THE SOUL OF A SPACE
Renowned hospitality designer Tony Chi, Interior Design ’79, enriches guests’ inner lives


Video Slideshow: Tony Chi talks about hospitality and design in these three exclusive short videos.

 


 

chi“Every building has some soul in it,” Tony Chi ’79 says. “When you go in, the building will tell you what it wants to be.” An internationally celebrated hotel and restaurant designer, principal and founder of TonyChi and Associates, Chi brings an unusual depth of insight to restaurant designs for such top chefs as Alain Ducasse and Wolfgang Puck, and hotel interiors for the Mandarin Oriental and Park Hyatt, among others. He was selected for Interior Design magazine’s hall of fame in 2009, and in April he received the FIT Interior Design Department’s prestigious Lawrence J. Israel Prize. Assistant Professor Johannes Knoops described him as “a potent mix of raw talent, tenacious drive, and ambition” who maintains “notorious control of the work.” Hospitality is Chi’s forte, yet he’s redefining the word: “I’m creating experiences,” he says. “When people say, ‘This room looks nice,’ I say, ‘So what? How does it feel?’”

In person, Chi is equal measures charm and certitude, with a soupçon of genius. The light-filled offices of his eponymous firm in Tribeca emit a soothing buzz of conferring associates, and Chi circulates, pausing to make notes on a blueprint or pet one of the two office cats. After 31 years in the business, his reputation allows him to work with an extremely select clientele—only three or four projects at a time. That’s been his goal ever since his years at FIT, when he studied with pioneering faculty members Julius Panero, Nicholas Politis, and Martin Zelnik. “I don’t do volume work,” Chi says. “I could commercialize this business and take on as many projects and make as much money as I can. I prefer to do what I have been trained to do, and do it well.”

View more of Chi’s designs in this slide show.

Nothing is quite as it seems in Chi’s designs. While he uses the highest quality materials, and incorporates the finest of fine art, a certain aspect remains mysterious. “It’s not about what you design,” he says. “It’s what you don’t design.” His recently completed Rosewood Hotel in London features a logo of two mirrored “C’s”, a reference to the luxury hotel’s previous iteration, Chancery Court. Charles Dickens once lived near nearby, and Chi enjoyed keeping the historical reference. The gesture evokes the past, yet the brand-new environment isn’t beholden to it: “I just wanted that little bit of history, not to prostrate to Charles Dickens.” (His fellow alum Robert Louey, Advertising Design ’79, created the logo, and does all the firm’s graphics.) For Ducasse’s Spoon restaurant in the InterContinental Hong Kong, Chi had 550 hand-blown Venetian glass spoons affixed to the ceiling. For another restaurant, he impishly proposed putting a maze in front of the entrance, so patrons would arrive extra hungry. (The client laughed, but didn’t go for it.) Exacting details and idiosyncratic touches add up to an experience that Chi calls “invisible design”—uplifting, in hard-to-pinpoint ways.

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Chi breaks boundaries in his work for hotels, such as the Park Hyatt branches in Shanghai and Washington, or the Mandarin Oriental in Guangzhou. He is known for putting kitchens inlobbies or ballrooms, taking them out of their usual cloistered, private spaces and transforming them into hubs of conversation and inspiration. “The kitchen is not to be ‘shown off,’” he explains.

“It’s to embrace people. All your senses come to life there.” In anunusual, open-plan bathroom, he’ll create a place for a woman’s desk. “A woman will say she doesn’t work in the bathroom, but if you don’t call it a bathroom, you can get away with it,” he says.infographic

He always commissions artwork for his restaurants, although that can make clients uncomfortable: “They’ll say, ‘But this is a commercial space.’ I always like to blur the line between commercial and fine art.”

For each project, Chi distills his theme into a single word. For the Rosewood London, it was “Britishness”; for the Park Hyatt Shanghai, it was “silence,” rendered in creamy whites and browns, using the most luxurious materials imaginable. He explains: “Shanghai is noisy, dirty. When the guests come to the Park Hyatt, they get the best of both worlds.” Discerning the essence of a project can take a lot of work, he says: “You draft, and then you edit, edit, edit.” Yet it is precisely this process that he enjoys the most. “I don’t care about the end result,” he says. “I don’t know what the end result will be.”

The governing impulse in all of the work stems from the term “hospitality,” which has endlessly mutating meanings for Chi. Sometimes he compares it to housekeeping—making spaces comfortable, welcoming; other times, he describes it as an aesthetic—natural, not fabricated; contemporary, yet venerable. He says he always starts designing the same way: “The first thing I do is to make sure the people and the spaces are related,” meaning not just guests, but employees as well. The most elegant stairway in the Rosewood London is reserved for housekeepers and room service. To Chi, hospitality is far more than organizing space: “I use it to touch the subconscious, right?” Using the tools of his trade, he helps people compose their inner lives.

 

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The Lawrence J. Israel Prize has been given annually since 1998 to an individual or firm whose ideas and work enrich FIT Interior Design students’ course of study. Past recipients include Jamie Drake and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

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