With the bling and bang of Chinatown steps from its front door, reimagining a tired, nondescript, mid-1980s limited services hotel property to reflect its robust neighbors, and also honor Asia's serenity and tradition, was not quite your grandmother’s hospitality redesign.
Charged by new owner RLJ Development - which had acquired the former Comfort Inn- turned-Red Roof Inn property in June, 2010 - with transforming the property for its brand Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott, OPX project designer Ryan Langlois cited the 21st century fusion that is D.C.'s Chinatown. An evolving venue defined by an international range of shops, eateries and entertainment elements from Tony Cheng's, Vapiano’s, a Thai restaurant or two, Starbuck’s and the MCI Center, to traditional Chinese jelly fish and snake soup at the corner market, Langlois said the design inspiration came from the “sights, the sounds, the smells,” of the explosive, melded Chinatown experience.
Fireworks withstanding, the onus was also on the firm to integrate the quiet grace and centuries-old symbolism of Asian culture into the new design, producing what Langlois called an “organic, modern, contemporary” environment. In this vein, a strong tradition of latticework evident in Chinese architecture, intricate wood screens, shades and shutters were used to punctuate the space in various forms, restyled and updated for focal quality. Where Asian symbols and design were referenced, experts were retained to review their authenticity.
At the starting gate
“When we designed this originally, we noted Fairfield Inn & Suites is more typically a conservative brand for the limited service sector,” Langlois explained, noting OPX had been involved in a rebranding effort for Marriott Corporate’s nationwide brand when RLJ approached them about the Chinatown property. Accordingly, OPX had taken a conventional design approach. “But RLJ looked at it and realized they really wanted to see more design – more Chinatown – in the project, and challenged us to go back to the drawing board and build on what we had,” he said.
Helmed by Principal Ken Terzian, the 198-room, 10-story structure went under a rather large knife in a high-velocity, $7 million, nine-month renovation that began by reconfiguring a 2,700 s.f. lobby. With lessor The Irish Channel restaurant and pub occupying about 50 percent of the space at the outset, the renovation involved an expanded lobby to accommodate Fairfield Inn & Suite’s breakfast program, resulting in a reduction of The Irish Channel’s dining space and reconfiguration of its seating, but retention of its bar.
In the lobby’s reception area, a bold 7-by-22-ft. graphic custom mural developed by Langlois and HG Arts greets guests. Abstract and textured, a water scene in the image of a “scaled-up” stream with a dragon atop a stone column, and another dragon that is overlaid, complement overlaying modern graphic twig patterns in turquoise and white. According to the designer, everything is printed on wall covering and “bedazzled,” or covered with thousands of transparent beads one-eighth of an inch in diameter so it all glistens. Wall washes ensure ultimate sparkle, and the mural wraps the corner and keeps on going. Simple water drop light fixtures frame the area, but do not detract from the focal point.
“When you first walk in, you see one portion of it, and then when you exit the space, you see things from another side,” Langlois said, speaking to a litany of the property’s “surprises.” Included on the short list are tiled columns with upholstery wraps – or leather-like corsets– that resemble a kind of fabric wainscoting, replete with decorative fasteners that might be seen on Asian clothing.
Eggs and vistas
In the redesigned hotel breakfast area, as in the rest of the lobby space, windows are spacious and open to court interest from passersby. Conversely, when having breakfast, guests will be able to look out and see Washington, D.C. start its day, Langlois said.
Redolent of Chinese dining halls where ceilings are typically comprised of 12-by-12-ft. squares with applied woodwork, gold trim and bright colors, the breakfast area’s ceiling insets honor the tradition. Four distinct coves are painted gold with surrounding LED lights, along with painted red gloss trim that makes up the decorative motif. Medallions spawn sculptural lighting fixtures that are 60 by 30-inch tapered drum shades, created by Langlois specifically for the project. Using decorative, Asian-style paper from The Paper Source, the designer lined the insides to create opaque objects that channel concentrated light directly down and onto the tables. Overlapping circular patterns inside the drums change color with the use of blue, green, gold, red and orange paper, creating a surprise detail for observant diners.
