I recently met Jenni Jane Hellstern at an event sponsored by the NEWH United Kingdom. An American interior designer who recently relocated to the UK, Jenni Jane was named as one of Boutique Design’s Boutique 18 for 2016 so I was thrilled when she graciously accepted my invitation for an interview. Her experience and insight are inspiring for many people developing careers in the creative fields, especially hospitality design.
First, please tell us about your current job role(s) as a hospitality designer?
For the last 2-1/2 years I have been an Interior Designer for Studio 11 Design, based in Dallas, Texas. Studio 11 Design has provided me with some incredible projects to be a part of and I wouldn’t be the designer I am today without the experience I’ve gained through working with them.
I recently relocated to the UK from Dallas, my hometown, to help expand the company into the European market. I’ve been here about 8 weeks and loving it, although it’s been a challenging adjustment!
Can you share more about your professional background? How long have you worked as a professional designer? How did you get your start in the business?
My passion for design really started early in life for me; I think it’s been a mix of my love of travel and the way spaces affect people. I knew as a young girl that I wanted to lead a life of creativity and through a mix of successes and fails I landed where I wanted to be. As a young girl I spent my time crafting and selling my wares to the neighbors (to my parents chagrin), but I think that tenacity has proven to be a significant theme in my life as a designer. I’ve now been a hospitality designer for only 5 years, but the amount I’ve been able to accomplish with the help and support of my incredible team members has been even more than I could have hoped for.
Pratt Institute was a dream of mine long before I’d reached the appropriate age. I think I came across it in a book during middle school and decided then and there that was my path. After working through undergraduate school and earning two bachelors degrees from the University of Denver, I set my sights on graduate school at Pratt and didn’t really have a backup plan should it not work out, which is basically me in a nutshell. Pratt is really where my love of design started to shape into a career path. I wasn’t sure at the time which focus I wanted to take but I knew that I needed a way to bring all of my passions together.
During graduate school I started a boutique catering business called Cardinal Rule Catering and ended up catering several film screenings at some of the most fabulous hotels in New York City. During my time as a caterer, and a full time design student, I was afforded the opportunity to get to know the inner workings of these hotels very well. I think that is where my passion for hospitality design really started to bubble.
After graduating from the Pratt Institute, I knew that I needed to take what I like to call a “creative pause” and decided that it was the best time to follow one of my other biggest dreams in life, to travel around the world. I dedicated one year to solo travel, began writing a blog about food and design called Jenni Jane and the Wanderlust Game and, when the blog’s popularity took off, one year quickly became two.
After my two year stint as a backpacker, blogger and lover of design around the world, I hung up my backpack and came home to build a career. I think that all the time I spent in hotels and hostels gave me a huge appreciation for the concept of “home away from home” and I knew that I could have a great impact on helping other travelers find a bit of comfort in the world when they needed it as a hospitality designer.
Do you have any specific areas of specialization with regards to interior design?
I believe that a good designer can see what any space needs and meet those expectations in terms of design as well as return on investment, and I like to think that I am one of those designers. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily have a specialization, but I do have a favorite. Thus far in my career I have had some amazing opportunities to work on historical property renovations and I have to say they have been my favorite so far. I have a real penchant for classic interior elements and the sophisticated style of days gone by and I love the challenge of restoring and reckoning back to those elements while bringing a space into a more modern aesthetic. That juxtaposition is, I think, one of the most harmonious there is—if done properly.
I spent a year working on the public spaces of The St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, built in 1909 and originally designed by Dorothy Draper. This project was so challenging but so incredibly fun because every day new layers would crop up, gorgeous Mexican tile flooring under laminate boards, original wallpaper under floated tile, and on and on. It was a constant redesign process but, in the end, it became one of my favorite projects I’ve ever worked on.
What other creative skills/services do you provide? Do you design furniture or other products, etc.?
I have been considered a ‘jill-of-all-trades’, I think. I’ve had my hands in pretty much every element of design and still try to maintain that kind of one-stop-shop set of skills. My undergraduate degrees are in both photography and electronic media arts design, which is sort of a mix of graphic design and videography, and those skills have taken me through many years of freelance work. I’ve also always been a writer at heart, which I think comes from my very eloquent English Lit major turned physician father, and that skill has provided me so many opportunities. In addition to working for Studio 11 Design as an interior designer, I also help run the marketing department and write most of the narratives for our new projects in collaboration with other designers. It’s so rewarding to me to be able to take someone’s vision and transcribe it into a story that helps put the client in the space. I have a busy mind and have always kept a freelance business along side my work as a professional designer. I currently have clients for whom I run online marketing campaigns, design brand identity packages and manage websites or print design work.
What do you love most about your current job(s)? What most inspires you about certain projects?
I would get very bored if I did the same thing every day, but I also crave stability, and I think being a designer has provided me the opportunity to meet both of those requirements. Now that I’m living in the UK, I think my inspiration levels have majorly increased, obviously because of the huge amount of history surrounding me, but also because it’s given me the opportunity to get out from behind the computer, which I think is crucial to staying relevant.
Please share with us the details of a couple of your favourite hospitality projects you’ve worked on, especially with regard to the creative solutions you came up with for unusual problems.
