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What is New Orleans? It’s the Big Easy, the birthplace of jazz and the levee—home to Bourbon Street, the po’boy and Louisiana voodoo. Whatever comes to mind, one thing is clear: the city of New Orleans has an undeniable voice all its own.
Thanks to the tireless work of the staff at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, so does the W Hotel.
As the chain moves forward with a comprehensive renovation strategy to update its North American portfolio, more than 10 W properties are set to complete renovations by February 2014. The recent transformation of the W New Orleans—French Quarter serves as an insightful microcosm of their efforts as they stay true to their own brand, while celebrating the distinct cultures of the cities where they operate.
Nemaworkshop, an interior design and architecture firm based in New York City, led the full-scale renovation of the W New Orleans—French Quarter, which was unveiled in the middle of 2012. Principal Anurag Nema and his team worked closely with the W to create a narrative-based design that would gracefully merge the two distinct voices of the city and the hotel into one cohesive story.
“The goal was that, while following the W DNA, by the time the project is done the design can be only New Orleans,” Nema says.
Thanks to the city’s rich culture, the designers found so many stories they “almost created a whole book” during planning. The group spent much of their time meeting with locals and hotel staff, editing back ideas, and identifying clear synergies between the W and the city that would also create an alluring guest experience. Ultimately, they landed on a narrative about New Orleans’ origins in jazz and voodoo—notions that blend seamlessly with the W’s ties to adventure and energy.
According to the initial design intent, “What binds these is that they are both unscripted and emerge from a mysterious underground. Like the city of New Orleans itself, they have their own internal logic which is intuitive, impulsive and spontaneous.”
It’s quite befitting, too, for a firm like nemaworkshop, which is a strong proponent of a fluid, research-based design approach that allows stories to form organically as ideas come forward, rather than imposing a top-down design.
The hotel features two distinct themes, Jazz and Tarot, which alternate floor by floor. All 97 guest rooms feature an eye-catching corner-wrapped image, which spans from floor to ceiling and continues on across part of the ceiling itself. Jazz room guests will find a close-up image of a trumpet, while Tarot room guests will see the queen of pentacles.
In classic W fashion, each room also boasts clean lines in modern blacks and whites. Here, the hotel’s signature style is mixed with gold tones and rich primary colors relevant to the design motifs. Jazz rooms are bright and vibrant like the music itself, with golden yellow walls and white lacquered furniture; tarot rooms are more dark and sultry, with deep blue hues and furnishings inspired by the famed New Orleans voodoo queen, Marie Laveau.
How do you know you’ve hit the nail on the head? When hotel staffers familiar with voodoo practice refuse to enter. That was the challenge Nema faced when he started inviting local stakeholders into his mock-up room, which featured a portrait of Laveau.
“We come from outside, we try to learn as much as we can and sort of pick what’s interesting to us, but at the same time, we of course think of practicality and of the people,” he says.
Guests can still spot depictions of Laveau throughout the property, and they don’t have to book a room to experience the story. The hotel’s common areas feature show-stopping designs and richly layered cultural elements as well. All of the corridors, Studio meeting spaces, the Living Room (read: lobby), and the outdoor Courtyard are newly renovated and filled with clever nods to the soul of the city, as is the hotel’s new signature restaurant, SoBou.
“The new design definitely has a little fun with the city’s spiritual side,” says Nema. “You may see Marie’s eyes following you on the guest room number placard, or you may recognize her headdress on a directional sign. If you look up while you’re standing in the lift landing, you’ll notice tiny, pin-like lights, playing off voodoo pins.”
Like any good New Orleans fixture, SoBou (“South of Bourbon Street”) is equal parts booze and brass, inspired by Louisiana street food. The entry and front dining space look like an old apothecary, clad in floor-to-ceiling bottles celebrating the origins of America’s first cocktail, the sazerac. Illuminated display cases house a collection of vintage tools, shakers and glasses from the Museum of the American Cocktail.
In the main dining space, guests can peer into a one-way glass installation to see glowing bottles multiplying into infinity while they pick from a menu of regionally sourced, contemporary Creole dishes. Large brass pendants hang overhead, in convincing trumpet-horn fashion, while over at an adjacent beer garden, portraits of women’s eyes peer down from rectangular brass fixtures. There, patrons will also find self-service Enomatic® wine machines and beer taps built directly into the tables.
Out in the Courtyard, guests will find the firm’s homage to true French Quarter culture and architectural style, where the courtyard remains a social centerpiece. Here, a tiered water fountain, lush landscaping and vine-covered walls offer a bit of tranquility, while a pool and cabanas set behind wrought-iron gates provide a cool respite from the southern heat.
The final product is a hotel space that, as Nema hoped from the start, could not belong anywhere but here. It is a success that he hopes to promote among his peers.
“We as designers see a lot of things,” he says. “In research-based design, these ideas become hopefully more connected toward kind of giving up your specific ideas and just embracing the narrative and the stories coming out, and trying to mix with them and create an experience for guests.”
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w new orleans—french quarter
316 Chartres Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
49 Bleecker Street
New York, NY 10012
Vincent Chih-Chieh Chin
365 Canal Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
Vincent Chih-Chieh Chin