Four Seasons Opens a Research and Design Lab

The opening of a research and design studio signals a new era for the venerable hotel brand.

The opening of a research and design studio signals a new era for the venerable hotel brand.

Bending into downward dog at Four Seasons Resort Lanai’s morning yoga class in June, I catch sight of Hulopoe Bay, the sandy Hawaiian sweep fringed by a band of palm trees and lazy cerulean swells. No surprise there, as the luxury hotel brand is known for its idyllic locations across all of the continents, save Antarctica. Coming back up to a standing position, my attention veers from the scenery to something more unanticipated: the makeup of the other participants, gathered on the seaside hula grounds that double as the yoga studio, hews decidedly millennial. As someone whose loyalty to the brand stretches back decades, my curiosity is piqued.

On the way to breakfast at the open-air dining deck, with its unfinished wood tables and natural fiber woven chairs, I fall into conversation with one of the guests who was considerably below the brand’s reported average age of 43. “We read about the renovations,” says the blonde San Francisco-based interior designer, on vacation with her investment banker husband. She’s referring to the estimated $450 million makeover of the 213-room, Larry Ellison-owned property that was completed in February. The grounds were swarming with other members of the cool, young, and stylish clique. The 25-year-old American fashion executive with his boyfriend, a soon-to-be family physician from India, the 29-year-old professional athlete with his equally fit girlfriend; all were sunning themselves by the clifftop swimming pool, dining at the new Nobu restaurant, and trekking up to Sweetheart Rock, an 80-foot boulder on the far side of the bay.

Each of them confesses to a curiosity born in reading about this formerly frumpy, Asian-themed resort’s transformation into a collection of serene, minimalist sanctuaries. As a journalist, I appreciate that the printed word still proves powerful. However, as my family’s unofficial travel agent, who regularly sends parents, aunts, and uncles—but rarely my cousins—to Four Seasons properties around the world, the demographics come as a surprise.

“We had exactly that young, urban couple in mind,” says the designer behind the makeover, Todd-Avery Lenahan, when I reach him at his office in Las Vegas. “Maybe they used to stay at a W hotel, but now seek a deeper connection through holistic, location-centric design, taken down to the smallest details.”

The Four Seasons Resort Lanai in Hawaii. (Photo: Courtesy Four Seasons Resort Lanai)

Lenahan’s approach to Lanai speaks to a broader pivot underway at the Four Seasons. A widely recognized byword for exceptional customer service and plush comforts, the collection of hotels has legions of dedicated guests, despite the lack of a formal loyalty program or earned rewards. The well-traveled, mostly over-40 clientele uniformly extols the staff’s personal recognition that never appears rote, a practice spelled out in great detail among the thick training tomes found in management offices at every property. Historically, no matter where you were in the world, you could step into a Four Seasons and know what to expect. Its consistency was its allure. But tastes change, as do consumers. In recent years, new openings have exhibited varied design schemes imbued with a more local essence, while the roster of designers attached to projects has displayed increasing star power. This month, the brand will launch the Research and Design Lab at its Toronto headquarters. There, they’ll experiment with the ergonomic aspects of the guest experience, cogitating over everything from alarm clocks to in-room desks.

My relationship with the brand is manifold. There were the six months I spent living and working at the two resorts in Bali, one on the beach at Jimbaran Bay—recently given a refresh by the late Indonesian interior designer Jaya Ibrahim—and the other inland, along the holy Ayung River, near Ubud. While I fondly remember the pillow-top mattresses, deep soaking tubs, outdoor showers, and plunge pools at both properties, I also recall silken pillows and bed throws festooned with flowers and colors more reminiscent of the British Isles than the Indonesian archipelago. In my Four Seasons travels from Chiang Mai to the Maldives, Koh Samui, and Langkawi, I was sure to find an ultra-comfortable bathrobe, albeit printed with homely floral patterns utterly incongruous to its tropical backdrop. In the urban context, traditional has trumped minimal, from the shiny lacquerware everywhere I looked at Four Seasons Hong Kong to the gilded furnishings across their European outposts from Istanbul at the Bosphorus to the Georges V in Paris.

Scenes at Four Seasons Bogatá. (Photo: Courtesy Four Seasons Bogatá)

The mission to make guests feel as if they’re actually at home—even in the Malaysian jungle or a remote atoll in the Indian Ocean—began to shift with the elevation of Christopher Norton to the newly created role of executive vice president of global product and operations in 2014. The long-time general manager appreciated the company’s existing clientele, but saw the future in disparate, site-specific design, expanding food and beverage offerings to appeal to a local customer base, and customizing in-depth experiences in each destination. Soon after moving up from his Paris-based regional role to the company’s Toronto headquarters, Norton set about to join industry peers like Peninsula and Marriott by creating a proprietary innovation lab to test future design and technology. In the field, he sought out rising talents like Lenahan and identified nearly complete projects by designers like Alexandra Champalimaud and Adam Tihany to brand as Four Seasons. The goal was to seduce the next generation of upscale travelers into their hotel rooms and onto their yoga mats. Promoted to COO earlier this year, Norton resigned in August to take up the role of chief executive at the fledging Equinox Hotels group. But the vision he set in motion is starting to bear fruit.

