Around the World with Designer Tara Bernerd

The British designer on her new office in New York and where she'd like to go next.

Tara Bernerd creates cinematic, welcoming spaces with raw materials. That’s her specialty. It’s what has endeared the British designer to a growing international client base that includes the Thompson and Sixty hotel groups, Belgraves, Aspinalls, and as of next year, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. The former film student draws inspiration from a diverse array of sources—from Tim Burton to Luis Barragán—and from her offices in Belgravia, London’s toniest neighborhood, Bernerd oversees a growing staff of architects and designers who help realize the environments she conceives.

Bernerd’s foray into the hospitality space is no happy accident: She is the daughter of international property tycoon Elliott Bernerd, whose own investments have included the Westbury hotels, Wentworth Golf Club, and, most recently, the Philip Johnson-designed AT&T building in New York. Not the type to sail through life on her privilege, Bernerd left school at the age of 16 and worked her way into interior design via stints at British Vogue and in marketing and PR, before connecting with John Hitchcox, the cofounder of global property design firm Yoo. Working with Hitchcox and his partner, Philippe Starck, Bernerd helped to launch its boutique practice, Yoo Too, before moving on to found her eponymous firm in 2002.

Beginning as a small organization focused on private and residential work, Tara Bernerd & Partners has since grown to include hotels, yachts, restaurants, and mixed-use spaces, with projects currently under way from Hong Kong to Hollywood. Bernerd delights in the diversity of her firm’s output, including textile designs for The Rug Company and interior architecture and design for Herzog & de Meuron’s forthcoming 472-unit residential tower in Canary Wharf.

What’s next for the peripatetic Bernerd, who spends more than half the year on the road?  World hotel and residential domination, it seems, with even more aspirational-yet-approachable spaces slated for Central Park South, Shanghai, and Scandinavia in the months ahead. Later this fall she’ll open a New York office to accommodate an increasingly large U.S. market for her serene, slightly edgy environments. Surface recently met with Bernerd at her Hans Street headquarters to discuss the need for beautiful art and bold use of color when establishing a special sense of place, and the importance of good food, acoustics, and lighting.

You worked with Philippe Starck and developer John Hitchcox to launch Yoo Too.  How did this come to be?

Early in my career I received some press and the attention of a few people in the industry, including John Hitchcox. I went to work for him and became a partner, collaborating with Philippe on all of the design, but I was also scouting for new locations all over the world. It was an incredible time for me personally, and also in terms of what was happening in global hotel design. The mantra had always been “location, location, location,” and the focus has shifted to “location, location, design.”

You founded your eponymous firm in 2002. What spurred you on?

It was partly instinctive and partly personal, but I am a full-on, one-way person, so doing my own company after Yoo felt like a natural progression. I didn’t sit down and write a business plan, but I found an office and made sure that I had at least one client so that I could pay the rent. We had two architects and a temp to answer phones when we got our first two projects. The first came from [founder of the Berkeley Group] Tony Pidgley, who’s one of the biggest developers in the U.K. He gave me a job redesigning an old telephone exchange. The second project came from gallerist Jay Jopling. We worked on his first Shoreditch space. I started the firm hoping that what I loved doing would look good enough for others to like it—taste is so subjective, after all. Initially we did more private, residential work, and now we’re very strong in commercial, loft buildings, towers, and projects like the one we’re doing with Herzog & de Meuron at Canary Wharf.

You studied at London Film School. How does that time inform your design practice?

Because of my training, I see everything in shot form. I storyboard all of my projects, and much like making a film, my property design projects require many different, skillful, creative people. Every hotel is a team effort between the architect, the landscaper, the chefs. Like the film business, where you have your directors, producers, and cinematographers, there is just so much to the show. You want a hotel or restaurant to look great, sure, but at the end of the day it’s got to make money. And in our case, the hotel rooms need to be filled.

Who have been your mentors or the people who inspire you?

