The Life of a Hospitality Designer

For many interior designers, being hired to design a boutique hotel or popular restaurant is a dream. For Gary Inman (VP Hospitality at Baskervill), Nina Magon (Creative Director at Contour Interior Design), Todd Ellenberger (Associate at Hirsch Bedner), and Patrick Sutton (Principal, Patrick Sutton), it is a daily reality. At October Market, in the High Point Theater, as part of ASID's Design Viewpoint Series, these four interior designers participated in a panel where they began to demystify the hospitality design experience and discussed what it takes to break into this crazy-paced, budget-focused, titillating realm.

Nick May of The Chaise Lounge podcast moderated the panel and lucky for us, he also taped it. And while the entire Episode 167 can be gleaned here, with lots of wonderful thoughts about the major differences between hospitality and residential design and assorted design tales, we've summarized some of our favorite takeaways.


"I didn't intend to be a hospitality designer; I just wanted to be a great designer."

Baskervill revitalized the The Equinox Golf Resort and Spa which dates back to 1769.

Baskervill revitalized the The Equinox Golf Resort and Spa which dates back to 1769.

THE BIG BREAK Gary's break into hospitality resulted from the excellent media coverage he received from a residential show house project, as an architect who saw it, invited him to do his first commercial building, the Alumni House at the Virginia Commonwealth University. Though Gary knew little about commercial interior design, he said yes. "It was a complete leap of faith but it felt authentic. I thought I could do it. I studied there, loved the place. It felt right."

THE DESIGN PROCESS Gary dives into each project with journalistic integrity, gathering intel through astute observation and interrogation. He'll go to the location and sit quietly; he lets the building speak and most importantly, he listens. Some of his favorite questions to ask the client are: “How do you want the hotel to feel?” and “What is the experience you’re trying to forge for your guests?”  These provoke revealing answers or keywords, as he calls them, that drive the design concept. “Great design is about the story, the narrative, and the feeling of immersion and transcendence,” he says.

JOB SATISFACTION One of the biggest perks in hospitality is crafting a moment that will be remembered forever.

JUST DO IT When an opportunity presents itself say yes.  If you do not know everything, ask for help. "Partner with people that bring the skill sets you don't have."


"Don't do a kitchen if you're not a kitchen designer."


Faith, Focus, and Listen to your Core

THE BIG BREAK When a friend of a friend recommended Nina to the team at Landmark Houston Hospitality for the new 51fifteen restaurant and bar at Saks, she initially lost the job to an established hospitality designer. When he didn't show up for the presentation, however, she was given a second chance.   She and her team spent the next 2 sleepless weeks preparing the presentation and the teams at Landmark and Saks loved her ideas.  "You should grab every opportunity," she says. "I knew I could do it."

RESIDENTIAL VS HOSPITALITY She loves doing both and both have their pros and challenges. Residential is much more emotional and there's room for more mind-changing. It's also more limiting as it's all about what the client wants. In hospitality, while there are stricter timelines and budgets that favor value-engineering, you can really let your imagination flow.

LESSONS LEARNED Even though you always do your due diligence in prep for a new job, no amount of design research substitutes for the on-the-job training.  During the restaurant design she learned volumes about how color and lighting relate to food. Nina stresses, “The Kelvin temperature of each lamp is especially important to consider when food presentation is a priority!”


“Inevitably your client calls just after you pour your first cocktail for the night.”

A view of the Jing An Shangri-La lobby in Shanghai.

A view of the Jing An Shangri-La lobby in Shanghai.

THE BIG BREAK Todd transitioned to hospitality design because he was pretty much at the pinnacle of residential and the only place to go was lateral. He put his resume in the hands of a headhunter and the rest is history. Todd, who spent 6 years working with Stan Topol says, "After you work for a top residential designer in a city, you can't go and work for another one. "

WHY WORK FOR A BIG FIRM: Todd likes to be able to go in and work and do his creative bit without worrying about insurance, human resources, etc. "I'm a designer; I'm not a businessman."

RESIDENTIAL vs HOSPITALITY  What Todd loves most about residential interior design is that through the process a friendship develops with the client. It feels organic; "You walk down a path together." (And, of course, the shopping trips!)  In hospitality, while the creativity flows, you've got to come to the table with everything. You get hired and fired based on a 40 minute presentation.


"Bartenders really like to tell you what doesn't work."

Baltimore's Pendry Hotel was imagined on the site of an abandoned Beaux Art structure. The Rec Pier Chop House (featured at the top of the blog ) is one of the hotel's dining establishments.

Baltimore's Pendry Hotel was imagined on the site of an abandoned Beaux Art structure. The Rec Pier Chop House (featured at the top of the blog ) is one of the hotel's dining establishments.

A PROPENSITY FOR THE JOB Patrick's father, Horace Sutton, was was one of a pioneer of travel journalism. Thus, Patrick was exposed to the "world's most magical imagery" at a very young age and has carried those impressions throughout his life. While Patrick studied architecture and worked as one, he felt that there was something missing and soon realized it was "the story." Interior design allows him to tell a complete story and hospitality design is his "childhood coming full circle."

THE DESIGN PROCESS Patrick creates a narrative for each project based on location, the aspirations or the owner, etc. And then every single decision that is made ties back to that story and keeps the design focused and authentic rather than trendy.

HOSPITALITY vs RESIDENTIAL: When designing restaurants and hotels, Patrick crafts theatrical experiences that last from a few hours to several days. In residential design, he says, "We are creating a canvas for people to paint their lives. It's more adaptable." In addition to the overall goals of each discipline, Patrick sees a distinct difference, both eye-opening and heartbreaking, in pride of craftsmanship with residential design being of a much higher level. "You have to make sure your vision is carefully shepherded," he says, "or you could be disappointed."


JOB SATISFACTION Each hospitality project affords Patrick Sutton the ability to impact a broad audience. "Watching people dress up and feel joyful by the thousands, rather than just one or two people, is incredibly gratifying.”


The panels and educational events at High Point Market are incredibly valuable to designers and makers, audience and speakers alike. I asked 3 people who attended this pevent to summarize the value. Here's what the said:

Gary Inman, designer panelist: I always find that my perceptions are impacted by the audience and my fellow panelists. Designers should be always evolving and growing and the dynamic exchange of ideas on a panel can encourage one to rethink their position on key issues. One of the unexpected pleasures of sitting on a panel are the new relationships that are created among the panelists. I gained a new friend, Todd Ellenberger, and that is the greatest reward of all.

Yaron Linett, Designer/Principal, Formal Traditional: "The lectures and seminars at market are one of the most important parts of the entire event for us.  Pulling from the collective experience of some of the best and brightest minds in the industry is absolutely invaluable to our firm. When Nina Magon warned never to take on a kitchen design if you're not a kitchen designer, she told with an amusing anecdote about a leak that ruined hundreds of thousands of dollars of handbags.  Coincidentally, when we returned from High Point a potential new client called asking if we could help redo two floors of her home after a kitchen flood.  Point well made Nina!"

Vicki and Tom Riulli, Owners/Artists, Itinerant Studio: At the panel, we learned at the panel that timelines, margins, adaptability, and custom work are intrinsic to hospitality projects. As a mfg we came away from the panel knowing that the hospitality market is an opportunity for us. It's a niche market that suits our unique custom work. The panel was so impactful that we are now going to BDNY and will more than likely be an exhibitor next year.


To see more of what these talented interior designers are doing, here are their websites:

Contour Interior Design Inc.


Patrick Sutton HD


Sandy Hughes