Between New York's towering buildings and cramped streets, Atelier Ace developed a project unique to its surroundings. Located in Manhattan's Bowery neighborhood, the Sister City Hotel project included a four-floor extension to an existing 10-storey structure, as well as a complete renovation of the interior space. The interior design draws inspiration from Scandinavian and Japanese architecture, providing visitors with complete tranquility within New York's bustling neighborhood.
In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Kelly Sawdon, Chief Brand Officer and Partner at Atelier Ace/Ace Hotel Group describes her take on minimal design and explains the approach and inspiration behind the Sister City Hotel project.
Dima Stouhi: Designers usually draw inspiration from the city the project is situated in. You chose to go for a different approach. Why did you choose a Finnish design (or inspired by Finnish design) rather than NYC?
Kelly Sawdon: Sister City was designed entirely in-house by our creative studio Atelier Ace, and like all our projects, we looked directly to the building and city to inform our path of inspiration. The building is historic, and situated in one of the busiest cities in the world, so we chose a constellation of aesthetic values that spoke to us: less, but better, and at the intersection of simplicity and beauty. We wanted to strip away excess to provide a space mindful of quieting the noise of the Lower East Side and the stress of traveling — to design for human experiences, rather than around them — and looked to the masterful work of Scandinavian, Nordic and Japanese design. For example, we turned to Finnish saunas for their functionality and attention to sensory detail, how it nurtures you within a minimal, purposeful space.
DS: How crucial is it to have a minimally-designed space within a very dynamic/busy city like New York?
KS: In such a vibrant, densely populated city like New York, a minimally-designed space can be restorative and help travelers stay present and grounded. Sister City is a place that gives to you, rather than takes from you, offering the tools within a thoughtfully designed environment that fosters a sense of autonomy and mindfulness. We partnered with Headspace to provide their meditation app during their stay, and kept our walls as clean as possible by focusing our attention to every design element, from the muted stained glass skylight, to the Italian cherry wood modular furniture, to the custom terrazzo vanities.
DS: Do you think the need for minimalism was derived from a financial or emotional/health standpoint?
KS: For us, it wasn’t a financial decision, but a way to provide a calm and considered space for travelers in the city. Simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean simplistic, and a lot of thought and care went into considering the disparate ways minimalism could impart something tangible, familiar, warm and inviting to elicit emotional respite. The rooms are almost completely built out of Italian cherry wood, imbuing warmth and comfort, and the terrazzo vanity was custom built as a way to anchor the room. The crafted birch woodwork in the lobby helps orient guests in the space while still letting natural light filter through. Rather than work from budget restrictions, we looked to the ways design can provide a sense of well-being.
DS: What do you think has a bigger impact on clients, the interior architecture of a space or the furniture?
KS: While "ideating" and designing both the interior architecture and furniture, we started from the ethos of “Less, But Better,” distilling hospitality down to its most beautiful working parts and championing efficiency and beauty through the lens of human-oriented technology, attention to craft, form and materiality. Everything was designed to work in concert, rather than layered atop each other, including the generative Lobby Score. Titled Circumstance Synthesis, it’s an original soundscape created in collaboration with Microsoft’s Music x Technology program and electronic musician Julianna Barwick. The Lobby Score was designed as part of the hotel, and uses Microsoft AI technology to shift and change Julianna’s original composition as informed by the things our rooftop sky camera sees. We wanted to create a cohesive space where everything worked hand-in-hand to provide balance, aesthetic harmony and moments of surprise and delight, too.
DS: Do you feel like clients can add a personalized input to a minimally-designed space? Perhaps this is why clients lean towards such spaces?
KS: Absolutely. We wanted to create a canvas that’s animated directly by the guest, offering useful furnishings like the valet or clever storage solutions. Sister City appeals to any guest who appreciates a confident sense-of-self that respects autonomy, intuition and self-guided experiences. Our modular furniture allows them to utilize the space as they see fit, including the built-in valet whose parts are flexible and customizable as needed. Our online system also lets guests make requests to personalize their room like a blanket or white noise machine, and our self-check kiosks minimizes the need for unnecessary human interaction. The hotel was built for guests to animate, rather than dictating their experience for them.
DS: Do you believe minimalism is a “trend” or do you see a potential for it to become a permanent design approach?
KS: We think of minimalism as transcendent of trends, but a direction that becomes refreshingly significant as a response to over-saturation and visual fatigue. A lot of our inspiration for Sister City was culled from older sources, which is a testament to the enduring nature of simple, considered and useful design. We looked closely at form, material and function, letting those key elements push our ideas forward, and are excited to expand on the possibilities for any other future opportunities.
DS: Throughout your work, what have you found to be the most “ground-breaking” minimal living trend and why?
KS: It’s been incredible to see how tiny homes and tiny home communities have approached design in a way that’s impactful, thoughtful and future-forward. The creative ways they combine eco-consciousness with aesthetic balance have been inspiring to watch develop. Socially-conscious places like Denmark have embraced interdependent communities, sharing resources while maintaining a small footprint, and — even closer to home — tiny home communities in Oregon have really pushed the needle for efficient, livable design that’s contemporary and elastic.