Paula O’Callaghan: Creating Beautiful Ethnic Spaces

Paula O’Callaghan: Creating Beautiful Ethnic Spaces

World, Hotel Interiors –

The Singapore-based Senior Associate at HIRSCH BEDNER ASSOCIATES chats about her work as one of the world’s most respected hospitality interior designers

THE WHOLE POINT OF TRAVEL, even on business, is to experience the cultural soul of the place. That begins with your hotel – its design, spaces and ambience.

While ethnic style may seem primitive to some, local traditions represent who we are today. Architecture and interior design that use ethnic elements connect a site’s past to the present while respecting its spirit and history.

Experienced interior designer in the hospitality sector Paula O’Callaghan, Senior Associate at Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), transforms hotel and resort spaces into ethnic havens by doing a lot of research, listening to locals’ views, and observing their arts and customs.

Some of the American’s high-profile hotel, new-build, renovation and historic restoration projects include the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, Marriott Copenhagen, Ritz-Carlton Jakarta, Fairmont Peace Hotel Shanghai, and Waldorf Astoria Shanghai.

Two of O’Callaghan’s projects of ethnic beauty include:

Siam Kempinski Bangkok, Thailand – Designed around its historical site as a royal lotus garden, the luxury hotel exudes comfort and modern Thai beauty amidst the bustle of Bangkok.

Siam Kempinski Bangkok celebrates the natural beauty of Thailand
Inspired by the property’s history as a royal lotus garden in Bangkok
Centrally located water features symbolise the lotus ponds
Many of the carpet patterns and artwork in this hotel are inspired by the lotus, along with the purple and chartreuse colour scheme.

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Jiang-Nan Chun restaurant, Four Seasons Singapore – This Cantonese restaurant is inspired by the land south of the Yangtze, the longest river in China, and the culturally rich lifestyle of the people living there. Elements such as fishermen baskets, rich wool carpets, medical cupboards and bird figurines are placed throughout the restaurant to reminisce the fertile region of Jiang-Nan.

The carpet reflects China’s fertile Yangtze River
Some of the details, such as the carved panels, could not be drawn or documented traditionally, as they are meant to appear like genuine, handcrafted, “found” elements
The private dining walls are dotted with white ceramic tiles, emblematic of one of the most important life-giving produces of China: rice grains.
The traditional wood carvings of medical drawers juxtapose artisanal culture and rustic livelihood

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A Chat with Paula O’Callaghan, Senior Associate at Hirsch Bedner Associates, about designing ethnic interiors

Having an arts background coupled with an architecturally-oriented design education, Paula has the unique capability of working in both the decorative and technical aspects of a project

 Do your research and do not be afraid to bounce ideas off of people who are of that particular ethnicity or culture to see what their perception of your idea is. If they tell you something is too themed or cliche, you have to be sensitive enough to listen, learn and amend the design.”

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In what way does Siam Kempiniski Hotel, Bangkok represent the natural beauty of Thailand?

The natural beauty of Thailand lies not only in its lush, tropical geography, but in its diverse and rich culture. The Thais have a high regard to arts, culture and ceremony, expressed in almost every manner of daily living. From a humble roadside meal of khao lao to the majestic nagas perched upon their temple rooftops, there is an acknowledgment and care ingrained within Thai culture towards the beauty in life, be it natural or man-made. It is this essence of Thai “natural beauty” that is celebrated in the design of the Siam Kempinski. The hotel sits upon a former royal lotus garden.

HBA was asked to create an interior that paid homage to this legacy but reflected in a modern and sophisticated manner. Many of the carpet patterns and artwork in this hotel are inspired by the lotus, along with the purple and chartreuse colour scheme. Centrally located water features symbolise the lotus ponds, their stepped forms recalling the unique features of a temple roof. A nod to Thai high culture and ceremony is also made with the appearance of the sinewy, metal-filigree wall sconces that line the marbled halls of the public areas, recalling the delicate jewelled finger accessories worn by apsara dancers.

 How do you engage the botanical garden around the hotel in the design?

Inspired by the property’s history as a royal lotus garden the architectural concept for this property was based upon an “urban oasis” which fully engages with a landscaped zone with low-rise guestroom wings that encompass a centrally located pool deck and lush garden. This allows the orientation of the architecture away from the surrounding urban bustle of Bangkok, creating an insular, peaceful experience. Inset seating pods dot the pool and garden, with a sala bar anchoring the garden and pool. HBA’s exterior scope was to soften a rather austere architectural surround with the same stylistic elements as within the hotel interior.

How long was the design process for Jiang-Nan Chun restaurant at Four Seasons Singapore – seeing that it has such rich ethnic elements?

The whole process from start to final installation was about 8 to 9 months. We had about 2 weeks to pull together the concept story and about another 2 to 3 weeks for the actual schematic design development and re-planning, followed by a few weeks for design documentation. Some of the details, such as the carved panels, could not be drawn or documented traditionally, as they are meant to appear like genuine, handcrafted, “found” elements. For these, we had to work closely with the contractor who sourced them in China.

How do you approach ethnic and culture-rich hotel projects such as these without being cliche, jarring and predictable?

Do your research and do not be afraid to bounce ideas off of people who are of that particular ethnicity or culture to see what their perception of your idea is. If they tell you something is too themed or cliche, you have to be sensitive enough to listen, learn and amend the design. On the Siam Kempinski project, I constantly sought the judgement of the Thai project manager and local furniture contractor. After they realised that I was genuinely interested in their opinion, they openly offered their perspective. There were many candid, fruitful discussions on what elements were uniquely Thai versus Chinese, Indonesian, or simply generically “Asian”.

5 As you are based in Singapore, and have been living here for some time what are your favourite local foods?

Oh, I’m such a foodie! So the list is rather long. Here are some of my favourite local foods: chicken rice (roasted, breast cut preferred), kway chap (ang moh style, without offal), bak kut teh, mee siam, char kway teow, laksa, (Singapore version), duck rice (dry, without sauce), char siew rice (dry, without sauce), siew yoke (dry, Hong Kong style with hot mustard), yong tau foo (soup with beehoon), popiah, fried beehoon, herbal chicken soup, nasi lemak, chilli crab, chilli baby sotong (squid, the crispy kind), roti prata, sardine puff (extra spicy).

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Story by writers Carol Kraal and Sara Graav (Design Consultant). Photographs courtesy of Hirsch Bedner Associates. Laksa photograph by San Galistan