Sue Firestone has had more than 30 years experience in the interior design industry. Having worked as president of Los Angeles-based design firm Design 1 for 20 years, Firestone founded sfa design in 1996 with the aim of becoming a world-leading designer of first-class hotels and private residences.
Having an influential client on board from day one was certainly an advantage for the firm as it sought to establish itself. "When we started off we took with us one of my clients, which was Disney," says Firestone. "It was a very good relationship and very important, because every hotelier or hotel company we've gone after since has been so impressed that we did 18 projects for [former Disney CEO] Michael Eisner … almost no other design team actually lasted though one job," she laughs.
Since the early days, sfa design has garnered a reputation as one of the industry's most well-respected interior design teams. Firestone herself was included on the Robb Report "Top 40 Best Designers in the World" and has been honoured at the Platinum Circle Awards for "Outstanding Status in the Hospitality Industry".
The firm has undertaken a host of interior design projects, large and small, within the hospitality industry. Firestone has worked with a plethora of world-renowned hotel brands over the years, including Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Hilton Worldwide and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
The sfa approach
While some designers attract business by refining a signature style that they bring to every project, Firestone and sfa have always followed a fundamental philosophy to honour the client's wishes and the heritage of the hotel rather than impose an overriding vision. For sfa, the signature comes from the building, not from the designer.
It's a choice that is appreciated by the company's clients, and often requires the team to go to great lengths to ensure that a hotel's interior is a reflection of its location. Working on the new Four Seasons hotel in Jebel Sifah, Oman, the firm has spent time studying local culture and history to ensure the hotel looks distinctive but natural within its surroundings.
"Everything we're doing there has to have a reason," Firestone says, "whether it's the colour of the mountains or the ocean or original 2,000-year-old forts – we're not just plonking in an sfa design. The product is really reflective of the indigenous culture."
For the Four Seasons in Oman, the lessons learned from fact-finding missions seeped into the final designs, which fuse the symmetry of Arabic architecture with simple designs and cooling colours to create an oasis from the scorching sun, but one that doesn't prove culturally jarring when moving from exterior to interior.
As well as gaining a deep understanding of local culture and history, the company also places a firm emphasis on collaborating with the client to deliver projects on time and within budget. The advantage of restricting sfa's operations to a smaller number of prestigious projects is that clients get more attention from sfa's upper management, with Firestone able to personally oversee every design before it goes out the door. "We're not just churning it out to feed a million people," she says.
It might seem like a small detail, but Firestone says the days when prima donna designers were able to stalk into a client's boardroom and dictate terms are long gone. "Whether designers want to admit it or not, we are in a service industry," she says. "We're all about listening to the client and promising to stay within budget, promising to stay on schedule. I've heard people say, 'Oh yeah, that design is beautiful but I'll never work with that designer again.' I can't tell you how many times I've heard that. If you don't listen to your clients and deliver on your promises, they're not going to come back and they're not going to refer you."
A sense of place: interior design trends
Firestone's wealth of experience of the industry gives her a rare perspective on the bigger picture of the interior design landscape. She has experienced firsthand the revolution brought about by the internet and computer-aided design ("computer technology has created a revolution for the process in terms of speed and communication," she says) and has been able to observe emerging trends within the industry.
One important development Firestone has identified is the changing attitudes of hotel guests, who have come to expect an experience – as the team has tried to achieve at the Four Seasons in Oman – that feels rooted in the atmosphere of the surrounding area. The appeal of the familiar-brand hotel is beginning to wear thin for guests, many of whom travel extensively and rapidly tire of hotel chains that present them with the same predictable decor, from Beijing to Belfast.
The company's greatest challenge in creating a hotel interior with a unique sense of place came in 2009 when sfa was contracted to design the interiors of the new Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Orlando, Florida. The original Waldorf-Astoria is an iconic New York landmark with features that could easily feel incongruous in a tropical golf resort surrounded on three sides by Walt Disney World.
For sfa, the solution was to create a Waldorf-Astoria suited to its sunny location while incorporating a few telling reminders of the New York original. "We took some of the familiar elements, like the same restaurants – Oscar's, Peacock Alley, Bull and Bear – and then just changed the colours, changed it a little bit so that somebody after a golf game could walk in and feel comfortable. It's a matter of sense of place. That is across the board the most radical thing that's happened in the hospitality industry."
Firestone also says she has noticed an increased awareness of the natural world in interior design, whether it's emphasising natural light for aesthetic purposes or considering the environmental impact of a project. LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an international green building certification system) hotel projects are steadily becoming more common, so architects and designers must be willing to work with a stricter set of rules and regulations. Firestone's firm puts a particular emphasis on sourcing as many materials locally as possible to boost local economies and cut its carbon footprint.
Economic prospects in the hotel sector
The recession has hit the hospitality industry hard, with many families having to forego or downgrade their holiday plans and businesses slashing travel budgets. Firestone says it is a period of adjustment for the industry, where unbridled luxury might have to give way to offering value for money. "Some places have been way overbuilt and there's just not the demand," she says. "Then there are the business travellers' budgets that have been cut from five-star to four-star to three-star."
Interior designers also have to adjust to an industry where value has become an overriding concern for hotel owners. While there is demand for new build projects in the Middle East, India and China where local hotels are struggling to keep up with booming demand, in developed markets where the recession has combined with market saturation, the trend is for economical renovation projects rather than lavish new builds, for restoration rather than replacement.
As money gets tight, competition to secure business skyrockets, and sfa design has managed to distinguish itself, not only with attractive designs but with smart business sense, a global outlook and the willingness to create luxury on a limited budget. "Designers have got to be sensitive to cost and keen to recycle what's already there, says Firestone. "They're going to win a lot of points if they can figure out how to save the client money. That goes a long way."