Jun 25 15

Behind The Design: Liz Lambert, Bunkhouse Hotels

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters

 

I recall a conversation with Liz Lambert in which the Texan hotelier declared – in the manner in which she makes most of her declarations, which is to say confidently, resolutely – that she couldn’t stand the term “hip hotel.” OK, the truth is – as a young and slightly awkward intern at her nascent Bunkhouse Group (circa 2007) – I was more of an eavesdropper on this conversation than an actual participant.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Lambert’s issue with the term – which was quite hip itself at the time, gracing the pages of coffee table books and travel listicles – has since become clear to me. Hip denotes a transience. It speaks to the fleeting presence of fad. What Liz intended with her hotels was to create places of lasting value.

And it appears, as her first hotel – Austin’s Hotel San Jose – celebrates its 15th anniversary, having only grown in the esteem of visitors and locals alike in the years since its opening, that she has succeeded.

Since my intern days, Lambert and her team have grown Bunkhouse to include Austin’s Hotel Saint Cecilia (featured in this earlier post), San Antonio’s Hotel Havana, and El Cosmico – an 18 acre vintage trailer, tepee and tent hotel in the West Texas desert, outside of Marfa. As Bunkhouse embarks on its fifth hotel property, Liz opens up the group’s East Austin office – and her design process – to Block Print Social readers.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters

 

Looking back at your career shift in the mid-90’s, when you went from attorney to hotelier – why a hotel? Was that something you had ever envisioned being involved in or was it an unexpected development for you?

It was definitely unexpected. I had just moved back from Manhattan to Austin and the San Jose was just kind of there. I passed it every day, and I could sense that things were changing – in Austin and in that particular stretch of South Congress, which at the time was a dicey area.

Downtown Austin had essentially been abandoned but was beginning to experience a resurgence, and South Congress was this very picturesque corridor to downtown. I don’t know, for some reason I thought it was a good idea [laughs].

In a sense, it was happenstance. Fate. I approached the owners to ask if they would be interested in selling and learned they had just listed the property in a local Chinese newspaper.

Was the vision that you had when you first approached the owners in keeping with the hotel we see today? 

My business plan certainly changed. I didn’t know how hard it would be, and that was probably a good thing [laughs]. I didn’t know how difficult it would be to get a bank loan. I didn’t know anything about finance really… I was a lawyer.

I had planned to buy the hotel and fix the rooms up one by one and eventually charge $65, $75 for those rooms. But the people who were driving to Austin, from San Antonio or Houston, and wanting to pay $75 for a room weren’t going to go out of their way to stay on South Congress, where it was shady. They were going to stay at the Super8s and Howard Johnsons on the Interstate. I realized I had to change my business plan, and with that the plan for the design evolved too.

Because of the way the old motel had been remodeled over the years, there were no cookie cutter rooms. I needed to create a design process that would tie the rooms together, but it also needed to be affordable. Affordable design was hard to find back then – resources like Design Within Reach and Crate & Barrel weren’t around yet – so I worked with a craftsman and together we came up with this idea to use horizontal planes of pine as the unifying element. We made the beds, the desks, and the daybeds out of those planes of pine.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters

 

The Hotel San Jose just had its 15-year anniversary. Congratulations.

Thank you.

What strikes me is how the hotel – in terms of its design – is very much the same as it was when it first opened, and yet it still feels just as fresh.

I didn’t want it to be one of those hotels that go through a full redesign every seven years. I don’t think people relate to that or like that. I wanted to design something simple and lasting, that gets better as it ages.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social |photo by @mollylwinters

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters Portrait of woman behind the fan by photographer (and manager of the Hotel San Jose bar) Jackie Lee Young.

Fast forward to present day. You’ve since opened 3 more hotels in Texas and you have new projects in the works. Each one, aesthetically speaking, is notably different from the rest – and yet there seems to be an underlying thread that runs through them. The Liz Lambert mark, we could say –

If you had to put words to that mark, what would they be?

[Laughs] I’ve heard people say that, but I don’t know that I really understand it.