While Lenahan catalogues the finer points of his room design at Lanai—handmade textural headboards of juniper bark papier-mâché, well-buffed mahogany floors that meet zebra and teak wood-paneled walls—I begin to wonder how he got away with such neutral hued-minimalism, which extends to the hallways lined with custom petrified wood, slate, and stone (further renovations are planned for many of the resort’s public areas). “The conscious realignment came directly from Dana,” Lenahan recalls, referring to Four Seasons’s vice president of design, Dana Kalczak. “From our first meeting to discuss a new property in Lanai in late 2013, she encouraged us to break with the past.” Kalczak, he confirms, is best placed to speak about the loosening of the brand’s historically conservative standards as part of a strategic effort to evolve with shifting psychographics.

Scenes at Four Seasons Bogatá. (Photo: Courtesy Four Seasons Bogatá)

Catching form up with function represents a distinctly new chapter for a company founded by the son of Jewish immigrants to Canada. In 1961, after studying architecture in college, Isadore Sharp opened the Four Seasons Motor Hotel in downtown Toronto. The 126 guest rooms were not luxurious. However, the building’s design, with a center courtyard surrounding a swimming pool, was a hit with guests, overriding the hotel’s location on a street popular with drug dealers and prostitutes. High salaries and progressive working conditions engendered devotion among the staff, who received personalized training in professionalism for which the brand would become universally known.

The Four Seasons’s second act came nine years later, when Sharp chose to ignore market research and common sense by competing against London’s most elite names, like the Dorchester, Claridges, and the Ritz. He felt they lacked his company’s combination of luxurious accommodations and impeccable service. Despite higher rates, his 227-room Inn on the Park became one of the most profitable hotels in the world. A rise in leisure travel during the 1980s prompted the group to open its first beach resort, the Four Seasons Resort Maui, in 1990. Two years later, upon purchasing Regent International Hotels with its 10 locations, including trophy properties in Sydney, Hong Kong, and Beverly Hills, Sharp had created the world’s largest collection of luxury hotels.

Today, though the company’s website dedicates an entire page to its service-driven culture, there’s only one reference to aesthetics in the brand statement—to the use of “superior design and finishes.” However, Four Seasons has been stealthily shifting its balance towards contemporary living environments.

Four Seasons Dubai International Financial Centre. (Photo: Courtesy Four Seasons Dubai International Financial Center)

“If I can make my wife happy, anyone will be happy,” says interior designer Adam D. Tihany of his work at the recently completed Four Seasons Hotel Dubai International Financial Centre. While his wraparound headboards with strategically placed electrical outlets and thoughtful bedside lighting are nothing new for Tihany, they represent a notable, if small, step forward at Four Seasons, where beds were traditionally bracketed by side tables with standing lamps.

Curvaceous chaises, angled to take in the metropolis views, along with subtly evocative screens, lavish fabrics, and thoughtfully placed furniture finished in rich hues in the 106 guestrooms, are positioned next to striking, monochromatic, Bauhaus-linear bathrooms. The smooth flow and sex appeal gets matched throughout the public spaces by large-scale, manipulated photography that artfully mutates the Dubai skyline, and in the lobby lounge, where 12-foot golden silk tassels hang at all four corners. “My nod to One Thousand and One Nights,” he says, referencing the compilation of folk tales from the Islamic Golden Age.

The Four Seasons Casa Medina Bogatá in Columbia. (Photo: Courtesy Four Seasons Casa Medina)

In Bogotá, I get a view of the more localized focus at two new outposts relaunched under the brand’s flag: Casa Medina and the Four Seasons Hotel. On entering my standard room in the historic Medina property, originally built in 1946 as private apartments with stone columns and floor inlays from a demolished convent, my eyes hone in on the artwork above the vintage-style leather couch. The moody urban close-up, by Colombian photographer Felipe Quijano, turns out to be one of several pieces among each hotel’s extensive assemblage of Colombian art. “Dana was very encouraging of our decision to add local contemporary art,” says Lauren Rottet of Houston-based Rottet Studio, the designer behind the dual projects. “Combing through the city’s thriving gallery scene allowed us to curate a connection to Bogotá’s culture.” The surprisingly provocative collection includes socially charged portraits of Cartagena’s descendants of runaway slaves (known as palanqueras) by José Olano, and poignant street photographs exploring existential ambiguity by Sebastian Dávila, whose works feature annually at ARTBO, the city’s international art fair.