Richard Rogers has been an amazing driving force of encouragement throughout my career. In terms of others whose work I admire and have had an impact on me: Tadao Ando for his use of raw materials, and Pierre Chareau, particularly his Maison de Verre in Paris. His use of metals, rubber flooring, and glass in the 1930s was just incredible. Tim Burton is another strong influence.

Do you have a signature style? 

People describe our work as “industrial chic,” but I don’t think we have a signature look. We are about what’s appropriate to an environment, though there are common threads throughout our work. I prefer monotone colors, concrete, metals, lacquer, and raw materials that are a bit edgy. I’m about a more handsome design rather than a pretty, girly look. A huge amount of warmth comes from our work because we layer spaces. Our vibe is strong.

Who are your clients?

Our current projects include the Four Seasons in Fort Lauderdale, which is a combination of a resort, restaurants, and private homes. We’re working on the new Thompson Hotel in Hollywood, as well as the Russell Hotel in London for Barry Sternlicht and Starwood Capital Group, and we’re about to start projects in Hong Kong and Stockholm as well. A new project for Sixty is in the cards. In general, we have a lot of repeats because we get on well with people.

How do you approach restaurant design?

We’ve designed a few stand-alone restaurants and also ones that are part of a hotel, and in either case both acoustics and lighting are hugely important. Beyond aesthetics, however, the most important piece is the cuisine. Ideally, we know who the chef is from the outset so we know the environment we’re trying to create for the type of food to be served. It’s about working with the menus, the essence of the place, and the bar. We can do an amazing design and you can get away with a lot if the food isn’t great, but when the staff clicks, the uniforms are just right, and the music is perfect—that makes for a winning restaurant.

What has been the biggest challenge in terms of a project?

I worked with the stylish Aaron Leyland on Belgraves, and for some reason the builders put up ugly brick walls just before the opening night. I walked in and saw the bricks and declared, “We can’t open like this! It has to be sandblasted!” They were too red, too smooth, and the grout was terrible. Aaron sandblasted every wall, at great expense. Truthfully, I don’t know a project that doesn’t have a challenge.

What trends are you seeing in travel, and in the hotel space in particular? 

People want warmth, a residential feel, from hotels. I love the Edition in South Beach, and Sixty is my home in New York—they take care of me, so the people make the experience. Art is terribly important, and people like Aby Rosen have been able to bring a high level into play. I think people want simple technology. They don’t want to be shown how to use their rooms. Even if something is very modern, they want a sense of association, a lounge area to drink a coffee or have a club sandwich. And this is evolving. Hotels play an enormous role today. They’re not just where we go on holiday, or to visit cities, but they are the homes of tomorrow.

What makes a great hotel a “home of tomorrow?”

Today there are so many nomads—single people, divorcées—that hotels are a home away from home, with many people choosing to leave a case for regular stays. It’s not just about design. A great hotel has to smell good, the concierge has to be top-notch, the uniforms have to be aesthetically pleasing, and the food is important, too. It’s a big melting pot of vulnerability: Hotels are in the mega-challenge league of design because everything has to work perfectly.

Who is nailing it now?

Ilse Crawford with Ett Hem Stockholm. It’s basically a private home we can stay in. The Villa TreVille in Positano is another example of perfection. These are both 12 to 15 rooms done by people who can afford to do them as they would their own residences. Yabu Pushelberg does great hotel design work now, as does David Collins Studio in the restaurant space.

With so many far-flung projects, how do you keep your work and life in balance? 

I travel half the year, so some would say that that isn’t very balanced, but I am passionate about my work. I’m a good traveler, and I don’t get jet lag. I balance my work with nature: I hike in the mountains on the weekends, where the views are epic, and I walk my dogs. When I’m in Miami I get up early, run on the beach, dive in the ocean, and go to work. I have terrific friends and family and this helps a lot. Work trips with my team are a pleasure, so this keeps me in balance.

What’s next for you?

I really enjoy working in the U.S., and it’s why I’ve committed to opening an office in New York. I want to continue working in the U.K., Los Angeles, and Hong Kong. And who wouldn’t want to go to Cuba?

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