Experts reveal the meaning of experiential design

by Ofentse Sefolo
Experts reveal the meaning of experiential design

The first KOHLER Design Forum in Africa took place recently at Design Joburg and from now on will be part of the show’s world-class speaker programme. Design Joburg hosts the presentation platform for architects and designers. Meet the protagonists of the first KOHLER Design Forum Johannesburg, namely Mardre Meyer, Yinka Ilori and Suzanne Watts.

Mardre Meyer, creative director of Source IBA, challenged guests to explore contemporary expressions of luxury in hospitality and its dimensions of experiential luxury. He notes that people often ask them about the latest trends in hospitality; however, they aren’t really set on trends as their projects have to last for so much longer. As such, they look at things in much larger lifecycles.

Inciting change

“The question remains, what are the elements that cause movements that happen in much larger cycles, from 10- to 15-year cycles?” he asks. “Value systems can only be challenged when people feel something on their skin or their back. If nothing is driving you to change, then ultimately you just won’t change and will keep on doing the same thing over and over again. As such, we need major events to take place which will ensure lifestyle changes.”

He explains that in order to understand where we are today and where we are going in the future, we have to travel back because, as noted, these events occur over a duration of long cycles. “I’ll take you back to 2006, when Al Gore commenced with his campaign for The Inconvenient Truth,” he says.

“He tried to get everyone to live a little bit more consciously and think about global warming and the choices we make. Needless to say, he was moderately successful. Fortunately, there was a global recession in 2007 and as a result people started to feel things on their so-called skins and backs. This is when change occurred, and it has taken all this time until today for these things to become part of our lifestyle.”

Clarity versus luxury

Meyer highlights that luxury speaks to context and that we have arrived at the age of consciousness. “We are all obsessed with where things originate from,” he emphasises. “Luxury is also truth. We see truth expressed in the hospitality market, so, for example, give me a service I need and I’m willing to pay a good price for it. It’s about affordability, consciousness and the truth for this particular experience that I will pay for. Brands realise the biggest luxury they can give their customers is to be as clear as possible in their communication. Give me the truth! Give me clarity! Get to the point!”

Technology and familiarity create experiences

According to Meyer, one of the larger movements of the above is a sense of community. Technology has really driven this. At one stage not everyone had access to technology. Technology has given us freedom of movement. People no longer need people because we just communicate with communities created by technology.

“A sense of familiarity is also what is driving much of what we are doing in hospitality,” Meyer adds. “If people go to Bangkok, for example, they want to do the things that locals do and live the lives of locals whilst they are there. There needs to be a real local collection of what a property offers.

“In history, when we look at familiarity, times of extreme hardship is also a time of extreme retrospection. This is why everyone tried to recreate how their grandparents lived to feel safe and secure after the world wars. In the same manner we are threatened by Brexit, Trump, Nkandla etc.

“We feel threatened, yet seek what we know and experienced in the past. Consequently, luxury is context, context is connection, and if we understand connection we understand locale – connection is all about experience.”

Meyer concludes by saying that we can build experiences that feel familiar and local. “Experience is what everyone is looking for, and this is what everyone is willing to pay for, which is why it’s not about the size of the room, the density of the carpet etc. It’s about the unique experience with integrity that you are offering me.”

A storyteller at heart

Yinka Ilori explores the richness of storytelling connection with experiential luxury and is dedicated to representing his Nigerian heritage. He is recognised for his series of vintage chairs, constructed from parts of discarded furniture.

“I went to Lagos when I was eleven or twelve, and I was blown away by the culture,” he enthuses. “Luxury to me wasn’t about having the latest pair of shoes – luxury meant culture, it meant parties, it meant colour. I wanted to instil that in my work and this is what I’ve done. My grandmother is the one who talks about experiential luxury; through her clothes, her latest Nigerian jewellery, through everything she is wearing.”

Parables inspire luxury furniture

Ilori was exposed to several parables that helped him become a better person. These were words of wisdom when he was a child. “I’m obsessed with chairs and furniture and I kind of view chairs as people,” he continues. “I would go around London picking up chairs and carry them with me onto the bus, inciting very angry glares. I just loved the stories they told; these old chairs had a narrative and story to tell and the luxury within this furniture is the narrative they told.”

Instilling life into these stories

Ilori wanted to maintain the narrative of these chairs and he wanted to hold onto their culture. As such these chairs convey a hierarchy, status and identity; and when sitting on the chair, it creates a feeling or emotion and that’s the power of his chairs.

“It all started in 2012 – there’s a sense of humour, but also something quite strong in these narratives,” he says. “I turned these narratives into furniture. In design we are losing our playfulness, and to recapture this I was commissioned by the hotel to complete an experiential playground. It’s special because people respected this playground. Every single time we are exposed to stories and narratives that will last forever. Luxury isn’t just about what you have; it’s about culture, identity and giving people a sense of belonging.”

Suzanne Watts, owner of Studio 62 Ltd, shares her insights of the entire spectrum of experiential luxury in hospitality and travel. She is a Canadian-born interior designer who has worked for most of her life in Central and Eastern Africa.

“What is luxury for me?” she asks. “It is when I can slowly get up to the sound of the birds, have a peaceful cup of coffee, a relaxing shower and start my day, easing into it. Experiential luxury is about the feeling we take away from a place or event at any time in our lives, that intangible thing that raises it above the norm – something that is not the norm. As a child I was fortunate to go on safaris and experience the incredible beauty of the Kenyan landscape with all its wildlife.

“For decades tourists came to Kenya for their dream holiday, looking forward to enjoying the experiences of the bush which I fell in love with as a child. Over the years, I have seen the interior design industry come of age in Kenya and have had the luxury of working in places that most people only dream of going to. I’ve had the chance to build dozens of hotels and hotel regions in the area.”

Discovering luxury

In the 70s, when Suzanne was a child, the buildings were large and soulless with small rooms and not much thought to functionality. Why? Luxury was in the landscape, it wasn’t about the accommodation but about the unique, one-of-a-kind experience that people could have. But the industry started to change in the 80s and designers were called upon to extend bedrooms, modernise bathrooms and new hotels were being erected. It was expected that the interiors lived up to the extreme beauty of the landscape.

“As designers we need to champion efforts in sustainable design,” notes Suzanne. “With every project we strive for excellence. Every project is worked out uniquely with the client based on their vision, the location, where the project is situated and the demands of it. When I talk to clients, I tell them there are three things that make up design: Function, aesthetics and budget.”

Sustainability and authentic design

Old properties and revamps in the 80s and 90s were eco-friendly. Unfortunately, in wanting to upgrade to luxury standards they built properties that aren’t sustainable. While keeping climate change and degradation in consideration, lodges need to look at how to find a luxury experience while having a low impact on the environment.

“So much about luxury is about more,” highlights Suzanne. “We need to look for luxury in less. A sense of authenticity has to be woven into the design. I create people’s dream holidays and new memories. We need to get inside people’s heads. How can we bring this space alive? Designing sustainable projects are team efforts. Sustainable design is authentic design. Sustainable building is using local material. It’s about benefitting the local community and not stretching the resources of the area.”

She concludes by stating that we are stewards of this planet and therefore need to maintain these resources with sound programmes.

Acknowledgement and thanks go to KOHLER Design Forum Johannesburg for the information contained in this article. For more information visit www.africa.kohler.com and www.designjoburg.com.

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