Adam D. Tihany: Master of all design trades

Adam D. Tihany does not drop names, but his resume as a designer is filled with familiar people and brands. He has created restaurants for celebrity chefs including Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Charlie Palmer, Pierre Gagnaire and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. As a designer of hotels, he started out with a DoubleTree before creating two Mandarin Oriental hotels (in Las Vegas and Geneva), the Beverly Hills Hotel in California, the One&Only Cape Town resort in South Africa, the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas, the Westin Chosun in Seoul, Korea and The Joule in Dallas. 

Master of all trades
Tihany attended the Politecnico di Milano’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning and graduated in the late 1960s, landing his first job in an architectural firm. “The education I got was very broad and diverse,” he recalls. Subjects covered everything from architectural planning to interiors, furniture design, lighting and graphics—everything, he says, designers needed to know at the time in order to survive in their field. “It was a period of history that gave birth to contemporary Italian design,” he says. “In retrospect, when you are part of a historical moment and your main preoccupation is survival, you don’t realize how important the period is.”  Even though I was very closely involved in what was going on, didn’t register until I came to US, how imp this versatility was for me. 

The broad reach of his education would prove both frustrating and rewarding when Tihany moved to New York City in 1976. At the time, he says, he didn’t realize how important his versatility was. “People would ask, ‘What do you do?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’m an Italian designer. Give me the problem, I’ll give you the solution. I can do everything. Interiors, furniture, graphics—all of it.’ This didn’t go down well. It seemed like the factotum was not exactly something that inspired confidence in the eyes of the American client. They wanted to know that I was a specialist, that I did one thing very well, and then they would entrust me with the project—retail, offices, hospitals. But I was very reluctant to label myself as anything besides ‘Italian Designer.’” 

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After working for a large firm that focused on office design and then turning his attention to apartments, Tihany set off on his own in 1978, forming his own multidisciplinary studio. He took any job that came his way until “a fateful evening” at Studio 54, where a man in his group of friends asked if Tihany wanted to design a restaurant. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll design anything.’” That restaurant turned out to be La Coupole, which opened in February 1981 as one of the first grand cafés in New York City. “It turned out to be a very interesting and rewarding project for me,” Tihany recalls. “The client was hands-off. I got to do the interior, the finishes, the furniture design, lighting, graphics, uniforms—I even got to select the china! All of it!” The cafe opened in the middle of a snowstorm, and Tihany remembers that even with that inauspicious start, the eatery still became so famous that Andy Warhol couldn’t get in at first. 

But the opening meant something special to Adam Tihany. “I realized that in doing this project, I was doing everything I enjoyed that I learned in Italy,” he says. He knew what path he wanted to be on and bought a sign for his business: Adam Tihany, Restaurant Designer. “Nobody called themselves a restaurant designer!” he says. “It was a resignment to the fact that if I don’t label myself, I won’t make a living. I used this experience to create a title for myself. A niche. That’s how I got into the business.”  

From Restaurants to hotels
Tihany’s first hotel as a designer was a DoubleTree in Santa Clara, CA. “I wish I remembered the circumstances,” he says, somewhat sheepishly. The opportunity came about through networking, and he jumped at the chance to try something new. “It’s the culmination of all the knowledge and experience—and attitude, more than anything.” 

That attitude has remained constant over the years. “Hospitality is not something you learn,” Tihany said. “It’s an instinct. Some people are cut out for it, and some will never get it.” Taking care of others, being attuned to people’s needs, being concerned about comfort and wellbeing should be embedded in every human being, he continued. “But it’s not. What I like most about this business is designing things that make people’s lives better and helps them feel better and helps them be comfortable and happy. I’ve designed hundreds of restaurants and hotels and pieces of furniture—and I’ve never designed an uncomfortable chair.” While guests may not be able to immediately identify a Tihany chair, he added, they will notice the comfort right away. “I’ve never designed anything to disturb someone’s sense of wellbeing. That’s why I’m in the business.” His sense of luxury and hospitality comes from his own experiences as a customer—and from his wife Marnie, who serves as Tihany Design's director of communications and business development and who Adam calls his most discriminating critic. “She knows the good things in life,” he says with a laugh. “If she’s happy, I know I passed the exam. She is unforgiving when it comes to how strong the hairdryer has to be, what kind of light we should use for the makeup table—what kind of pressure is needed in the shower. These are the fundamentals that people don’t pay attention to. They’re more concerned about the thread count than about plugging in an iPhone without going on all fours. I try to anticipate my clients’ needs and contribute from my own experience. ‘What would a person value and appreciate when they check into their hotel room?’ And then I try to enhance the experience as much as I can.”  

