Continuing my series of features about prominent interior designers working in hospitality, this installment I’m thrilled to present my interview with Yohandel Ruiz.
He’s a Senior Associate interior designer (LEED AP) with RTKL who has been described as “an energetic and highly creative member of RTKL’s Miami team”.
Yohandel has a background in interior architecture and FF&E with expertise in hospitality, residential and cruise ship projects. He has designed solutions for all facets of commercial and residential interiors, from complete hotel environments and luxury residences to custom furniture. Quoting an article from Cumberland Furniture, “Yohandel has developed a reputation for his ability to bring harmony to disparate elements and unity to contrasting materials.”
Having lived in Miami for over 25 years, Yohandel draws his inspiration from the city and has a vibrant passion for his work. He states, “I’m compulsive about design—about details, about making sure all the pieces fit together to make a cohesive and compelling space.”
Please feel free to share your comments, questions and suggestions at the end of the article.
(Click each image to see a larger version.)
What do you love most about your job?
My favorite part of my job is the creative aspect. I love the initial concept phase where we generate the overall feel and we create the guest experience. I think all interior spaces should have a strong concept; a good story to tell.
People live on the inside of buildings and I love to choreograph their experience. I love to get into the end-user’s mind and create an environment that speaks to them at a personal level.
How long have you worked as a professional designer? And how did you get your start in the business?
I have worked professionally for 16 years, although I knew I wanted to be a designer since I was very young. Architecture and interior spaces always spoke to me. I remember being very young and always observing how interior details came together.
I went to a high school that concentrated on design and architecture. It was here where I realized I wanted to pursue interior design instead of architecture. I realized I wanted to affect the way people lived, worked and played.
You have a Bachelor’s degree in Interior Design from Florida International University (correct)? Can you tell us more about your design education and/or training?
I grew up taking fine art classes and was always surrounded by creative people. During my last junior school year I applied to a new school that was opening up in Miami for Design and Architecture. The school is called DASH (Design and Architecture Senior High). It’s the first of its kind in the nation and I learned a lot during my 4 years there. I graduated with honors and received a full paid scholarship to FIU. Although I got excepted to other school around the US, I knew I wanted to stay in Miami. This is where I wanted to practice and live. So I went to FIU and stayed in Miami.
Do you have any advice about training and education for young people looking to develop careers in commercial interior design?
The best advice I could give a young person is to read and research who are the top players in our profession. I would recommend subscribing to every design magazine they can afford and to follow design blogs. A designer must always be informed and design doesn’t end once you clock out at the end of the day.
I have always found that my best ideas come to me in the middle of the night. I keep a sketchbook in my nightstand at home for those random ideas.
Can you share with us your ‘typical’ design process (if there is such a thing) for a hotel and/or cruise ship? How do you normally go about developing your ideas and bringing them into reality? We’d love to hear about key steps in your workflow… especially how you develop your concepts in the early stages of a project.
The first thing I do is to truly understand what our clients are asking for and where they are coming from. If possible I try to have an informal meeting to pick their brain. It’s amazing how much you learn by asking the right questions. I have found that it’s more important to find out what they don’t want or don’t like instead of what they do like. Clients may not always know what they want but they usually know exactly what they don’t like.
So after our initial meeting with our client, our team gets together for a design charrette. During the charrette every idea is a good idea and I try and allow our designers to get as creative and crazy as possible. This is where the real fun begins.
Once we have a good concept that the entire team feels they can commit too, then we start developing the narrative. I find words are equally as important as the visuals. We have to be able to convey our concepts to our clients in a manner that tells a story. That captivates and engages them. We like to brand a lot of our spaces, so a narrative is a clear way for everyone to understand the story we are trying to tell.
After our concept presentation, we follow the typical design process with design development presentations to show the evolution of our concept into a three dimensional space. During this phase we develop renderings and material boards to show all the elements that will make up the space. Furniture and all accessories are selected and presented to the client in a very cohesive presentation.
After this phase we proceed to the documentation phase of the project where we finalize our drawings and generate specifications.
As a designer working on commercial projects, your main goal is to create solutions that meet the needs of your clients. How do you balance the evolution of your own creative style with the brand objectives of each client?
Although I have a very personal design aesthetic and I am very clear on what I like and don’t like, I never let my personal taste guide my designs. I don’t think I have a particular look and style, I actually prefer not to have a singular voice. I tackle each project with a fresh set of eyes and I allow the process to guide the design decisions. For me it’s all about giving our clients the best version of what they have dreamt up in their heads.
And I have a rule, I always go with my first idea and my initial instinct after I have met with the client. I have found throughout the years that the first idea is always the best idea, at least in my case.
Please tell us about a favorite project (or two) that you’ve delivered for clients, especially with regard to the creative solutions you came up with for unusual problems. Why are these projects special to you?
My favorite projects are those that have a strong story. I recall working on several spaces for the Celebrity cruise lines Solstice ship. At that time, back in 2008, ships were still not as designed focused as they are today. What we did on that ship was truly magical, we brought the boutique hotel aesthetic to the cruise ship realm. Vegas had already started migrating away from themed environments to spaces that were more authentic and the cruise ship industry who had for so long shadowed the themed Vegas environments was still behind. We took this opportunity to establish a new vocabulary for cruise ship interiors and created spaces that were authentic and had a strong narrative. The spaces have stood the test of time and the ship and the sister ships that have followed are among the most successful at sea.
At the present time I am also working on a Renaissance project in Canada which I am really excited about. Hotels are a great canvas for designers. With this project we are truly trying to redefine the guest experience and create an environment that is engaging and connected to the city and the people. In a world dominated by the isolation created by social media, spaces need to engage us and foster an environment for face to face connections.