This is a very difficult question, all of my projects are my children and you can’t pick a favorite child! But there are a few projects that have stood out for me and been really fun to work on. La Posada de Santa Fe was one of the first projects I was able to really take the helm of; I started out as a junior designer in the beginning of the project and by the Design Development phase I was project-managing it.
The property came with several challenges, one of the biggest being the layout of the buildings. The resort was comprised of a main victorian style house built in 1880, which was renovated into the hotel’s reception, lobby, bar and two restaurants in the early 1900’s, and a series of over 20 casita-style villas surrounding the main home built in the 1930’s. Each villa contains several rooms, which translated to 159 unique room types and footprints.
Studio 11 Design was contracted to bring the hotel to the standards of their new flag, the Starwood Luxury Collection. Creating a harmonious property with continuity between the rooms proved challenging, but we met the design challenge through custom designed furniture, authentic art pieces and a rustic modern design scheme. The scope of the project included both public spaces and guest rooms, so finding a common thread to tie together the Victorian era main house with the adobe style villas was also challenging, but through the use of heavily textured Mexican inspired finishes and fabrics we were able to create an incredibly warm space. The entire resort also functions as a working art gallery, which presented a challenge in creating a space that was both inviting and interesting while maintaining a solid backdrop to an ever-changing art collection.
Can you share something about a project or two that you’re currently working on?
I’m currently working on several projects with Studio 11 Design. Many of the projects i’m working on feature large scale art installations that I’ve designed in collaboration with Studio 11 Design’s in-house art curation and creative team, Lou Verne by Studio 11 Design. In a ground-up, full service Hilton DoubleTree in Evansville, Indiana, we drew on the area’s main export of crushed rock to design and install full height brass cages inset into the walls of several spaces and filled with locally sourced crushed rock.
What are some unique approaches or methods you use to create the best design solutions for your clients?
I often start a project with a song, which may sound strange but stay with me. Music has always been a huge part of my life; in my spare time I sing bluegrass and folk music and play the banjo and ukelele. I really feel that music can transport you, and what better way to really get into the space you are designing than through a little mental vacation. I often put on a Spotify channel in a genre that I think fits with the design direction I have in my mind and find a song that I feel embodies what I’m going for, then I listen to that song a lot. Through this process I also write a narrative, which is like a little story about what the space will be like and who will go there and what they will do or feel in the space. By creating this kind of character I’m able to equate all of my design decisions back to the story and it gives me a criteria through which to create concepts.
Aside from your own projects, can you tell us about a cool hotel you’ve stayed at (or visited) recently? What are the notable elements of its design? etc.
A few weeks ago my boyfriend Joe and I went to Amsterdam for the weekend. We stayed in a fabulous boutique hotel called Hotel V Nesplein that had so many unique design details. One of my favorite items in the hotel was a large scale chandelier hung in the lobby at eye level. Talk about brave!
What do you like most about working on particular hospitality projects?
One of my favorite aspects of hospitality design is that aside from the creative element, there is opportunity to create spaces that are profitable for the client. Of course, meeting the needs of the client’s design approach is crucial for a designer, but I feel that clients also look to designers to present them with branding, marketing and space planning solutions that they may not have thought of themselves. I love the process of creating full packages for a client, from restaurants and bars to specialized services. For instance, I worked on the branding package for both the full service restaurant and grab-and-go component of the Sheraton Austin at the Capitol in Austin, Texas. The hotel backs up to a new creekside development called Waller Creek and boasts a huge “yard” off the main restaurant, which we named The Yard at Waller Creek. To provide guests and locals alike with a unique experience and reason to come to the hotel, we dubbed the exterior portion of the restaurant The Back Yard at Waller Creek and created several unique selling points, including a gourmet s’mores offering on the menu in which a guest can order a kit with locally made marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers to take and cook over the fire pit outside. We also completely customized and refurbished a classic airstream trailer to act as an outside grill and bar, serving tacos and craft beer from the area. I believe that unique solutions like these are what sets us apart as a firm and helps our clients to realize the full potential of their spaces.
What kinds of challenges to you most often face in your hospitality design projects? Or, what’s a ‘worst case scenario’ and how do you handle this?
The most common challenge I face as a designer would be the unique conditions found in historically listed properties. You just never know what you are going to get and accurate drawings are usually hard to come by.
Can you generally describe how you work with suppliers, manufacturers and other outside partners that may be required for hotel projects?
Reps are a designers best friends, and I have a lot of best friends. Different vendors are always presenting new products and I try to stay on top of the current offerings by attending conferences and shows throughout the year. I find that standard products are often a jumping off point for really great custom collaborations.
You’ve travelled extensively. Can you please give us a summary of your travels and share some of the important lessons you learned as a result?
