ForrestPerkins: Redefining the Lap of Luxury

By Carol Tisch • Cover and portrait photography by Liane Enkelis
Combining the big business of the hotel industry with a designer’s keen sense of luxury, Stephen Perkins and Deborah Lloyd Forrest are redefining one of the smallest, yet more profitable segments of the hospitality market by helping to establish brand loyalty through unique designs that resonate with location.


By Carol Tisch

uxury, like beauty, is more than skin deep—especially in the hospitality business. For world-class properties, luxury is an elusive commodity specific to each individual hotel, as well as to each guest's memories of their experience. For designers willing to undertake the challenge, the luxury hotel segment offers an opportunity to translate creativity into value that can actually be measured in room rate, occupancy and customer loyalty. Luxury, it seems, provides something special for everyone.

But at ForrestPerkins, the L-word means even more: it defines the firm's core essence and is the foundation that gave rise to a meteoric success story. Formed in 1998 by Stephen Perkins, AIA, and Deborah Lloyd Forrest, FASID, the practice targeted the luxury market from the outset. In this tiny segment (Perkins says it's 10 percent of the total hospitality market, but generates a good bit more as a percent of gross revenues), the co-founders saw a niche that would differentiate their new partnership: a profitable sector that embraced the quality of design they wanted to produce.

"It's the segment of the market that offers a great deal of opportunity for creative input," Perkins says. "Design really does make a difference, and design has value in luxury: One night at $600 may be seven or eight nights' gross revenue at the lower-level of a chain." He should know—Perkins comes from the big business side of the hospitality industry, having worked for Michael Graves shortly after receiving his master's degree; master planning the $5 billion Maihama Resort whose centerpiece is Tokyo Disney World; and later serving as director of architecture for Gensler in Washington, D.C.

In contrast, Forrest is a designer's designer with a focus on luxury, a lifelong passion for historic hotels, and a talent for creating one-off furnishings for elite, upscale properties whose customers are discerning enough to know what is unique and fashion-right. Together, the principals created a culture that quickly captured clients like Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and Fairmont, to name a few.

"Our hallmark is the combination of the best of large-firm management with the best of small-firm culture," Forrest explains. Indeed, even the physical structure of the firm is unique: instead of a singular corporate headquarters there are two equal offices—one headed by Forrest in Dallas and the other run by Perkins in Washington, D.C. "The bellwether that confirms the success of our strategy is the quality and caliber of people that are now drawn to ForrestPerkins," she says. "Every day, as we interview prospective employees, we're seeing exciting young people coming out of school, as well as people who have been in the industry a number of years and are attracted to the firm because of the work we're doing and the culture we've instilled and maintained in our firm."

Now, she says, the challenge is to maintain that culture as the firm continues to grow. "We doubled in size last year—from 30 to 60 employees," Forrest says, "and that was a real achievement for us. We were able to do it because we adopted early in the creation of the company, best practices from larger firms; Stephen really brought that to ForrestPerkins."

Forrest likens the growth process to a balancing act. "We look at how to make doing our business easier, and how to manage our business more professionally while allowing team members to be as creative as they can," she says. "We apply a very rigorous business model to a very creative, sort of un-rigorous, design process."

Un-rigorous, indeed! How ForrestPerkins fabricates the sensory experiences luxury hotels want to provide in today's competitive environment—and keeps them fresh and unique to each property—would mystify those less creatively enlightened. But at this firm, individuality is de rigueur simply because design solutions represent each client's specific mission statement.

Perkins says a key aspect of today's luxury world is that hotels are deliberately trying not to create uniform brand identities. "Luxury hotels are unique and much different than they were 20 years ago when brands like Ritz-Carlton produced hotels that had signature looks," he explains. "Every corridor, every room and every lobby looked like Buckhead in Atlanta. Whether you were in Fiji or Hawaii, you were just as likely to have English hunting prints on the walls."

According to Perkins, luxury is now a sense of quality personified in things like linens, bedding, in-suite amenities and custom furnishings that are unique to the rooms within a resort or hotel. "In the past, the brand had the image," he says. "These days the corporate name promises brand quality instead of a brand look across all locations."

The firm structures abstract creative thinking and funnels it into one-off design solutions for each property by capitalizing on each hotel's specific sense of place. "We look to the local settings to help differentiate a property," Perkins says. "We try to understand the quality of the light, the quality and color of the foliage. If it's a resort, guests are going to come in contact with the ground, so we look at the quality and texture of the dirt."

"Texture, light, pattern and color are studied first. Then we try to make a design that is referential so there's a resonance between the hotel you are in and the place where you are," he says. Both principals firmly believe that if guests have a better sense of where they are and where they've stayed, the result is a more pleasant memory.

