After more than 30 years of working in the architecture and interior design spheres, Michael Suomi is taking on a new title: entrepreneur. The industry veteran has launched his own design studio, Suomi Design Works, in Manhattan and will be focusing exclusively on designing hotels.
“[After] doing this for a long time, I started to realize that there was a real need for a firm that would only be focused on hotel design, period,” Suomi told Hotel Management. At New York-based firm Stonehill Taylor, where Suomi spent 15 years as principal and VP, he and other designers worked not only on hotels but on multifamily projects, corporate developments, science facilities and other structures. “That was a wider approach,” he said.
During that decade-and-a-half at Stonehill Taylor, Suomi built a hospitality-focused team that worked on hotels such as the Aloft in Philadelphia, the Eliza Jane in New Orleans, the Limelight Hotel in Aspen and the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport, the Moxy Chelsea, the Moxy Downtown and the Park Terrace Hotel in New York City, among others.
“In talking with a lot of our clients that we had at Stonehill Taylor, I saw that there was a desire for a higher-level approach to developing ideas for hotels and designs for hotels that was best suited by a real intense focus on only hotels.”
The new firm, he said, will focus on properties that need “a lot of upfront creativity” in their design narrative. “That would mean a lot of...soft brands or the lifestyle-branded hotels or independents that need a unique approach to their specific location,” he said.
In creating a design for a hotel, particularly those in the lifestyle or boutique segment, Suomi takes a three-step approach to designing a unique hospitality space. “We have an opportunity doing a lot of our own research to understand [an asset’s] location, market, clientele, the hopes and dreams of the developers [and] what's already in the market,” he said. This lets the team create something “that has a real clear differentiation that's created out of location.”
The second step is taking “a real collaborative approach” to design. “I am a big believer in the power of bringing people into the design process that I call catalysts,” he explained, noting the expertise of people with backgrounds in different facets of design. “It might be fashion or set design, or bar and restaurant creation, mixology, graphic design or branding.” These people “look at things differently,” he said, and can contribute a lot to the process. A tailor, for example, will focus on how seams and stitches aline on a piece of fabric, while a graphic designer might focus on color and shape. “And that's a very different approach than, say, a prop designer for cinema who is interested in creating objects that help convey and carry a story forward and help to define the people that use those objects,” he said. “So these are all different ways to look at the design process. And they're from different backgrounds and different educations and I feel that they all have a lot of validity in the design process. And by bringing these to bear on the design of a hotel, you start to rethink the details of a hotel and how you craft the hotel so that it engages people in a different way.”
The third step is crafting “a really strong story” that is the beginning for the design process. This story, Suomi noted, can grow out of the very nature of travel, from the memories people create once they leave home. “One of my goals is to take that idea and bring it within the hotel itself,” he said. “If you ask people ‘What's your favorite hotel?’ you're going to get a lot of different answers, but usually those answers have to do with something that happened in that hotel. It may have nothing to do with the design, it may have more to do with operations, but usually it's a story that they've created. If you can create a hotel that already has a lot of stories behind it, that is going to help build memories and make a hotel successful when it first opens.”
Even though he has left Stonehill Taylor, Suomi isn't burning any bridges: He will remain connected with the company as a consultant on several projects that already are underway in Colorado, Tennessee and elsewhere. “Stonehill has asked me to continue to work in the role of a design advisor so that those projects are crafted and created in a way that exceeds the client's expectations,” he said.
Suomi also will be attending the BDNY conference at New York City's Jacob Javits Convention Center from Nov. 10-11, and will lead two discussions on each day of the event. He will host the "Hospitality on Edge: Climate Change, Trade Wars and Brand Overload" panel on Sunday, and then on Monday will go behind the scenes with Kris Moran, who has worked with director Wes Anderson on his visually and stylistically distinctive films, to talk about translating cinematic design to the hospitality space.