MarkZeff influenced by counterculture movement of 1960s and 1970s for Hotel Kabuki’s $28M renovation

Brooklyn-based interior design and branding firm MarkZeff completed a $28-million revitalization for Joie de Vivre's Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco’s Japantown district. The 1960’s pagoda-style building has a view of the city, with juliet balconies in each room overlooking San Francisco.

Taking influence from the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the region as well as the hotel’s location, MarkZeff fused the bohemian with the Japanese to update the interiors of the historic property with modern touches. According to Stacie Meador, director of hospitality design at MarkZeff, the renovated spaces now have “Japanese modern meets bohemian” look, with a little bit of industrial thrown in.

The lobby demonstrates Eastern influence in details like a Japanese calligraphy-inspired carpet, as well as a clean-lined and Japanese-style reception desk with contrasting butterfly-key inlays. Behind this desk, a backlit vintage factory window wall serves as a historic backdrop.


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The public space utilizes a black and blonde color palette inspired by Shou Sugi Ban, an ancient Japanese exterior siding technique that preserves wood by charring it with fire. The technique materializes in carbonized black, alligator skin-textured columns that are juxtaposed with an inverted X-beam structure made of reclaimed douglas fir. The blonde wood floors are covered with custom, hand-tufted wool carpets from the reception area to the elevator lobby.

Reflecting the importance of shade and light in Japanese architecture, this blonde and black theme carries over into the exposed garden that brings natural light into the interior space. MarkZeff reinvented the area by bringing the bar, a communal table, and a lounge together for the main floor. Popular records from a local record store are displayed on a console by the communal table where a DJ will curate music for different events that take place at the hotel. A nod to the major music scene happening in San Francisco in the 60s, the display melds with the Japanese influenced design and completes the minimalist space.

Mark Zeff, who founded his company in 1985, developed two different room styles, each with custom furniture, carpets and fabric to reflect a cohesive aesthetic. The first has wallcoverings featuring vintage Japanese newspaper print, while the second references retro sumo wrestling cards in a wallcovering that lines the closet. All rooms use sisal carpeting throughout, with subtle hints of Japanese influence found in various facets, including headboards and drapery that were dyed with a traditional shibori method, the patchwork style of boro stitching used in the upholstery, and the clean lines of Japanese woodworking in casegoods. Some rooms have bold painted doors, and others unique wall murals, replicating the experience of an artist’s loft.

Furniture, carpets, and fabrics used in the interiors that were not custom made were bought from local designers and artisans.

The public spaces and guestrooms have unique art pieces, including graphic Japanese matchbook covers from the 1920s and 1930s, and historic images of San Francisco’s hippie culture, each framed with a different style. The rooms also have art walls that feature traditional and modern art along with Buddhist proverbs in Japanese calligraphy, while the lobby has a black and white map of Japantown used as a large scale mural on the ceiling above the reception area.

Photo credit: Fog & Apple