ludwig territory through judicious use of layering. “There’s detail wherever the eye looks,” she says. “This,” she adds, “is the only new build of this type. Nobody builds like this anymore. It’s like going to a movie theater in the 1920s.”
Inge Moore, an HBA partner and principal of the Gallery HBA in London, created an equally theatrical interior for Il Lago dei Cigni, a restaurant in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Its decor references its namesake, the classic ballet Swan Lake. One of its most bewitching details arose from Moore’s grappling with the physical limits of a room; faced with a circular space that had a structural column in the middle, she clad the column in glittering selenite and hung more pieces of the mineral from the ceiling to create a fantastical wintry tree-cum-Maypole. “It became a feature point for the whole space,” she says. “You come into the restaurant and want to sit underneath it. It immediately resolved the space.”
Wooden beams on the ceiling and copper-colored globes of blown glass over the bar add warmth to the overall palette. Moore has experience with designing residences as well, and about 10 percent of the work at the HBA London office consists of individual private homes, while 20 percent relates to residential developments. She says that translating Il Lago dei Cigni’s interior to a residence would mean importing its spirit rather than its precise details—for example, having a dramatic focal feature as you enter, but not necessarily a tree with selenite bark and leaves.
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Other recent interiors from HBA projects of Moore’s could be dropped directly into a modern luxury home, no translation or transformation needed. Having worked within the Swiss Alpine decorative aesthetic only for the Alpina Gstaad, which opened in the resort town of Gstaad, Switzerland, in December 2012, she produced a hotel interior that is as distinctive as it is alluring. “The architecture dictated [the shapes of] certain spaces, but we can use them to the maximum,” she says. “Every room is designed to work with its angles. None are the same, which is nice.” A local company crafted the woodwork ceilings, which provide authenticity and character, and the stones that compose the four main fireplaces are Alpine boulders selected one by one from the beds of the rivers that sculpted them.
The Couture Suite at the St. Regis Rome, unveiled in July 2012, likewise would fit perfectly into an upscale apartment. Drawing her inspiration from the city’s history with fashion (the designer Valentino made his name there), Moore chose amber chandeliers that evoke the folds of a dress, and she tucked a tailor’s dummy into one of the bedrooms. The hallways are graced with framed fashion prints, as well as images of couture legends and film stars who have stayed at the St. Regis. The abstract artworks over the beds emphasize red, Valentino’s signature color.
Works of art have enhanced elite private homes since well before Dutch East India Co. merchants patronized the Netherlands’ master artists in the 17th century, and the importance of art is only growing stronger; the arrival of Canvas testifies to that. “I think a home without art, luxurious or no, would be a sad place to be,” says Canvas’s Matthew Whitaker. “Art is a luxury, but it doesn’t have to be a $5 million painting. A beautiful drawing by an art student just out of school can be as compelling as a painting by Matisse.” Canvas is not automatically enlisted for any and all HBA projects that have art needs, but Whitaker’s plate is nonetheless full. Roughly one out of three of his private-home clients requests help with commissioning artwork, while seven out of 10 hospitality clients do.
In the grand, soaring public spaces of HBA-designed luxury hotels, commissioned art serves a crucial role: adding elements that bring a human scale. For the Raffles Istanbul, opened in September, Whitaker hired the Atlanta sculptor Martin Dawe to create Lavinia, an abstract female-form monumental bronze that measures 21 feet long and 11 feet high. “The scale needed to be proportionate to the space but also relatable, so the people wouldn’t feel overwhelmed or engulfed,” Whitaker says. “Having it be figurative was helpful, from that standpoint.”
Chris Godfrey, head of HBA Residential, knows that art is vital to his clients and embraces it fully. The company’s vision for a contemporary villa exterior in Mumbai, India, uses a well-placed figurative sculpture to underscore the physical boundary where the 24,000-square-foot, six-story house functionally splits in two. The front of the house is its public side, intended for parties and entertaining; the rear, which faces the sea, represents its private side, a respite for the family that owns it. The home’s front also features jali screens that have been given a modern update and pressed into service as privacy partitions, as well as a canopy of thin-stemmed stainless-steel “trees” that greet arriving visitors.