Note from Nat: I’ve included photos from another of RTKL’s recently completed projects, the fabulous Loews Annapolis Hotel. This renovation provided a much needed facelift to a top hotel in the region and established a connection to the local flavor of the city. You can read more about this project here, here, here and here.
I’ve read about some of the furniture design work you’ve done for Cumberland. Can you tell us more about your work designing furniture and other products?
Furniture design is another passion of mine. Whenever possible I have always tried to design a piece or two for my projects. There is nothing more rewarding than creating a custom piece of furniture for a space. I would design the soap in the bathroom if I could! I always say an interior designer’s job is to tell a complete story and sometimes the only way to tell that story is to control every aspect of the environment so every piece speaks in unison. The Cumberland furniture opportunity was a dream come true. At first, I was asked to design one piece of furniture for them but I soon realized that I had to create a collection of pieces. I presented my designs and was fortunate enough to have about 6 pieces selected. The pieces are clean, unpretentious and speak to their function. I am currently working on a lighting collection and hope to design more furniture in the future.
You recently wrote about your interest in exploring improvements in design for mausoleums, crypts/tombs, etc. Since you wrote that article, have you further developed your line of thinking on this topic? Any projects completed or in the works?
Unfortunately, I have not come across the opportunity to design a funeral home or mausoleum. I don’t think these are spaces that designers or operators truly think about. Given the opportunity, I think there is a great deal we can do from a design perspective to comfort and nurture people during the time of a loss.
Aside from your own projects, can you tell us about a cool hotel you’ve stayed at (or visited) recently? What are the most notable elements of its design?
A couple of months ago, my husband and I visited the hotel “Downtown” in Mexico city. The hotel sits in the heart of the city on a UNESCO world heritage site. The property is a mixture of 17th century colonial architecture with industrial interior elements. Previously a private residence, the hotel is perfectly intimate with only 17 rooms. The vibe is truly local and you are completely immersed in the culture and history from the moment you arrive. It is one of the coolest and most unique hotels I have visited lately. A must see for anyone traveling to Mexico city.
Any other projects you’d like to share?
A project that is on my bucket list to visit is the Gio Ponti designed Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento on the Almalfi coast. Designed in 1961 by the famed Italian architect and designer, the hotel is a must for those that love modern Italian design.
Can you talk a bit about unique aspects of hospitality design in Miami and South Florida?
The city of Miami has grown a lot with regards to design and architecture within the last decade. Thanks to large movements like Art basel and a number of high profile architects and designers like Herzog & De Meuron and Zaha Hadid, the city is now on the architecture world map.
I’ve found that hospitality projects are becoming more daring and there are some really great interiors popping up all around the city. Miami very diverse and unique in the fact that “anything goes” here. One minute you can be checking out a new graffiti wall installation by Shepard Fairey in the Wynwood art district and the next you can be laying poolside with the fabulous and elite at the SLS hotel on Miami Beach. The city is a place of contrasts and it’s this dichotomy that I find so fascinating.
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 approach this?
Our last recession truly hurt our industry and we are still feeling the effects of the market crash. Clients are still being very conservative and this has meant that we have had to change the way that we design. We have to do a lot more with less and get truly creative with our design solutions so that we can meet our clients tight budgets. With this said, I have found some of my best design solutions to be those where we were limited financially.
One of the most common and time consuming challenges for interior designers is organizing—and choosing from—the vast amounts of products and materials available for a design scheme. How do you manage your relationships with outside contractors and suppliers, and how do you approach the process of choosing the right materials and products for each project? Are there key principles that inform your selection process?
I always begin with understanding where our client is with regards to budget. I want to make sure I am providing a design that will be executable. Once that is established, I make sure to find the perfect material, chair and solution for the space. I always say that although there are many possibilities, when you chose the right product you will know it. For me it’s an instincts game. Quite often our team hears me say “we’re not there yet”. You know it when you see it.
What are your thoughts about the role of art and other decor elements in a design scheme, versus those that address a purely functional requirement?
I think art and accessories need to be curated. Although artwork should never feel like it matches a space, it should feel at home in the environment. The most successful projects are those that can be curated from inception so that every item speaks to the overall design concept. My rule of thumb when it comes to decorative items is “less is more”.
Are there any notable trends you’re seeing in hospitality design that you find particularly interesting?
As much as possible, I try not to follow trends. I really hate seeing the same themes repeated over and over again.
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?
I love to read design publications. Interior Design magazine is a great resource. I also love Elle Décor. Whenever I travel, I like to get design magazines from the country I visit. I find that Europe and South America are way more open and daring than we are in the US.
Do you participate in industry groups, associations or attend trade show, conventions and the like?
I try to participate in as many local events as I can. Our office does several events throughout the year and it’s a great way to stay connected to our community. One of my favorites is the Festival of the Trees which happens every December in Miami and designers come together and design Christmas trees and raise money for student design scholarships.
Is there any advice you can give to business and property owners looking to hire an outside design firm for a commercial contract?
Be open. Share your thoughts and always provide feedback. I really love to hear and get feedback from my clients on how I can service them better. As designers we really need to get to know our clients and create an environment for open honest dialogue. It’s this open dialogue that builds bonds and fosters long-lasting relationships.
How about advice for designers and suppliers working on commercial projects?
I always like to treat my vendors with the upmost respect and I share this philosophy with all designers that work in the studio. Our vendors and suppliers bend over backwards for us and I am so appreciative of all the hard work they do to make our projects run smoothly. I always try to let them know how grateful I am of their hard work and dedication. They make my work a lot easier.