Interview: TAL Studio’s Todd-Avery Lenahan

Hotels can be so much more than mere heads-in-beds structures. Every corridor, guestroom, carport, lobby bar or alcove is an opportunity to enhance a person’s internal drive or creative spirit by paying attention to the space’s design. Hitting closer to home, hotel interior design can lead to better customer satisfaction scores and higher occupancy, and they can command a greater ADR and more support from locals.

As this is an all-too-critical aspect of any property – in addition to one that’s often overlooked or in need of a refresh – I’ve reached out to the enigmatic Todd-Avery Lenahan – international luxury hotel, resort, estate designer and CEO and founder of award-winning TAL Studio – to talk about his approach, what he feels best differentiates a hotel and what steps any hotelier can take towards incremental upgrades, even when budget is an issue.

Todd Avery-Lenahan
Todd Avery-Lenahan

With hotelier and residential clients that include 12 of Forbes’ 100 wealthiest people in the world – as well as being known for creating world-class luxury experiences for ultra-luxury hotels including a multitude of global locations for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Nobu Hospitality, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Wynn Resorts, Viceroy Hotels and The Walt Disney Company, to name a few – Lenahan and 35-person international team design concepts that are intelligent and enduring, executed with care and precision.

Lenahan’s work has been described as being “as engaging as a great film” through high-concept narratives for global destinations. According to the designer and luxury experience consultant, rather than being dazzled, nuance, subtlety and restraint are how great luxury is created. Moreover, it is always important to respect the guest at every level and never play down to a client’s demographic.

Each work day, Lenahan is in sessions in at least five regions of the world, having to be aware of cultural, social, historical and geographic details where each project will be erected. This diverse mastery bestows a unique worldview that allows him to seamlessly blend themes and motifs from different regions, offering owners a cross-pollination of concepts to make their hotels truly stand out.

With this as an introduction to his body of work and his outlook on design, let’s get into the interview.

What makes a great hotel design?

A great design, in my consideration, is one that first and foremost fulfills both the developer and management company’s financial and operational objectives, and then exceeds the consumer expectations of what constitutes anticipatory and intuitive design that provokes positive emotional response, is contextual, is respectful of and honors culture and location, and builds loyalty with assurances of future patronage.

How do you imbue a sense of place into design?

By being a well-read, well-studied, inquisitive knowledge seeker with rigorously researched investigations and explorations of people and place. I often think of what we do as foundational work at the onset of a design process as being much like the work of a cultural anthropologist. It’s essential to be a humble student of the cultural, social, geographic, economic, political and even spiritual history of a place to imbue a project with the sincerity and authenticity that create a sense of place. Sense of place is not achieved via decorative affectation that relies upon visual cues and easy associations with what the public believes defines a region and culture.

Should great design be limited only to 5-star properties? Can mid-range products “afford” a great design sense?

Mid-range products can most definitely afford a design sense. Great design experiences are not dependent upon “great” budgets as a variable that allows thoughtful design to be an essential part of the development process. I often remind our clients that we embrace time and money as fixed, but we regard vision and creativity as a variable to which a price can’t be ascribed. Ideas that ultimately result in environments with evidence of care and thoughtfulness are by no means dependent upon higher levels of investment. Rather, they are dependent upon higher levels of creativity and intelligence in the development process.

How has your design style changed over the past decade?

The work of my studio “evolves” more so than it changes. My principles and values remain constant through time and, in some ways, have become more convicted. When considering the body of work undertaken with my portfolio over the past decade, I believe it’s easy to discern that I’m artistically motivated but never motivated by trends. Creating enduring and timeless work, regardless of the design genre or vernacular, is a hallmark of our studio that transcends the passage of time and remains relevant even in times of rapidly evolving cultural, socio-economic and artistic influences.