Charting a New Destination

Inspired by the spirit of its enchanted location, the newly redesigned social spaces at the W San Francisco represent a synergy of design that captures the imagination of its guests and elevates the identity of the brand.

03/22/2012 By Robert Nieminen

Careful now.
We're dealing here with a myth.
This city is a point upon a map of fog;
Lemuria in a city unknown.
Like us,
It doesn't quite exist.
– Ambrose Bierce

Unlike the fabled city of Lemuria in the poem above, the “point upon a map of fog” alluded to by the author is very real. Though it may bear allegorical similarities of a lost city swallowed by the sea, San Francisco—not easily visible beneath the blankets of fog that often fleece its skyline—is a metropolis that both belies and sustains the otherworldly façade Bierce portrays.

The W San Francisco hotel has captured that same sense of mystery in its newly designed social spaces—the Welcome Desk, Living Room, Living Room Bar and Upstairs Bar—as well as the launch of the W brand’s new signature restaurant concept, TRACE. Designed by 30-year San Fran resident-architect Stanley Saitowitz, who brings to the project not only design expertise, but an intimate knowledge of the city, these new, sleek venues stand front and center at the W San Francisco, which has played host to the city’s highest wattage happenings in music, fashion and design since its debut 11 years ago.

“The basic brand strategy has shifted from a universal ‘W look’ to now doing each hotel more site-specific to relate to the city that it’s in,” explains Saitowitz, founder and chairman of the Bay Area-based Natoma Architects. “So [during] the initiation of the design, we were asked to come up with a concept that was specific to San Francisco. The idea came from a line from a poem by Ambrose Bierce, where he said, ‘This city is a point upon a map of fog.’”

Within that singular line of verse emerged two elements—a map and fog—that became the guideposts for the design at the W, Saitowitz explains. “The map was used as the sort of surface, the floor patterning, and then all of the program elements were thought of as extrusions from that map, almost like buildings.” That included the furniture, which was all custom-designed and intended to mimic the appearance of a cityscape within a grid.

One of the challenges in working within the existing floorplate, Saitowitz says, is that there was no sense of continuity within the common areas. “The existing space was really fragmented, and it was broken up into very distinct, separate areas,” he says. “There was an arrival area and then there was a doorway; there was a lounge and then there was a doorway; there was a bar and then there was a doorway ... so one of the key things for us was to dissolve all of those barriers and make the space much more continuous and open.”

As a result, all of the new social spaces are more unified to create a sense of interconnectedness and fluidity as guests move from one area to the next. Beginning at the Welcome Desk, a topographical rendering of San Francisco at night, complete with streets and landmark buildings outlined in patterns of light, hangs above the space and immerses guests in the design concept upon check-in. Check-in pods feature backlit wooden panels that impart bold splashes of color.

Upon entering the Rotunda, guests step into a microcosm of the city that starts with the flooring—a graphic grid of woven vinyl made by Bolon. Just as San Francisco’s streets fold over the hills, the grid motif wraps up the walls, eventually blending into the pixilated haze of the ceiling. This urban-inspired grid plane is used to position furniture, with modular seating rising from the ground like buildings.

Sensual and inviting, the Living Room is the place where mixing and mingling is de rigueur. Natural light is diffused through a pixilated vinyl lamination on the glass windows to create a soft and mysterious atmosphere. The design intent for Living Room focuses on how a city’s lights impart their visual identity on something as massive and foreboding as fog.

Dark, patterned walls are contrasted with bright pinks, blues and purples arranged in a spectrum behind black, wooden lattice-work screens that frame the Living Room. These pops of color are picked up through the pillows and accessories, where vibrant hues evoke San Francisco’s psychedelic movement of the 1960s. Amping up the after-dark aura is a long gas fireplace set into a mirrored wall.

The Living Room’s visible energy flows seamlessly into W San Francisco’s buzzed-about new restaurant, TRACE, which captures the vibrant local personality of the Bay Area by focusing on high-quality, locally-sourced cuisine. Tall wood panels rise from the grid flooring to create cozy nooks for intimate dining. Quartz tabletops and leather-upholstered chairs strike a contrast in crisp white, while their clean lines echo the geometric pattern that is carried throughout the design narrative. Sheer curtains cascade from above, adding another layer of diffused lighting to the high-ceilinged dining area.

TRACE’s local and sustainable focus is reflected not only in the menu, but also in the styling, which includes tabletop vases by Heath Ceramics of Sausalito. The menus were fashioned from repurposed wood by Bay Area-based artisan Luke Bartels, who works primarily with locally salvaged and sustainably harvested hardwoods. TRACE’s water tumblers, made by BottleHood, were created from recycled wine bottles.

The sustainable details don’t stop there, however. The W San Francisco property earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) EB Silver certification in 2010, and the recent renovation of its social spaces was also designed to meet the rating system’s benchmarks, through the use of low-energy LED lighting, sustainable flooring, finishes and surfacing materials.

From TRACE, a staircase leads to a swanky bar, aptly named Upstairs, where guests quite literally ascend through the fog. The fog-like effect is more pronounced with a lighter color palette and patterned mirrored walls that create the illusion of being immersed in the clouds. In this micro-climate, the wood-paneled bar and walls are reinterpreted in white, affording glimpses of pink, purple and blue back-painting. Soft lighting filters down through the mesh fabric-covered ceiling while ball chain curtains and perforated leather upholstery inject a dose of rock ‘n’ roll. Accessories featuring metal studs, faux fur and leathers pick up on the city’s industrial past, while giving more than a casual wink and a nod to San Francisco’s legendary Castro District.

In the end, Saitowitz’s design concept represents a synergy of design that encapsulates the spirit of San Francisco (as well as Bierce’s poetry) in a powerhouse fashion that is uniquely W Hotels.

w san francisco
181 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 777-5300

project team
Stanley Saitowitz/Natoma Architects Inc.
1022 Natoma Street, #3
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 701-7900

Stanley Saitowitz, founder and chairman
John Winder, partner, project architect
Michael Luke, associate, project architect
Ulysses Lim, associate, project manager
Neil Kaye, associate, project architect
Markus Bischoff, project manager