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The Mumbai home is one of five HBA Residential projects that are currently under way. All are in Asia, with two of these in China, two in India, and one in Bali. (Eventually, HBA Residential intends to expand to Europe and North America.) A villa near Delhi, India, should be the first home to reach completion, in early summer, right around when the Singapore-based company will celebrate its first anniversary; the others will finish between 2016 and 2017. Many of these homes reflect the trend toward rooms and settings that would fit equally well in a boutique hotel. Indeed, Godfrey recalls one of his HBA Residential clients asking him straight-out for “a boutique hotel for one.” Godfrey observes that the desire to blur the lines is built into the lifestyles the clients lead; most have multiple homes and spend a short time in each, and many spend a lot of time in hotels around the world, which is bound to have an impact, consciously or not.
Spaces that would suit a boutique hotel can make pragmatic sense in a private home. The entrance of the Delhi villa to be completed this summer opens directly into the residence—no hallways or other transitional areas—so it is perfectly logical to make its first room a lobby-like space. “Some guests may come this far and go no further,” Godfrey says. HBA Residential is handling the interior design of the 44,000-square-foot, two-story home, working within the pavilion-style architecture and the limited palette of grays, dark browns, and blacks that the client favors. The chandeliers provide an aesthetic element that carries through several spaces. Bronze expands the neutral color scheme, adding subtle hints of luster throughout. A particularly clever use of the metallic shade is in the dining room, which features bronze mesh fabric sandwiched between sheets of glass. “Things reveal themselves to have a greater richness at close proximity,” Godfrey says. “I think it’s nice when things reveal themselves a little more gently.”
But it is a project in central China—a 10-story, 200,000-square-foot estate with a staff of at least 35—that drives the point about hotels and residences home. “It is a boutique hotel,” says Godfrey. “It’s the size of one, if not bigger.” Contracted as the interior designer for the residence, Godfrey says HBA Residential “took forward what was already developed, with a dramatic response when appropriate and a domestic response when appropriate,” further enhancing the space that they inherited.
The ground-floor foyer demanded drama. Godfrey’s team delivered, incorporating striated Eramosa Graffiti marble imported from Italy on the walls, bronze light fixtures and accents, and a showstopping acrylic sculpture for the skylight above the large square black marble pool. “The atrium [on the floor above] has two galleries that look into this space,” Godfrey says. “Rather than being two galleries that look into a hole, we created a light sculpture that’s almost 10 meters [32 feet] tall. It harmonizes the whole thing. We played with scale by introducing an art installation of our own that directly contrasts with the pool.”
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Making the ground-floor living area livable was among the toughest design problems to solve. “It transitions in scale from one of the biggest [spaces] in the house to domestic scale,” Godfrey says. “The challenge, again, was to create harmony and stability between the two.” The strategically placed piano helps bridge the gap between public and private, but the staircase is crucial too. Godfrey is a fan of using screens and staircases as tools for manipulating a room’s size and scale. Here, the staircase “helps divide and define the space, but it creates drama, in and of itself.” He views the staircase as one of a series of standout features installed on the ground floor that begins with the acrylic sculpture in the foyer and ends with the light fixture that hangs from the cutout in the living-area ceiling, which together “hold and form the space differently.”
Curves, so little in evidence on this home’s ground floor, have free rein in the dining room. The table where the generations come together for meals is circular. The rings of the chandelier repeat the basic form, which itself represents the continuity of family ties over time. “We picked up on the cultural nuance,” Godfrey says.
HBA Residential plans to grow slowly but steadily from a staff of 12 to at least 35 ultimately. Triumphs such as the Indian and Chinese homes should help accelerate the process. “For me, the key point is creating an aesthetic that’s still a home, or still has elements of a home,” Godfrey says. “It’s not just designing a hotel for one.”
Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), 310.829.9087,