May 21, 2020
In this interview series, Shop Talk, we chat with friends and collaborators of Rich Brilliant Willing on the ideas, discoveries, and inspirations that drive their design process.
Photography by Adrian Gaut
Video Credits: Aaron Kovalchik (Director of Photography), Paul Emile Cendron (Assistant Camera), Erinn Clancy (Editor), Elliot M. Smith (Colorist), Luke Slattery (Producer)
A few weeks before the current coronavirus lockdown—which has temporarily put a hold on travels, the hospitality industry, and the many designers and service workers who keep it running—we sat down with our friends at Atelier Ace, Ace Hotel’s in-house design team, to discuss our recent collaboration together on Dimple, a custom sconce for their new hotel brand, Sister City, located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
As we eagerly await the time when we can revisit Sister City and our colleagues, Little Wing Lee, Senior Interior Designer at Atelier Ace, and Juanita Wichienkuer, Director of Architecture and Interiors at Atelier Ace, share more about creating and executing the design concept behind Sister City as an urban sanctuary for minimalist travelers, and a relaxing refuge away from home.
What’s a typical day like at Atelier Ace? How would you describe your team’s overall design ethos and approach to hospitality?
Juanita: Collaboration is at the heart of everything we do. We work on pretty big projects, but also get involved in the very fine details—it ranges from big-picture thinking and visioning, all the way down to executing the nitty-gritty details. And for all of that, it takes a big team, and Little Wing and I are just part of that team that helps bring it all together. That said, we work on multiple projects at the same time and multi-task across quite a span, geographically speaking, across various time zones. It’s never boring, as we say!
Little Wing: There isn't really a typical day, and it can vary quite a bit from week to week. Depending on what phase we’re at, and in which project, we’re always thinking about the aesthetic components of a project, as well as the practical components—things like working with the IT and sound departments on where the speakers should be placed; deciding on furniture specifications, and considering if a fabric will be durable enough to sustain thousands of guests; or if the light levels will be up to code. We’re also always renovating, always thinking about what can be done better. It’s constantly shifting, and you learn a lot from how the spaces actually end up getting used.
Juanita: Once the hotel has a life of its own and the staff is in, guests are checking in and using the restaurant, different needs might arise. There are always things that are in progress or need updating or changing. Truly, it’s never-ending, but what’s nice about it is that it informs our new developments. We’re hands-on so we take those lessons learned, and then apply them to new projects.
(Left) Sister City's facade, a combination of old and new, shining above the Bowery (Right) Point of respite upon entry
The first Sister City is on the Bowery, and the brand’s ethos is a bit different from Ace’s other properties. How did this iconic location influence your approach, and how would you describe the overall design concept?
Juanita: To inform the project, we really thought about where we would want to stay ourselves. I very much love New York and am very inspired by it, but I also need a place, at the end of the day, that’s quiet, safe, clean, and offers an area of refuge. A lot of the initial inspiration for the project came out of the site context, looking at Bowery as a busy urban thoroughfare, and thinking of the project as an oasis in the city, away from the noise and chaos. So instead of placing the main entrance on Bowery, we have guests enter through a back entry at Freeman’s Alley, through a small garden that almost acts as an extended threshold. Once you come through the garden, that’s your moment of decompression.
As for the guest rooms, and really the project as a whole, we look to distill things to just the essentials, the most basic needs: everything you need and nothing more. An example of that would be the guestroom vanity, where it’s just a single lever faucet that controls the hot and cold, and also the volume control; it’s very straightforward. We wanted everything to feel natural and intuitive—that’s also why lighting and materiality was such a focus early on in the project, to create that almost intangible feeling that puts you at ease, even if you’re not sure why. It all boils down to the details, like the sheen of the wood that’s new and sleek but feels lived in, like your friend’s house.
How does lighting factor into the atmosphere you’re designing and creating?
Juanita: It’s about more than just the look—lighting plays a huge role in creating atmosphere, though it’s not only about lighting. It’s also what you're hearing, the temperature of the room, who you're with, the crowd and the company you’re sharing the space with.
