The firm recently redesigned the public areas of the Hyatt Regency in Merida, Mexico. Reimagined spaces included the lobby, two restaurants, ballrooms, event spaces and a pool terrace focusing on modern travelers.
Lead-designers and co-owners Jim Neeley and David Dow completed the dynamic project with a tight budget combining high and low end creative solutions. The duo managed national vendors and artisans from around the country and completed the project in less than a year-and-a half.
INTERVIEW – Jim Neeley and David Dow
brandnewdaydesigns: Before the redesign of the Hyatt Regency, how would you describe the space?
Jim Neeley: The property was built 21 years ago by a local architect who also did the interior design. There were very grand rotundas and lots of marble marquetry and it was very, very dark. Almost no natural lighting. There was a window wall in the lobby, but it was tinted almost black to control the sun. The hotel was filled with a menagerie of baroque European style heavily carved furniture. An Italian restaurant adjacent to the lobby had every kind of cliché including frescos on the ceiling and Michelangelo’s David on the ceiling. It was a real sight to behold and kind of caught in a time warp. Fortunately for the owners, the site was very well maintained. It wasn’t shabby or rundown. It was just really dated. It was that 90’s corporate hotel thing with a mishmash up of European furniture, heavily gilded mirrors, rod iron consoles and lots of marble. Marble as far as the eye could see.
bndd: You have a varied track record in both commercial and residential design. Admittedly, this was a major renovation project. When you initially walked into the space, were you inspired right away or did you step back and ask yourselves “Can we do this?”
JN: My first impression when we were entertaining the idea of doing this project was just the scale of it. Two restaurants, a huge lobby space, a pool terrace; it seemed a bit overwhelming. That impression lasted for about 30 minutes. We sat in that lobby and the creative wheels started into motion.
David Dow: I knew once we moved past the scale of the project, the ideas would start flowing. One of the challenges of our initial concept is we wanted to infuse a sense of location; some kind of indigenous elements that would give guests a sense of place. The owners were clear they did not want any sort of Mexican design. They wanted something international, more contemporary yet not cutting edge modern. We needed to regroup, dial back and find a happy balance between Hyatt corporate, the owner’s ideas for an international feel and our perspective of what the hotel should be.
JN: By virtue of this profession, you kind of seize the challenge and say this is pretty terrible and overwhelming, but imagine what it could be. You start stripping away the sins and get down to the shell and start building up from the foundation. All of a sudden the queasiness has passed and you start looking at the opportunity to make this big design statement. Having someone consider us to do a job of that scale was really exhilarating.
bndd: It took you about a year and half to complete this renovation. As with all projects there are budget restrictions as well as delivery commitments. What were some of your creative solutions that ultimately made big design statements while keeping within theme and budget?
JN: A good example is in the restaurants. The tabletops are a beautiful copper, hand-hammered with a Verde finish to them. If we were to do that sort of thing in the United States we would have to pay a fortune. This project allowed us to work with local craftsman to hand-make those tabletops. The hand finish gave us that beautiful patina which is indigenous to the town of Michoácan, Mexico. It’s a craft that has been passed down for generations, but was transcended in this restaurant’s theme with murals along with beautiful details. It doesn’t look handicraft Mexican, but it shows the quality of what Mexican craftsmen can do.
DD: Jim designed a very large chandelier for another more traditional Yucatecan restaurant in the hotel. We hired a local craftsman to execute the design and when we first went to the see his work it kind of took your breath away. It was literally one room where the guy lived and it was also a bicycle repair shop plus there were a couple of chickens running around and here he is executing this chandelier on a grand scale. It was a simple location with simple tools. When you take somebody’s talented skills and give [him or her] an opportunity and direction, it can inspire them to produce impressive work. It’s great to see this work hanging in an international hotel featuring amazing craftsmanship.
JN: Also on the ceiling in one of the restaurants we created upholstered panels, which did a couple of things; bring some texture to the area as opposed to just painting and it also deadened the sound. We covered the panels with jute plant, which was a nice way to bring a local indigenous material into the space in a different and re-imagined way.
bndd: Another signature piece you created was the custom cutting board screen…
JN: That screen is actually covering a doorway to the back of the house of one of the restaurants. It was always open and you could see into the kitchen. The idea was to create a barrier that you could step behind and still access the kitchen. Those cutting boards are a collection that was bought in thrift stores and Ebay. Some of them are new.
DD: It was this assemblage of quirky and crazy things. There are pigs and squirrels. There are some really cool cutting boards from the 60’s. An outrageous collection of stuff. Some of those cutting boards were only a few dollars, but when you see them assembled like that it looks more expensive than it really is. We’re kind of the masters of high-low. We do a lot of combining humble with expensive elements.
bndd: What is the overall impression you wanted to make on this project?
JN: We had this opportunity to take this 20-year-old relic and reinvent it, which was very exhilarating. What really drove the design especially in the lobby was to rethink the way the furniture groupings were done and make it a friendlier and livelier ambiance, yet keep it timeless. There’s a subtle cascading water wall that we designed for the space. There are some interesting lighting effects that create a sense of sunrise to sunset. It’s a cycle of lighting that occurs in the space throughout the course of the day. It’s cool and serene and that was the driving sense to take you from the brutal heat into this inviting place where you could decompress and escape. —
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