Kay Hill speaks to architects and designers about how they use their skills to create an atmosphere where people can truly relax
Travel is seldom a stress-free process, which makes it all the more vital that hotels help guests to unwind long before they reach the bed or the pool. Oliver Heath, expert in sustainable design, explains: ‘They are likely to be tired and disorientated after the journey and grappling with a new language and a new currency. People are not at their best and don’t know where they are going. If you are creating architecture then you have the opportunity to influence the exterior welcome of the space and incorporate positive triggers for relaxation.’
For Heath, who specialises in biophilic design, the key is to introduce nature from the very start: ‘If we position nature to welcome people in, we can create a sense of lushness and the feeling that life will thrive here; this gives guests a positive welcome rather than just impressing them with expensive materials.
OMMA, a brand new 30-room hotel on Santorini, has 360-degree views over the Aegean Sea and the Caldera, and a minimal, Cycladic-inspired design that’s intended to promote calm. The curved edges, natural materials and textural finishes are intended to create a restful environment that appeals to the senses
‘There’s a tendency for hotels to concentrate on expressing character and identity and using design to impress rather than to support human wellbeing. Our ethos entails taking a much more intrinsic approach to creating spaces to make people feel more relaxed, to reduce stress and aid physical and mental recuperation. This will put them in a better frame of mind for the next day, whether that’s exploring a new city or going to work.’
Alison McNeil, principal at Canadian design practice Dialog, agrees that the calmness needs to be designed in from the start: ‘A hotel guest’s stay starts long before they actually arrive at the hotel. Sometimes they start with a plane journey, which can be overwhelming and stressful, and they feel some anxiety over how easy it is to get there. Then someone opens up the door of the car and helps them with their bags, and they feel that throughout their stay they will have assistance where they didn’t have it before. They should feel like they are in a changed environment as they walk through the doors, and as designers, we facilitate that.’
The reception area at the brand new 346-bedroom JW Marriott hotel in Edmonton’s Ice District has wooden fins that begin the process of cocooning the guests and leading them from public to private spaces, giving a sense of security and safety
The very first stage, check-in, can influence how guests feel about their entire stay. ‘One of the ways in which calm is really important in a hotel is to be able to easily find what you are looking for,’ says McNeil. ‘That’s where the uneasiness enters, when you don’t know where you are going. The best hotel designs don’t need signage; they contemplate the natural movement of people – you should be able to intuitively find what you are looking for.’
Heath agrees: ‘It’s possible to use natural features to creatively improve wayfinding to guide people through the spaces. You could literally create a physical pathway that helps someone get to the restaurant or the lift or the health centre, or use visual wayfinding items like trees and other natural elements that can help to soothe and restore.’
A calm environment can be aided by creating a ‘cocooning’ effect, says McNeil, as wide open, public spaces contract into a more human, domestic scale that makes guests feel more comfortable. She has used the technique at the brand new JW Marriott hotel in Edmonton: ‘We don’t have doorways; we have long fins of wood that envelop the lobby and help guests to feel cocooned. The first step is the revolving doors, and then as guests enter the location gallery they get a moment to pause and situate themselves. As they head toward the reception, the space which was 20ft high is compressed to half so they are starting to cocoon, then that tightening of space continues into the corridor and lifts as they are getting further away from the public areas. Safety and security create a strong sense of calm. Creating calm is less to do with colour and more to do with compressing and releasing space where you need to.’
About to open for the first time in December is Écrin Blanc, a luxury hotel in the French ski resort of Courchevel, that has been designed using natural local materials to make it feel part of the mountain environment. The rooms are oriented so that they make the most of the views and have sunshine and natural light, while the interiors, designed by Chantal Peyrat, shown here in renderings, will feature tactile natural materials to give a sense of cocooning
Much can be done to ensure that the design itself aids relaxation. ‘Curved edges promote sensuality and calm,’ notes McNeil. ‘Everything that your skin touches should feel right, so we use natural materials.’
Heath advises architects to ‘use biophilic design to harness the power of nature with views, natural materials and textures and green spaces, along with maximising exposure to natural light to reset circadian rhythms’.
Sotiris Tsergas, architect at Athens and Stockholm-based Block722, used biophilic principles in the design of the Olea All Suite Hotel in Zakynthos, Greece, which opened last year. ‘The design aims to bring guests in sync with nature and its elements,’ he says, ‘connecting the indoors with the outdoors in a seamless way that helps them unwind and explore the resort in its entirety. We were inspired by the natural environment of the island – like the venerable olive trees that have been gracing this plot of land for centuries – so we used the materials and pallet of colours that reflect this philosophy. The approach of the design was to create a relaxing, cosy space that combines architectural clean lines with natural materials, textures and custom-made elements such as stone basins.’
At the heart of the Olea is a 4,000 sq m artificial lake with the suites arranged organically around it. ‘The calming, transforming power of water flows freely through the veins of the Olea All Suite Hotel,’ Tsergas says. ‘Our intention was the complete absence of boundaries between the resort’s suites and the communal spaces, cultivating a unique sense of freedom and mindfulness resembling the deep state of relaxation one feels when floating.’
Designer Émilie Bonaventure used Lake Annecy and its mountain backdrop to inspire her design for the refit of the Auberge du Père Bise – Jean Sulpice in France. ‘Although the client didn’t specifically request a calming atmosphere, it made sense with the location of this exceptional site,’ she explains. ‘The protected bay between the lake and mountains naturally cries out for a calm design, and comfort is created through the quality and choice of materials that resonate with the location. Respect for the site creates a sense of serenity, along with the harmony of the colours and the décor. I don’t like anything that creates dissonance.’
Undoubtedly, it’s the sanctuary of the bedrooms that guests appreciate most. According to the 2019 JD Power North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study, the biggest driver of customer satisfaction is quality of sleep, which is often hard to come by in busy hotels. Great sound insulation and attention to layouts can help here, as can attention to interior design details. The report notes ‘hotels should focus more on bed quality, linens and pillows, ambient sound and room temperature’ if they want to help their guests and ultimately boost their own reviews.
At Tradelinens, where founders Robert Lancaster Gaye and Joe Molloy have 70 years’ experience in providing topquality bedlinen to hotels around the world, Lancaster Gaye says: ‘In a world of hustle and bustle we are left with few chances to kick back, relax and spoil ourselves. To slip into a set of beautifully laundered, pure white, high thread-count cotton sheets that feel soft against the skin on an equally sumptuous bed must surely be one of life’s unadulterated pleasures. As well as warmth and comfort, clean white bedding plays a big part in setting the calming tone of a room, which gives you a chance to relax, unwind and recharge by drifting away into a dreamy sleep.’