HASSELL AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL SEMPLE PRINCIPAL (SINGAPORE) PAUL SEMPLE IS A PRINCIPAL AT HASSELL, BASED IN THE PRACTICE’S SINGAPORE OFFICE. PRIOR TO JOINING IN 2015, HE WAS THE MANAGING DIRECTOR OF DISTILLERY – ALSO BASED IN SINGAPORE – WITH A KEY FOCUS ON CLIENT RELATIONSHIPS AND PROJECT DELIVERY. LAST YEAR SAW THE MERGER OF DISTILLERY WITH HASSELL, AND PAUL EXPLAINS TO US THE REASONS BEHIND THE MOVE TO JOIN CREATIVE FORCES.
Paul has worked extensively throughout South East Asia, China and Australia, and moved to Singapore in 2004. There, he has overseen and led projects ranging from opulent luxury retail spaces, large-scale hospitality venues, city hotels of varying scales’ and small resort properties. He has worked on numerous high-profile projects including the Manhattan Bar and The Club in Singapore, the Coast Bar and Bistro in Hong Kong, and Aman Hotels in New Delhi and Tokyo.
Given Paul’s huge wealth of experience in the field, we’re delighted that he has shared with us some of his insightful views on the way hotels and the whole guest experience is evolving (don’t count on brand loyalty any longer for one thing…). We also take a look at HASSELL’s hip and happening new Ovolo Woolloomooloo hotel in Sydney (surely the only hotel in the world to have 11 ‘o’s in its name?).
On a more personal level, we wind back the clock to explore Paul’s early influences. From youthful days spent knocking together creations (some more successful than others!) in his Dad’s garage, he was always destined to design. But the real clincher was a visit to a childhood friend’s amazing 1970’s architect designed home…read on to hear more on that. In the meantime, fast-forward to the present…
HASSELL won the WIN Workspace Interiors Category last year with the spectacular Medibank Workplace in Melbourne. How important are awards to you as a practice, and specifically what was the reaction to the WIN Award?
We consider very carefully which awards we enter, and for us it’s important to look at the quality of the award and the judging criteria. Many of our projects take years to reach completion and are the result of a huge collaborative effort, so it is fantastic to be able to celebrate the achievement when the project is finished. Buildings such as Medibank are great examples of this; so to receive the WIN Award - which recognises originality, innovation, and how the design has rsponded to the client’s brief - is something we are extremely proud of.
Moving on, HASSELL’s latest success in Australia is that of the new Ovolo Woolloomooloo hotel in Sydney. The design seems very young, fresh and sociable. How are people taking to the varied communal spaces you’ve created for them, such as the cosy two-seater ‘kissing booths’? Have the designs worked as hoped?
Ovolo is a young, energetic, lifestyle brand and our approach to the design of the Woolloomooloo hotel was to bring a new lease of life to an historic building, injecting a sense of vitality and attracting a new generation of guests. By breaking up the space into smaller, more intimate zones we were inviting people to linger. Guests have the option to work flexibly in a variety of settings, but equally have plenty of spaces where they can switch off, socialise and connect. The hotel has recently opened, and is already being recognised as a ‘must visit’ destination.
Speaking personally, what do you like best about the completed project?
Matt Sheargold and the HASSELL team have transformed a lofty, heritage-listed building, which was dominated by an uninviting wind tunnel down the vast central spine of the hotel, into a truly welcoming experience for guests.
The central pavilions have created intimate social spaces that guests gravitate to; to meet, eat and drink. And I love how the large trees, which are scattered throughout the plan, intermingle with the pavilion and add a sense of playfulness. I love the whimsy of the guest rooms, and in particular the irreverent graphics on the bed heads! For me it is very Sydney; sophisticated, but doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Having worked extensively throughout South East Asia, China, and Australia in the course of your career, you’ve obviously stayed in many a hotel room. Thinking back on some of those hotels, what key things made the experience a) very pleasant b) awful?
I am a designer, so of course I am obsessed with detail and finish. Good lighting is a must. If the lighting is good it can be very good, but if it is bad it can be horrid.
For me whether I am staying in luxury, urban hotel or a simple beach resort, a great experience is one where all the touch points make me feel great or bring a little joy. A seamless experience that feels good from beginning to end.
The best stays for me are where my comfort is a key consideration and my hosts have thought about what I would want, while still giving me curated choice. What I mean by ‘curated’ is that the guest can choose the level of interaction they want to have while they are at the hotel.
If I trust my host then I trust that they are offering me the best selection of services and products to meet my needs. So much of this is defined by how a property is managed, and a good design outcome is one that understands how to define and support this.
And next, the question that we all want to hear the answer to: how are hotels in general changing, and what sort of experience might guests expect in, say, five or ten years’ time?
Hotel guests are not as easily categorised as they once were, and loyalty to brand is not the driver it once was. Guests are better informed and better travelled and are prepared to try an experience if a recommendation comes from a trusted source such as social media, accommodation review sites, booking portals, blogs and more traditional media.
Of course there is also the Airbnb effect - people wanting more authentic residential experiences. A guest may be a long-term regular at your hotel, but that doesn't mean they aren’t going to try out a fabulous apartment that they sourced through a friend or on Airbnb!
Hotels are including more multi-functional spaces that are usable and adaptable to guests’ needs. There is a move towards hotels that have a more residential sense of place and planning. More like a home, more intimacy where you can make choices that suit your needs. In Asia there is a tradition of guests using hotels as a destination for a great meal and a great drink. I see that more and more hotel brands, at all levels, realise the importance of food and beverage venues with independent identities.