I’m very proud of the Saint Cecilia because it was in many ways the opposite of the San Jose. Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music and poetry, and for the hotel’s design I was inspired by Rock n’ Roll and the decadence that is associated with it. I had this image in my head of a photo from the early 70’s with the Rolling Stones standing out in front of a Victorian mansion. They’re dressed very Rock n’ Roll, and behind them is a chauffeur polishing a Bentley. I looked for that image, but I was never able to find it. It may have been real or I may have imagined it, but it gave me the concept, which was the elegant decadence of a certain time in rock ’n roll. I was happy to be able to design a place that captured a very different sensibility from that of the San Jose.

In terms of themes or a shared school, I think a hotel should be interesting but it should be a calm place. Repetition – of certain elements – can create that sense of calm. Make it less jarring. I pick a handful of things and use them as a language. Color is a good one – in the San Jose, it’s green; in the Saint Cecilia, it’s blue; in the Havana, it’s red; at El Cosmico, it’s deep yellow. Those colors are part of the language of the place and are repeated throughout.

I’m also very attuned to the details, on every level, and those also become a part of the language of the hotels.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters

 

Speaking of details, the products at your hotels – from the toiletries to what’s inside the minibar and hotel shops – are not typical to most hotels. You seem to treat these aspects of a stay as opportunities to turn your guests on to things they might not otherwise know. How do you go about choosing the products for your properties?

Like I said, details are paramount to me. I hate it when I visit a hotel that hasn’t put thought into the products they place in their room. It’s all part of the language of the place and the details affect the guest experience there. I find that once I choose an inspiration – the Rolling Stones image for example – and decide on a narrative, all the details flow from that.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters Posters by Noel Waggener and Cruz Ortiz.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters Posters by Noel Waggener.

Can you tell us anything about the projects you’re currently working on?

Our biggest project right now is the Magdalena, the third South Congress hotel along with the San Jose and the Saint Cecilia – and our third Saint. It’s named after Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of fallen women. [Laughs] I don’t know why that pleases me so much.

This hotel is our homage to old Austin – to swimming holes, grottos, lake houses – things we love here.

We’ve learned a lot from our past experiences designing and running our other hotels and we’ve created a system from that. This is the first time we’re applying that system from the very beginning of the design process, which is promising. We’re better at hotels now, and so are Lake|Flato architects, whom we’ve worked with since the San Jose. David Lake and his colleagues are problem solvers. They come up with creative solutions within budget limitations, and they always try to be respectful of the local vernacular.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social |photo by @mollylwinters

 

Do you share in the Lake|Flato philosophy that design should be rooted in a sense of place, blending with and enhancing its environment? How, if at all, does this play into your own design process?

I do, and it does. It certainly makes it easier. It’s far easier to design a place with its environment in mind – the native materials there, the sensibility of the people – than to design a place from inside some office building and drop it into a random neighborhood. I’ve taken a lot from Christopher Alexander’s books, A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building. He writes about “the quality without a name” that is common to those kind of places that feel more whole and complete.

 

Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert enjoys a playful moment with office pup Bruno at the Bunkhouse Hotel Group office | photo by @mollylwinters Liz with office pup, Bruno. You can follow Bruno on Instagram!

You recently moved into this office. Tell me a little about this space and why it was right for Bunkhouse.

We were shoehorned into the old places. Not enough room and we were divided up in lots of separate rooms with no meeting spaces. We never had a conference room before we moved into this space.

I was nervous about moving away from South Congress. We’ve always officed there and been able to walk to our Austin properties, which is a great way of doing business. But we looked all over that area for a long time and couldn’t find a place that fit our needs. Now we’re in East Austin, which suits us creatively, and the building is old and we like the feel of that.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters Inspiration for the new Hotel Magdalena hangs from a cork board in the Bunkhouse conference room.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters This El Cosmico poster by Bunkhouse resident graphic designer Mishka Westell glows in the dark (!!)

Where do you seek inspiration?