"If you create a warm feeling about that hotel, you also encourage brand loyalty," Perkins explains. "And if consumers can string together a chain of experiences that happen to be with the same brand, they can pretty readily say, 'I like that brand.'"

However, sometimes the sense of place needs a slight adjustment. In a new project in Portland, OR, the colors and lighting will be corrected to compensate for the gray quality of the location's interior atrium lighting. Portland's historic Meier & Frank department store building is about to be remodeled and ForrestPerkins has been retained to design the 10-floor hotel within the property—part of the Luxury Collection by Starwood.

"The imagery for Portland is going to be very much about quality of light," Perkins says. "There is a very low-light environment within this atrium, so you have to use clear and bright color to cut through that dull, gray light that's present a fair amount of the time. The design is also very streamlined because Portland is a modern, young city and we think the clientele for this hotel will be young men and women who are there on business, typically either in software or medical technology."

To that point, the firm's designers are developing approaches that use a great deal of wood, Perkins says. "There is a premium for (a) woody look in Portland, and because we're concerned that many rooms have interior views down to the base of the atrium, we're creating very elaborate, lattice-like structures near where the restaurant and bar will be."

For other clients, the firm has married interiors to the local setting as well. In a revamp of the AAA five-diamond Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, TN, designers gutted guest floors, adding traditional details like Georgian architraves at each room's entrance and high ceilings with traditional moldings to complement the Beaux Arts
style lobby, neoclassical boardroom and oak-paneled Capitol Grille that they also restored.

Though the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC, was restored by Forrest in 1987, the landmark Victorian venue remains a current client of her new firm. Most recent projects include a Library Lounge created from reclaimed retail space, the Fairmont Gold Lounge, and completely new Willow Stream Spa employing classical design elements and natural materials that blend seamlessly with hotel's original interior architecture.

Another client, Viking Range Corp., gave the designers an opportunity to create a thoroughly contemporary environment in its Alluvian Hotel with hip colors, leather headboards and amenities like five-pound chenille throws. The sleek interiors belie the property's setting in downtown Greenwood, MI, yet ForrestPerkins manages to inform guests through touches like a major collection of local artwork that they are staying in the Mississippi Delta.

Among the firm's newest projects, Forrest says the conversion of the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., into luxury co-ops is the most high profile. "It's very contemporary and quite a beautiful thing," she says of the mixed-use complex for which her firm will be the interior designer for all 97 residences. Forrest says the renovation efforts will be informed by the hotel's Capitol locale and the building's trademark curvilinear design by Luigi Moretti.

"We're doing quite a bit of residential high rise multi-family luxury design right now," Forrest explains. "We got into it because developers thought our luxury hotel expertise would help differentiate them in the market place. They wanted us to bring the luxury hotel experience to their buyers, and thought a luxury hotel design firm would best know how to bring a spa into the residential environment, or how entertainment and lobby areas could be looked at differently."

According to the principals of ForrestPerkins, luxury residential has developed into a wonderfully related specialty, and interestingly, so has green design.

"It may come as a surprise, but the green story in luxury hotels is a very important trend," Perkins says. "The idea of reusing old buildings, converting old hotels or old office buildings into hotels has been a big story for some time. It's somewhat more expensive, but the cachet and the ability to create a more interesting experience for the guest can be found in preservation," he says.

But while preservation may be the foundation of environmentally sensitive design, it's only one key aspect, Perkins says. In fact, with the Meier & Frank Starwood project currently in progress, ForrestPerkins will be applying for Silver LEED-Certification. "In this particular case, we're doing pretty elaborate energy management and water management systems," Perkins explains. "We're also trying to use sustainable woods that are FSC-certified, carpet with recycled content where possible, and cellulose-based wallcovering."

"This is the first LEED hotel we've done and we're very excited about it," Perkins adds. "It's a new experience for us and our designers. I think it is absolutely going to be a trend that will be embraced and enlarged."

As specialists in the luxury hospitality field, ForrestPerkins is on top of trends that will also filter down to the mid-tier market [see above]. "The most important trend in luxury hotels is to create personal spaces within these fairly impersonal places," Forrest says. "Whatever we can do to help make their hotel room, lobby, spa or restaurant a little more personal is what people are looking for today."

  • Deborah Lloyd Forrest
    2651 N. Harwood, Ste. 300
    Dallas, TX 75201
    (214) 953-2210

    Stephen Perkins, AIA
    2121 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Ste. 100
    Washington, D.C. 20007
    (202) 478-8810 ext. 103