Building relationships
Tihany credits his relationships with keeping his projects on track and (as often as possible) under budget. “I have wonderful collaborators who have vast experience in hotel interiors,” he said. “They know how things are built and what things cost. When you start planning with a team that has done this many times all over the world, we have a pretty good sense of what can and cannot be done, where we need to push and where we need to step back.” 

His favorite part of the process, he added, is the kickoff meeting, where every stakeholder, engineer and designer comes to the table. “We meet each other and establish relationships and level the field. It’s important to make sure everyone knows that their contribution is as important as the next guy’s. There’s no project if we don’t cooperate, respect each other’s needs and listen to each other. That’s when the team gels. That’s when you can feel if the project will be great.” 

Even as the lead designer, Tihany feels that no project is ever about him and his ideas alone. “Nothing will happen if they don't bite, if they don’t like it, if they don’t sign on, if they don’t contribute. Otherwise, it’s just a nice piece of paper with a nice drawing. There’s no project without a great client, a great team and the will to execute a common idea. And it’s extremely important to convey that message. If you can do that, you will have a better chance to have a good project.”

Even purchasing companies play an important role in the process, Tihany said, claiming that they are no different than contractors. “We start by showing them where we want to go, and we ask for their input early on and give them the understanding that together, we can specify better products, we can find a new idea, we can compromise when we have to.” 

There is not, he emphasized, only one way of doing things. More importantly, he added, “My way of doing things is not always the right way. I would like to learn something every day from a smart purchasing agent, a creative engineer, a cabinet-maker.” While working on the upcoming renovation of the Oberoi in New Delhi, Tihany said, his designers and purchasing people are “fighting” to go to India. “They come back with eyes wide open,” he said—and with samples. “I saw a woman in Jaipur who makes incredible embroideries! It was like kids in a candy store! And this is because of a wonderful purchasing agent who opened our eyes to see things we wouldn’t see otherwise. If we are all on the same page, the joy of doing things together makes everything better.” 

Avoiding a style
Since creating his first restaurant and his first hotel, Tihany has avoided developing a signature style. “Each project has its own personality, its own DNA,” he said. “I try to adapt to situations, briefs and clients, not necessarily selling them my point-of-view or my style, so to speak.” In that sense, he compares himself to a portrait artist or a custom tailor. “They come ahead of me,” he declared. “It’s about them, not me. The portraitist puts in some of his personality and style, but at the end of the day, I have to make my clients look better.” As such, he said, his projects “vary dramatically” because the clients vary dramatically. A hotel in New Dehli, for example, should not feel like a hotel in Detroit. “In Venice, Italy, make sure the DNA of Venice seeps through every corner and detail of the project, so that you feel very grounded and present in where you are.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, he noted, has a very Southern California style that is distinct from the Breakers in Palm Beach or the Cipriani in Venice. While all of these properties cater to a similar clientele, they have their own ambiance that reflects a sense of place. “Practicing with very diverse styles is part of what keeps me fresh and interested,” he said. “I can’t see myself doing the same thing over and over again. The path that I chose is suitable to my temperament—even though, at times, I wish I could do the same thing over and over and be happy!”  

Overcoming challenges
Over the years, Tihany has seen his share of obstacles. “I face the same challenges everyone else faces,” he said. But, he added quickly, “I like problems. I think that challenges and obstacles are meant to challenge you and get you to rethink things over and over until you come up with the best solution. We are all guilty by assuming that everything we do is the best and that there is no way to do it except how we do it.” 

Ignoring challenges and avoiding obstacles, he continued, will leave a designer staid. “A great athlete is the one that is always welcoming a great competitor. It makes you push yourself harder and do better. If you do not excel, someone else will, and you will be left behind. 

“I welcome problems. If you have a project with no problems, you have the wrong guy. It would bore me to tears.” Tihany noted that he has recently started designing cruise ships—a different twist on hospitality design that comes with many new rules and regulations. But he is facing these challenges head-on and, after decades in the industry, learning new skills to become a leader in yet another field. “It’s really bearing magnificent results,” he added. “Bring on the problems!”

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