To the side of the dining room, column-based dark brown wooden chopsticks light fixtures bring an Asian organic quality to the space, reminiscent of contemporary twigs-and-wire fixtures. The inside of the chopsticks fixtures is a “juicy saffron color – like the yellow of Buddhist monks’ robes – that’s going to glow against the brown and bronze metal trim,” Langlois said.In the vestibule, a screen of Dacron-stuffed green interwoven patent leather panels embossed with a dragon scale texture, with polished stainless steel buttons, was inspired by Chinese temple doors. “You always see the red doors with the grid of gold buttons on them; this is our version,” Langlois said of the architects’ efforts to honor but update tradition. The top portion of the screen, with its Chinese square-in-the-circle motif trumpeted throughout the hotel (loosely translated, heaven is represented by a circle and earth by a square), is infilled by an acrylic panel of red flowers and reedy bamboo stems for an organic element.
According to Langlois, the lobby business center became an adventure in scale, function and whimsy. Gilded by a specially-designed 16-by-86-inch box kite light fixture which referenced Asian kite festivals, the small space needed something more to distinguish it without overwhelming its dimension and budget. As such, the designer found a large veneer wood panel and had a canvas-wrapped print made of a stock photography image from HG Arts (colors were manipulated to match the carpet) for the panel’s right side. On the left, a series of polished, 3-inch chrome fortune cookies pepper the panel, reflecting the light from H Street. “Even if fortune cookies didn’t start in China, they are ubiquitous in American culture and associated with Chinatown,” Langlois said. Counters for laptops are made of enduring white, grey and blue-veined granite to perform well, but resemble marble.
Of koi and custom case goods
For OPX, the challenge to transition from bold, bubbling lobby to sanctuary-like guest corridors and rooms was met with homage to organic and natural shapes, colors and textures. With water connoting restfulness and flowers a mainstay of Asian culture (there’s a whole protocol for giving, receiving, occasioning, etc. according to Langlois), a carpeted floating pond corridor was envisioned with colorful koi pulled off to the side, disappearing beneath corridor walls as they would swim beneath the edges of a pond embankment. Tree trunks are represented by dark brown columns flanking guestroom doors, and a pale yellow wall covering reveals abstract twig patterns in yellows and golds, much like branches. (Langlois did mention a nod to cherry blossoms on a wall. Though not from China, they bespeak the beauty of Asia and what’s Washington without them!)
Guestrooms came with their own set of construction caveats the team had to overcome, according to Langlois, dominant among them walls that were precast concrete. “It’s great for sound, but not so great for renovation requisites like new power, Internet and other technology,” Langlois said.
Addressing Marriott’s standard package for hotel rooms which includes a freestanding desk, chair, dresser, TV, full length mirror and welcome sconce in a 12 or 12.5-ft. floorplan, the designer noted these rooms, constructed years ago for another hotel and only 11-by-6-ft., were shy of necessary space. To that end, a slimmed down/component integrated custom case goods piece was designed with features like a smaller desk (scaled to laptop size) cantilevered off a chest of drawers, and a dual-purposed built-in bench accommodating luggage and providing extra seating. An open shelf beneath a wall-mounted TV houses a coffeemaker and amenity tray.
Tantamount to the economy-of-space room design, an Asian theme was manifested in a headboard pattern with the traditional square-in-circle motif reflected in other parts of the hotel, this time inside a fleur-di-lis, and via the use of red accent color in a nod to Chinese lacquer ware. With the décor package for the guestrooms built upon the Marriott standard in part, carpeting is blue with a green geometric pattern overlay, but the colors flow from the corridors’ aforementioned “floating pond” theme for continuity. “You don’t want to walk in off bright orange carpet,” Langlois said of the objective to create a seamless, restful environment.
“This is a unique hotel,” said RLJ Development, LLC’s Carl Mayfield, senior vice president for design and construction, speaking to the company’s catalogue of 141 properties. “It’s transformational. We’ve got a few gems in our portfolio, and this is one of them.”
Please contact Beth at bh@ dcrealestate.com for design story ideas