Of course, the lines are increasingly blurred across our lives: personal and private, work and home, group and individual. I’ve observed that hotels are working to express and celebrate these blurred lines. I also notice that guests are increasingly expecting self-curated experiences. Systemisation and digitisation of check in, in-room service requests can all be done through your phone.
Are there any factors in hotel design that will never change (and shouldn’t)? Is there ever a danger of driving change for change’s sake?
The guest and guest experience should always be the key consideration for a successful hotel design. Quality and value of experience is driven by comfort, hospitality and amenity. At whatever level a hotel brand is positioning its offer, as a designer I will always strive for the most appropriate expression of these factors.
Endeavouring to understand and create for the changing needs of our owners and guests is what informs our design process. Identifiable changes in people’s behaviour are more easily defined and measured than ever before. There is so much data that we can use to inform how we design. It is the current behavioural, technological, social and economic trends that will dictate change in our industry’s future.
In saying that, I resist responding to trends without a holistic consideration for where they are headed. Change for change’s sake does not create sustainable design outcomes. The most successful hotel operators will be those who understand how to respond to the cycle of change more seamlessly. These cycles are shorter and informed by what is happening across multiple sectors in design - from residential and commercial to corporate workplace and hospitality.
Before HASSELL, you and Matthew Shang co-founded your own Singapore-based practice called Distillery. How did your paths first cross, and what made you decide to go into business together?
Matthew and I first collaborated in 2003 on a flagship store for the fashion retailer, Herringbone, on Collins Street in Melbourne. Working with Matthew added a layer and an elegance to the previous work that I had done for my client, John Mutton, on other Herringbone stores in Sydney. We have a complementary approach to design and have worked together ever since.
Having relocated to Singapore, both Matt and I had the opportunity to work with talented architects and designers. We had often spoken of a day when we would work together and for ourselves. It was at a time in Singapore when the support was there to start up a small design business; the firms that we were working with at the time were encouraging of our decision, and Distillery was a great period of personal and professional development for both of us.
And the merger of Distillery with HASSELL in July 2015…What brought about that particular development and how is it working out for you and Matthew?
Distillery was a wonderful vehicle for Matt and me to grow as designers and explore diverse design challenges using our intuition. We developed our approach and design language and a business in our way and on our terms. We grew into a practice that was handling multiple hospitality and retail projects regionally in South East Asia and Australia.
As the scale of our work grew it became increasingly important for us to collaborate with partners to deliver our projects. In the search for the right partners it was important for Matt and me to clearly express our processes and the way we worked.
On this journey, we reconnected with the managing director at HASSELL, Robert Backhouse, an old university friend of Matt’s. We started with a simple conversation about a project collaboration. There was clear synergy in our design approach and we simply believe in what HASSELL stands for and does. We saw complementary skills and experience in both the teams, so the merger was a natural progression for both our businesses. The coming together of the HASSELL and Distillery teams has focused and increased our ability to do more great design in more places!
On a more personal level, when and why did you settle in Singapore? Have you seen the city change since then?
I grew up in Sydney and spent a few years with my family in Auckland, New Zealand as a teenager. It was time to experience another part of the world. Twelve years ago, Singapore wasn't the desirable destination for young ex-pats that it is today. The city had a reputation for being boring, nothing to do, nowhere to go.
I didn’t find Singapore that way at all. Life for us has always been about regular travel, meeting new people and constant change. Singapore is an international city, continuously in flux. There has been significant focus and support for the creative industries from the government - the goal being to position Singapore as one of the ‘go to’ locations for professional, creative services, both regionally and internationally. As such, the bar has been raised on the design quality, architecture and planning that is delivered here.
It was this climate that allowed us to start our business and create and develop our own opportunities. The population has grown significantly in the time I have been here, the skyline is dramatically different and parts of the city are almost unrecognisable. Change and newness is not always for the better; it is important to preserve and celebrate heritage and histories. I am glad to say that attitudes in Singapore reflect the value of the past and the importance of preserving its built and social history.
When you were a little boy, did you dream of designing luxury retail and hospitality spaces? Or was there anything else you wanted to do when you grew up?
Like most creative people I think it was part of how I was built. I grew up wanting to build things, make things and solve problems. I loved tinkering with tools and timber and would often make things in my dad’s garage - often with debatable outcomes! I knew I wanted to do something that allowed me to create. So I consider that I live a blessed life. I get be part of a team that does what I have always enjoyed doing.
What did eventually lead you into what you do now? Was it a Eureka moment or a slow burn?
I was always impressed by qualities of different spaces when I was young. I vividly remember the first time that my mother took me to the Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.
But I think the moment that I remember as being the pivotal one was visiting a house designed by Ken Wolley, finished in the late 1970s. It was the family home of a childhood friend. I remember being amazed by the feeling of warmth in the house. The open plan living spaces were connected with volumes containing varying ceiling heights and changes in direction, with a central courtyard garden fully glazed where you could see one side of the house from the other. Beautiful natural materials with a neutral colour scheme of grey slate tiles, western red cedar boarding and painted bricks and cork. To me it was the most sophisticated home I had seen, and I think it was the start of my love of design and architecture.
And lastly, what sort of things do you enjoy doing in moments of downtime?
I wish I could say that I paint all the time. I have made several attempts in the last few years to set up a space in my apartment to experiment with canvas and some long, gestating ideas. My next house move will take this into account.
Day to day when I have spare moments I am a bit of newshound and like to keep myself informed through my favourite news sources.
I do travel a lot for work, so for me the ideal respite in Singapore is getting our favourite people together to enjoy a meal that we prepare at home, over good wine and much laughter.
Gail Taylor
Images:

Img 1,3,4,5,6 & 7: Woolloomooloo Hotel, Australia
Img 2: Medibank Workplace, Australia