I look at a lot of books and magazines. In the move, I went through lots of boxes and uncovered lots of the books I’ve taken inspiration from before and am now inspired by again – books on Norwegian carpentry, all sorts of things. Now there’s Pinterest too, but it can be a rabbit hole.

I’d say travel is my biggest source of inspiration. Visiting hotels. David Lake and I like to walk hotels together and talk about the design. We’ve probably walked 20-30 hotels together.

Who are your biggest influences? Whose taste do you trust?

Sean MacPherson, who is brilliant when it comes to detail. Larry McGuire, who is like a brother to me. I know he’s been influenced by me in the past, but now I see what he’s doing with his restaurants and I’m taking note. Jack Sanders of Design Build Adventure.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | artwork by Mishka Westell | photo by @mollylwinters An entire wall of prints by Bunkhouse graphic designer Mishka Westell.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters

 

In my mind, music is very much a part of the Bunkhouse brand. Your passion for music is well known, and you produce the South by San Jose Festival during Austin’s SXSW and the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love at El Cosmico, in Marfa. Can you tell us about the role that music has played in your design process?

I see music as an integral part of any design process. I think everybody does … but maybe that’s not true.

It’s an important part of the hotel experience, for better or worse. Music can be disruptive or it can enhance. Sometimes you don’t know it’s there, but it becomes a part of a narrative.

I work with Leanne Flask from Orchid Music Design to come up with the music for the hotels. Take the Hotel Havana, in San Antonio – the inspiration there was Cuba, so we asked ourselves, where does San Antonio meet Havana, Cuba and how will the music reflect that? The look and feel we settled on was really saturated color but with a patina, so we chose music that gives a subtle sense of that – from Mexican opera to Afro-Cuban beats.

At the Saint Cecilia, the music we keep in the library is rock ’n roll and psych from 1960 through 1981. We try not to play anything later than that, unless it’s a band who has stayed at the hotel or something current that fits seamlessly into the mix, so it makes sense in some way. At El Cosmico, the music is expansive to reflect the desert surroundings. Everything from Country, to Folk and Psychedelic.

 

Behind the Design: Boutique hotelier Liz Lambert reveals her new office - and her design process - to Block Print Social | photo by @mollylwinters Bruno lounges on his red sofa by Ligne Roset.

One last question, but I warn you it’s a tough one. If you were stuck on a dessert island with only one album, what would it be?

[Laughs]. That’s an impossible question! Right now, I’m listening to a lot of Chopin’s Nocturnes. I love Chopin, but I’m not sure that’s the album you would want to bring to a desert island. Then again, any album you have to listen to over and over again is eventually going to make you crazy. As good as Joni Mitchell’s Blue is, I would probably want to kill myself if it was the only album I had to listen to. Maybe something Led Zeppelin? I don’t know…

All right, I won’t force you. Torture’s over.

 

Thank you to Liz Lambert and the Bunkhouse team for your time and generosity!

 

Follow Liz and the Bunkhouse hotels on Instagram:

@thelizlambert | @bunkhousehotels | @hotelsanjose | @hotelsaintcecilia | @havanasanantonio | @elcosmicomarfa

Follow Block Print Social here!

 

Photography by Molly Winters. Produced by Natalie Marchbanks for Block Print Social.

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4 Comments On Behind The Design: Liz Lambert, Bunkhouse Hotels

  • 1
    Robin / Jun 27 15 at 8:18 am

    Love this, Natalie – what a great interview and a beautiful spot! Would love to visit someday.

    • Natalie / Jun 29 15 at 10:55 am

      Thanks, Robin! If you’re ever in Austin (or San Antonio or Marfa) – you should definitely check out one of the Bunkhouse hotels or their coffee/food chain, Jo’s Coffee. I think you would just love the Hotel San Jose! The courtyard is open to the public & often has music & fun drink specials happening (their micheladas are a definite must-try) xx

  • 2
    ieva / Jun 28 15 at 3:44 pm

    Such a wonderful interview! Really inspiring and so … refreshing! Thank you 🙂

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