I’ve been so blessed in my life to have been raised by parents who made travel a priority and because of that I’ve grown up with the travel bug in a big way. Traveling with my parents growing up and participating in youth travel groups I was fortunate enough to visit around 33 countries, from Europe to Africa, South America to Central America and lots of places in between. On top of that I spent two years as a travel blogger writing about food and design (and mostly the hilarious mistakes I made along the way) and got to visit another 29 countries. At this point I’ve visited twice as many countries as my age and it’s kind of overwhelming when I think about it. If I could change one thing about the world, it would be to make travel more accessible, because it truly changed my life and shaped who I am as a person and a professional. It is so easy to live in a bubble these days, and so many people grow up never realizing how much wonder there is in the world. The most high-stakes risk of all is spending your life not traveling on the bet that you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.
Has your travel experience informed your work as a designer? In what ways?
I’ve been asked the question of how I became so infatuated with interior spaces many times, and I honestly believe it stems from my southern roots. My mother is and my grandmother truly was a classic southern woman (even with her Canadian upbringing) and nurturing a warm inviting home is a key aspect of that Southern hospitality. I grew up around women who appreciated aesthetics and viewed interior design as both a reflection of who we were as people as well as a way to define who we wanted to be. I spent many days with my mother and grandmother hunting through antique stores, arranging and rearranging furniture and knick knacks and setting opulent tables for family dinners and dinner parties. As the daughter of a doctor and one of the sweetest women you will ever meet, our home was never short on opportunities to entertain, which I think is where my penchant for classic elements comes from. As I grew into my own and developed my own sensibilities, my passion for travel and the world around me became a major influence in my design aesthetic, and I realized that the spaces around us are not only reflections of who we are as people, but also the people we meet around the world. I like to think of my life as a curated mish-mash of experiences, and it is impossible to design a space without pouring yourself into it.
Are there any notable trends you’re seeing in hospitality design that you find particularly interesting?
I was recently asked this question in an interview about trends in restaurant and bar design and I think my answer still applies. Technology has become so integrated into people’s every day lives and I think it is becoming more and more integrated into the spaces we inhabit. We are currently working on a concept for a bar top that integrates pressure sensitive panels to tell the bartender when your drink is running low and touch screens that allow guests to order food and drinks without having to flag the bartender down. I also see kinetic art pieces becoming more and more popular, I’d love the opportunity to incorporate some kind of movement sensitive art into a project one day.
Can you share some of your favorite resources (online or offline) you use in keeping up with industry developments and getting new ideas for your work?
Do you have any advice for young interior designers entering the field of hospitality design? Do you have any suggestions related to the importance of education and professional training for hospitality designers?
It feels a bit strange to answer this question because I think I am still a young (don’t laugh) interior designer entering the field. Design is so fluid, it’s always morphing and changing and it can morph into whatever you want it to be, which is part of why I love it so much but also why it can be difficult to find your place at times. My advice to new designers would be to just breathe, as my principal says often “you’re not curing cancer, you’re designing a hotel, it’s ok”.
How about advice for property owners or clients considering hiring a designer for interiors projects?
First, go to www.studio11design.com and then hire Studio 11 Design. Seriously though, I’d start by thinking of spaces you really admire and want to emulate, and then talk to designers. Get their insight on how they would approach your space and look at their previous work, does it show a capability to approach design from several aesthetics? (Then, hire Studio 11 Design.)
How has your participation in the NEWH benefitted your work/career?
NEWH is such an amazing organization and I had the honor to be on the board of the Dallas Chapter for two great years before relocating to the UK. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had the opportunity to meet the NEWH UK Chapter and I have to say they are just as lovely and talented. NEWH not only provides great opportunities to get to know like-minded people in your industry, it creates a platform to develop relationships with new vendors and manufacturers and form new partnerships. The NEWH Dallas Chapter has also provided over $80,000 in scholarships to up and coming designers and it is so rewarding knowing that you’ve played a part in making that happen.
Are there any other charities or causes you’re passionate about supporting?
During my travels in India, I was fortunate enough to meet the founder and creator of an incredible business and foundation called The Stitching Project, based in Pushkar, India. The woman who runs the company is from Australia and moved to Pushkar with her Indian husband.
After living in Pushkar, Fiona became very aware of a few things: 1) there was an amazing amount of supremely talented women in the surrounding villages creating beautiful hand stitched textiles, and 2) these women needed an outlet.
The Stitching Project employs women from the villages surrounding Pushkar at fair wages and a standard of work unusual for India. While I was in Pushkar, I was honored to be asked to visit the women with Fiona one day and it was so eye opening. These women are so talented and without Fiona and Naveen’s guidance, would not have the outlet to provide for their families or hone their skills. I am a huge fan of The Stitching Project and hope to work closely with them one day on a textile collection.
When you’re not working, what do you do? Hobbies, personal interests… what do you love to do to relax and unwind, or regain your own inspiration?
I like to keep myself busy and I’m always creating something, whether sketching, sewing, singing, or playing the banjo and uke. I’m also a huge fan of theatre and love to go to the movies or a good play. I spend a lot of time with my dog, Woodrow. (He’s still in the US and I can’t wait to bring him over to the UK.)
Connect with Jenni Jane Hellstern:
Instagram @quirkyjennijane and @studio11design_tx
Facebook facebook.com/JenniJaneHellstern and facebook.com/Studio11Design
Twitter @quirkyjennijane and @studio11designs
Pinterest Studio Jenni Jane
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