Sarah Abdallah on designing hospitality for mind, body and soul

Sarah Abdallah on designing hospitality for mind, body and soul

Hospitality, Hotel design, Interior design, Interiors

Written by Sarah Abdallah, principal owner at Functional Creative Design 

As a hospitality designer and project manager, it is my responsibility to have a global mind-set and care for the comfort and engagement of guests of all ages and nationalities within a hotel. Hotel lobbies, restaurants, and meeting spaces are the contemporary piazzas of most capital cities around the world. I’ve been fortunate to work independently, and with top hospitality designers such as the Rockwell Group and Tony Chi & Associates, getting to embrace my psychology background and my international viewpoint with brands such Ritz Carlton, Intercontinental, The Soho Grand, Neuehouse, Lincoln Center, and Park Hyatt.

The VNYL, photo by Claire Esparros.

My first task when I am working on a hotel is to ensure everyone feels at home and included. My second task is to create a new and different design story. To create a fresh experience for guests, I get a thorough brief that covers my client’s unique brand story, the zeitgeist of global hospitality trends, and what local craftsmanship, artistry, natural beauty, and local indulgences are this city’s pride and joy.

Engaging the local community

Hotels are where locals meet up for recreation, socialisation, business meetings, and important life events such as weddings, so I strive to understand how a local culture likes to interact and communicate. I think about how I can choose and angle seating that encourages privacy for business conversations or, conversely, how I can open up interaction for a hotel in a city where meeting new people is highly valued.

Community activation can also mean creating opportunities for the hotel to interact with potential customers from different entry points. I might suggest that a hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant also create a grab-and-go eatery that engages local pedestrians and business travellers. I might incorporate a DJ booth that connects the outdoor and indoor sections of a restaurant, and design with the hotelier a programme that features both local and celebrity DJs that can help activate the space throughout the year, making the attached hotel a destination.

The VNYL, photo by Claire Esparros.

The five senses

I look at the five senses, designing holistic experiences for each guest. The experience starts at the front door, taking in how they are greeted by the doorman, how the heating or air conditioning welcomes them, what they first see in the entryway, and how their eyes adjust to the lighting on a bright or rainy day. I might create a custom scent for the hotel or, if a hotel has an on-site bakery, let that scent gently invite visitors in.

Sight is key. Warm, incandescent light invites more intimate engagement – it reminds guests of sunlight and is more nurturing. I work closely with lighting designers to create the mood that I envision and integrate light not just on the ceiling but on the floors, walls, and to highlight artwork. We look at adapting to the change in lighting from day to night, and whether natural lighting plays the right role in creating the atmosphere we are trying to achieve.

A cultural immersion

There is an opportunity for hotels to reflect the outside world, offering educational experiences that bring people together. This can be realised by featuring the work of local artists in a mural, or by incorporating traditional patterns and woven fabrics into soft furnishings, or by chefs offering an open kitchen presentation that features local ingredients. I also introduce potential brand partners to my clients. The local hotel shop may be designed to feature local jewellery, beauty products, and specialty foods. If I was designing a hotel boutique within a lobby in Cairo, I might recommend that we engage with Egyptian jeweller, Azza Fahmy, and create a special display for her work, perhaps coupled with work from the contemporary Egyptian-American jeweller based in New York City, Angie Marei of Diaboli Kill.

While working on Semi Remis Intercontinental Hotel with Tony Chi & Associates in Cairo, all the designs were custom, and we worked with local craftsmen. Metalwork has been an art form for centuries in Egypt, along with woodwork and inlays with pearl.


Photo by Eric Laignel.

When I’m designing a space, I think about wellbeing and look at how people feel from the moment they enter the space. Wellbeing means different things in different cultures. While a hotel in San Francisco might want separate gym and yoga rooms that allow people to experience different energies, a hotel in Dubai might want separate prayer rooms for men and women, and a New York hotel may opt for a rooftop lounge that can double as a yoga space during the day.

Photo by Eric Laignel.

Hotels with limited space are noting how people approach fitness differently, and I predict that hotel gyms will be used less than a yoga or mindfulness space. I advise clients to integrate an in-room space to meditate, do yoga, or even do a high-intensity interval training workout. In a fitness-oriented city, I might design a custom Murphy bed option for some hotel rooms, to create space for the guest to have a proper workout, or a private meeting of minds with a fellow creative.

In designing Neuehouse in New York and Los Angeles with the Rockwell Group, I looked at how habits could be translated into the way we approached space-planning. The client wanted the space to have a residential feel – it is a private membership space rather than just a place of work, and that was an important distinction in the existing market at the time.

Photo by Eric Laignel.

If you are working from home, you might work from the kitchen counter, the living room sofa, or a window nook, so I translated those spaces into functional enclaves within the larger space. Neuehouse now has a weekly meditation programme and, as a member myself now, it is fulfilling to see the space that was designed as a private dining or conference room being seamlessly utilised as a meditation room.

The road less travelled

The VNYL, photo by Claire Esparros.

An exciting trend that I am seeing in New York, and have been embracing, is the trend of creating unique journeys for guests entering a hospitality environment. A supper club such as VNYL, which I designed, has a lot in common with a hotel lobby bar and restaurant in terms of how people can experience and investigate the different spaces. I set out to create a transformative journey that invited the guest to feel sheltered from day-to-day pressures.

The VNYL, photo by Claire Esparros.

Downstairs, there is a coffee shop, and the rest of the four-storey space is hidden behind black velvet curtains. At night, the lighting changes and the coffee area resembles a tunnel, with the coffee bar transformed into a check-in desk. As guests move up through the space, they pass the VIP mezzanine, designed to resemble a mini jewel box, with walnut fluted wall panels and antique bevelled mirror glass. The ceilings are lowered to create a cocoon-like feel. On the third level, guests can explore the Black +Rose Room, which pays homage to the Studio 54 experience of the 70s, or explore the Champagne Garden, a cedar cave that evokes Palm Beach, with layers of hand-printed wallpaper from a company called Flavor Paper. Custom pink sofas and emerald green swivel chairs make the perfect setting to retreat from the stresses of everyday New York life. In the basement, they will find a hideaway that combines the old-world feel of a Hamptons whiskey room with blue and yellow details.

The VNYL, photo by Claire Esparros.

Developer Ian Schrager embraces this trend with The Public Hotel in New York – one of my favourite spaces – with an entrance that pushes the visitor to explore the space and investigate the commanding, space-age escalator that greets you upon arrival. Venturing to the right, guests will find an informal farm-to-table café, and Eat and Go by Jean George. If they venture to the left, they will find curated products from around the world that are aligned with the aesthetic of the hotel. It resembles a co-working space more than a traditional hotel lobby in both layout and detail, inviting international guests to mingle and collaborate with creative New Yorkers who seek out the space for their daily meetings.


Technology can deliver creature comforts on demand, a facet for which modern travellers have an insatiable desire. Technology can also empower the customisation and elevated customer service that once only top hotels could provide – remembering that a guest has dietary restrictions, what newspaper they like in the morning, and even how they like their coffee. Personal data is a commodity, and hotel operators are now utilising this data to engage with guests in a way that makes them feel at home. As a LEED-certified designer, I’m also passionate about working with hoteliers to use technology to reduce energy expenditure.

Photo by Pedro Arieta.

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