I ask the Rottet if the Four Seasons is leveraging design to shift its market focus towards the arising class of monied millennials, but she jumps in to disagree. “I think it reflects what creative minds want today, regardless of age,” says Rottet, who has also designed private spaces for Bill Gates and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. “They’re hungry for design strong enough to be timeless, yet completely contemporary.”

The Four Seasons Bogotá, especially, represents a crossroads of sorts for the brand. I’m staunchly in the camp encouraged by the incorporation of local artisanship, and am excited to find myself living, if only temporarily, within environments that Lenahan sums up as “designed not to feel just like home, but cooler than home.” However, here in Bogotá, already some traditionalists point to elements like Rottet’s modular, Colombian-coffee-brown velveteen sofa, and ask the staff pointedly, “What’s that doing here?”

The Four Seasons Casa Medina Bogatá in Columbia. (Photo: Courtesy Four Seasons Casa Medina)

To synthesize the evolving standards and to convey the new design syntax to future collaborators, this month the Four Seasons launches the Research and Discovery Studio in Toronto. I come expecting high-tech stations and virtual reality, but instead find an open, flexible series of workshops devised to allow Kalczak and her team to drill down on the minutiae of the Four Seasons’s top priority: the guest experience. Think shoe bags and shower heads, which were once tested in the Sharp’s home bathroom.

Kalczak explains the rationale behind this relaxed, low-tech lab. “We wanted to consider design in context,” says the 18-year company veteran of the real-life drawing board. “We’ll bring our interior designers here to educate them in the Four Seasons design language so they understand what we want to create for the guest.” She adds, “This is not about decorating.”

How amenable will some of the world’s most esteemed designers, whom I know to be on their wish list—like Alessandro Munge, Tristan Auer, and Yew Kuan Cheong—feel about being told which deck chairs and side tables to incorporate? Kalczak confidently answers that this thorough indoctrination actually frees creative minds. “We fashioned this space to help concentrate their energies most effectively while ensuring the Four Seasons guest experience reigns supreme. The R & D Studio is about composing a perfect balance of art and science,” she says. The latter is certainly in evidence as we stand alongside a Meyer Davis-designed mock room diorama produced to consider the ergonomics of power buttons and blinking light issues, while Kalczak discusses the latest research from UC San Diego’s neuroscience and architecture initiative on the importance of high ceilings in fostering creative thinking.

Next, I follow her through the four distinct areas that break down the Four Seasons’s so-called Sanctuary Room: the Sleep Temple; Wind Down Zone, with elongated seating I recognize from Bogotá; Activity Area, which has a round table in place of a desk—“to give the guests more choice”—and Oasis Bathroom, named for its strategic incorporation of natural light as per the advice of outside wellbeing experts. Though it’s tempting to conclude that this supervised peek behind the proverbial wizard’s curtain will detract from the magic of a Four Seasons stay, my imagination is well sated as Kalczak and her team discuss upcoming projects with Jean Michel Gathy in Bangkok; Isay Weinfeld, who will oversee both the architecture and interior design for the Dominican Republic; and Miami’s soon-to-open Four Seasons at the Surf Club, renovated by architect Richard Meier, with minimalist emerald-on-white interiors by Joseph Dirand.

The Four Seasons Casa Medina Bogatá in Columbia. (Photo: Courtesy Four Seasons Casa Medina)

Before leaving Toronto, I meet with Canadian designers George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg, who are currently putting the finishing touches on the 185-room Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown, and working toward a 2017 opening for the Four Seasons Hotel Kuwait at Burj Alshaya. Pushelberg tells me they design for “our mental generation.” In the next breath, the 63-year-old effuses with enthusiasm for the “world’s largest crystal” from the Czech Republic, set to hang from the soaring ceiling of the Kuwait outpost’s arabesque lobby.

Of the much-anticipated New York property, housed on the lower 24 floors of the Robert A.M. Stern-designed, Larry Silverstein-owned 30 Park Place, Yabu notes the brief from Kalczak was “to design something that doesn’t feel like your mother’s idea of a hotel room.” In that vein, the inspiration for the project sounds eerily familiar—a 38-year-old banker and his downtown art dealer girlfriend. Pushelberg calls the outcome “some of the most paired-back rooms we’ve done.”

The duo was first hired by Sharp to design the Four Seasons Tokyo at Marunouchi, which opened in 2000, and are well-versed in the brand’s “service first” design ethic, thus giving them a worthy perspective on the brand’s maturation. “Even back then, Sharp saw that the future lay in more contemporary hotels,” Pushelberg recalls. “So we have always designed for them this way.” To this, Yabu adds, “We’ve just been waiting for them to catch up.”

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