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The Vernacular of Design

When we design entertainment spaces, we have an opportunity to communicate more directly and effectively with the public than at virtually any other time.

03/27/2013 By James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP
Photography courtesy of Scott Baker 

Interior design is everywhere. For us as professionals in the industry, that’s an obvious statement—we know it and we live it, responding as we do on a daily basis to the environments all around us. But for non-designers, that response and awareness isn’t always so reflexive.

This is especially the case in the entertainment and hospitality industry. These spaces have a unique ability to carry a special responsibility to the establishments that they define, beyond the elemental functional and stylistic concerns: They have to connect with the end-user on an almost visceral level. And that connection has to be synonymous with the client’s vision and brand, as well as the customer’s expectation of the same.

first impressions
I have the utmost respect for interior designers who work in the hospitality and entertainment industries. More so than any other client industry, the designer must successfully convey the brand intent, aesthetic essence and functional needs from the moment a user walks in.

First impressions are critical. Why? Because choice is a qualifying condition that differentiates entertainment and hospitality projects from those in other industries. Entertainment spaces have to create the condition in which consumers will actively make that decision to spend their time and money in that establishment.

speaking without words
Within each unique venue, designers have to create spaces that welcome, convey ideas, invite participation and celebrate the end-user’s experience, all without saying a word. At their best, these spaces entice patrons to return again and again to enfold themselves in the environment.

To achieve this effect, designers must consider a number of factors at the outset—not the least of which is the prospective clientele. Who will they be? Will it be a younger or older demographic, and how will they interact with the environment? What will their needs be according to the function of the space? And what sort of an experience should they have, according to the client’s wishes?

If these questions are considered carefully from the start, the answers will often be inferable from the completed interior. One of the winning projects from the recent IIDA Interior Design Competition, the Rockwell Group Europe’s work on the W Paris-Opéra hotel in Paris, is a perfect example. The end result of this design solution, with its unabashed commitment to daring and boldness more commonly found in boutique hotels, playfully juxtaposes classic forms and materials with modern approaches and an unflinching use of color. The space speaks to a forward-thinking clientele of any age, though the appeal is definitely young and energetic.

leveraging culture into design vocabulary
Another winning entrant in this year’s Interior Design Competition likewise blended the traditional with the modern, but with markedly different results. The Nanjing Old House Clubhouse in Nanjing, China, designed by Beijing Newsdays Architectural Design Co., Ltd., harmonizes the organic and ancient with the thoroughly contemporary, making the space at once familiar and new in feeling.

With its cooler hues and reliance on rich, natural materials, the immediate effect is much more meditative than the Rockwell Group Europe’s color-bold work at the W. But as an event space presented as an inherently social environment, it maintains an attractive flexibility, appealing to a broad, sophisticated clientele.

In each of these firms’ choices, we can see the power of design at work. Attention to materials and an appropriate context can enrich a space, and give it a sense of life and a purpose. We see a clear vernacular in these projects that amounts to more than just an assemblage of products, lines and contours. There’s an undeniable alchemy that takes place; an articulation that doesn’t just contribute value to these locations as entertainment sites, but that creates value through their design.

It’s something that only we as designers know how to say, but the public can understand. It’s our vernacular. When clients engage us to design spaces that speak directly to their consumers, we serve as translators, employing our array of skills to communicate comfort, inspiration and a welcoming spirit.

First impressions are lasting impressions. Entertainment and hospitality-based clients entrust us with the enormous responsibility of making that crucial introductory statement on their behalf. It’s our design and client skills that convey that message. Seldom do we have a chance to communicate so strongly and so directly with a public eager for a new and engaging experience. When we put our best feet forward on the client’s behalf, we start an ongoing conversation with the end-user through our own vernacular—the language of design.


IIDA International President James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP is a practicing interior designer and principal at Gensler in its Washington, D.C. office. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at


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