Designing the Diminutive

Lisa Hassanzadeh of concrete Amsterdam shares her thoughts on the inspiration behind citizenM and the redefinition of luxury.

The story of citizenM began more than 10 years ago. There was no client, just a hotel expert called Hans Meyer and a group of frustrated business travellers who just happen to design award-winning spaces.

Over four years, more-or-less, they designed a compact luxury space for the modern traveller, stripped of everything superfluous and focusing on the obvious. They called it ‘one star is born’ and brought it to the market – common practice for product designers, but not the norm for an architecture firm.

No one in the hotel industry would bite – not even the big players like Starwood and Hyatt. It was too avant-garde for them. concrete and Hans Meyer eventually found an investor in the fashion industry with Rattan Chadha, founder of Mexx.

QUO: Bring us back to the conception of citizenM and what it was about it that scared investors off.

LH: A lot of our projects have been and still are abroad – actually more than 80%. So, whenever we stayed in a hotel, we longed for a very comfortable bed and shower, but you have to go for four- or five-star standards for those, and then you are paying for a lot of stuff you don’t need. So, we thought we have to invent a hotel by ourselves where we get everything we need, but don’t pay for anything we don’t need.

citizenM Tower of London

We also had a close look into the operation of hotels and tried to turn everything upside-down. For example, we invented digital check-in, which means you book online and there is no reception, only check-in pods. Nowadays you can find this in a lot of hotels, but citizenM invented it.

In the rooms, we placed the beds in front of the windows. It’s a really big bed – more than two metres by two metres. Normally in hotels this is not accepted as it is not following the operational standard which says you have to be able to go around the bed to make it. But we invented a mechanism that tips the mattress towards the person making the bed. In this way, the beds are made much faster, which means a big saving on staff, which again makes the hotel more affordable.

We also changed the conventional building process: each and every hotel room is built modularly, off-site in a factory, almost as a car, which makes it possible to assemble the building quickly. The public spaces are built conventionally and the rooms are stacked on top of it on-site. As a result, the building time can be halved.

QUO: So how standardised is the brand? Is there room for individuality in this modular, mobile system?

LH: The public spaces always differ, though there are elements which recur in all of them. Each and every citizenM has something the others don’t have. It is a living brand – it doesn’t have just one footprint. We are rolling them out all over the world and each location is looked at very individually.

We ask, ‘What does the location need?’ It depends on the target group and how urban the situation is. We also develop the rooms. At the moment, we are working on the third generation of rooms. citizenM is really a living brand. You have to change to stay the same.

QUO: Moving on to Zoku – did the conception for this follow a similar route to citizenM?

Zoku started a few years ago, so there’s a time difference between the start of citizenM and the start of Zoku. Hans Meyer, who left citizenM at one point and developed his own brand, Hotels Ahead, came to us and asked to develop a long-stay product. Staying from a week to a year – something in between a hotel and an apartment, but with the footprint of a hotel room.

We developed this concept in the middle of the [global economic] crisis. It was a time where, worldwide, but especially in Amsterdam, a lot of office buildings were left empty. The idea was to use these empty spaces, which are all quite high up. We had the opportunity to make a kind of Chinese puzzle and to reinvent the hotel room.

Zoku Amsterdam

In this way, the Zoku room was born: The most important thing is that in the centre of the room – where you normally expect the bed to be – is the table, and the bed is put up on top of the bathroom, where you can hide it. This means when you invite business guests for a meeting, or friends over, they don’t have to sit on the bed, they have a proper apartment with a sofa, a table and a little kitchen. The bed is really something private that is hidden away.

QUO: For hotels, the ‘old’ concept of luxury is tied to that of size – a luxurious room must be big, is the traditional belief. Having designed small, luxurious rooms, what is your opinion?

LH: It is indeed part of an old definition of luxury. With citizenM, we redefined luxury. Nowadays for travellers the biggest luxury is time. Time in which you can do what you want, where you want, setting your own priorities. citizenM offers you a luxurious experience where you can decide how you spend all the money you did not spend on a room which is too big for your needs.

QUO: Since you’re leading hotel design innovation yourselves, where do you look for inspiration?

LH: We look a lot at modern art. We believe artists are always one step ahead. If I’m only looking at what architects are doing then I’m always a step behind, as it’s stuff that has already been built. But artists are the other way around. They see notions in society that others are not seeing yet and we take them as a big source of inspiration. And travelling – with travelling and seeing the world, and you see the work of other people as well.

QUO: What are the biggest lessons hoteliers can learn about design and how should they innovate their spaces?

LH: There has been strong development since Philippe Starck invented the boutique hotel, and with citizenM, affordable luxury was born. But generally, the hotel industry is very generic. Of course, all the lifestyle brands are coming up, but they are getting generic in their own way. I think hotels should look much more into the local context and the target group and create a specific destination for the people.

QUO: What about office spaces – is there any hope for them beyond the trend of co-working spaces?

LH: Whether it is a hotel or any other assignment, we always start with the question: ‘Can this be different?’ Some things are the same as they have always been because they are just good in every sense. There are some things in traditional architecture that are brilliant and you should probably never change them. But there are things which never changed simply because nobody has asked the question or is daring to change. I think offices have been stuck in this trap and ‘coworking’ has been the first substantial change. But the world of offices is ready for the next step.

Zoku Amsterdam

QUO: What is your ultimate idea of luxurious modern hotel design?

LH: Hotels should be designed for individuals, not for a generic mass of people. People shape places, but places also shape people. If you design generic spaces, you get generic travellers, who are as careless as their environment. Understanding the needs of the traveller is key. Lifestyle hotels must be careful that they don’t become yet another generic standardisation. They have to be able to adapt to changing needs. In both citizenM and Zoku we put a lot of effort into making them living brands. Ever-evolving, never on automatic pilot.