Little Wing: For me, I would say atmosphere is all about the feeling of a space, once you walk in—how you feel, whether you're energized and if you feel welcome. It’s a combination of sight, sound and texture. All of these elements work together to create this feeling of a space.
(Left) Dimple's warm glow above the bedside table (Right) Dimple looking cheeky alongside built-in bunk beds
What led you to our Crisp sconce, and how did you go about customizing it further to create the Dimple?
Juanita: This is the first location for a new brand for Atelier Ace, so we knew we wanted to do something custom, and had actually designed a whole suite of custom fixtures for the guest rooms but were pushed to find something more cost-effective. Normally, that would mean finding something off the shelf, which is how we landed on the Crisp: it was the right scale and gave off a great quality of light. We also wanted a versatile, universal light fixture that could be used in many different locations—in the guest room corridor, but also the bedside, or even the bathroom—and we ended up using Crisp in all three of those places for our room model. As we looked to customize it, we wanted to keep to the circle motif, which is something that’s repeated throughout the project. The final form for the Dimple light is almost as if you took a sphere and pushed it into the face of a plane, to create a concave curvature that’s visible through the thickness of the glass. It was a pleasant surprise to see how that plays with the light coming through it.
Little Wing: With RBW’s fixtures, you have a choice in the color temperature of the lighting, as well as the kind of color for the fixture itself, and as a designer, it’s always great to have a lot of options and customizations. Working with a company that understands how important colors are to us as designers has been great. For me, what creates a successful, well-lit space is a balance of ambient light, task lighting, and a play with brilliance. All of these little elements are like the jewelry that brings texture into the space, and draws your eye to different parts of an interior.
For me, what creates a successful, well-lit space is a balance of ambient light, task lighting, and a play with brilliance. All of these little elements are like the jewelry that brings texture into the space, and draws your eye to different parts of an interior.
You’ve both been involved in all aspects of this project. Is there a way to describe your first experience of the finished space?
Juanita: I would say there isn’t really a big reveal moment for us, because we’re so involved in and we’re the ones finishing it—we also sleep test the rooms, and by the time we opened, we’d actually been living in the project for four weeks, and visiting the site daily for months, if not years! The big reveal, for us, is not so much about the completion of the spatial setup, it’s about inviting people for the first time, getting to have a meal with our friends and family who weren’t involved in the project, and getting to share it with them.
Little Wing: There’s usually never a big reveal for us, as Juanita said, but for me, it was the drinks event with family and friends at Last Light. When you get off the elevator, turn the corner and see the bar full of people, everyone’s getting drinks and snacks, the lights are on and the sky is so beautiful, that’s when you finally get the feeling of like, Oh wow, this is complete. To see people enjoying it—that, to me, is the big reveal.
Behind the Design
Juanita Wichienkuer is an award-winning architect with broad experience in design, building, and construction project management. She has worked for leading design firms such as Ralph Appelbaum Associates, as the lead exhibit designer for the History Galleries at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and as the Director of Architecture and Interiors for Ace Hotel / Atelier Ace. Her work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, MoMA, and the New York Center for Architecture, and has been published in the New York Times, CBS News 60 Minutes, and Architectural Record.
Juanita holds a masters of architecture degree from Parsons School of Design where she received the Alpha Rho Chi Medal and a bachelor of arts in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley with a minor in History of the Built Environment. She has taught at Cornell University with Pritzker Prize winning humanitarian Shigeru Ban and at Parsons School of Design.
Little Wing Lee is an award winning interior designer with over 10 years of experience in cultural, commercial and residential projects. She has worked with leading design firms including SOM, Rockwell Group and Ralph Appelbaum Associates. Her work as an interior, product and exhibition designer has been published in the New York Times, Interior Design, Wallpaper and Dezeen. She is currently the Senior Interior Designer for ACE Hotel / Atelier ACE and founder/creative director of Studio & Projects. Her most recent endeavor, Black Folks in Design (BFiD) is a network that connects Black designers within and across disciplines.
Prior to her career in design, Little Wing had a career in documentary television and film contributing to several Oscar and Emmy nominated projects.
Little Wing is a graduate of the Interior Design Masters Program at Pratt Institute, studied landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and received her Bachelors degree from Oberlin College.