INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects
NATHAN HUTCHINS - THE GALLERY HBA LONDON

Thousands of sample books line the walls of the converted 1860s theatre where interior design practice HBA London has its office. The team moved to the listed building five years ago from their base off the Strand, and they've clearly made themselves at home. Last time they had a clear out they removed three tonnes of material, and it still looks full to bursting. Project photos are displayed on easel stands around the main space, creating an air of artistic endeavour, and the atmosphere is one of thriving productivity. I'm standing here with partner Nathan Hutchins, who is telling me about the "zero privacy" philosophy of the office. Almost everything here is entirely open plan, with desks filling the perimeters of the main space's mezzanine and upper level, overlooking a central area dominated by a "chef's table" where meetings take place, overheard by all.

HBA London, also known as the Gallery, is part of the international Hirsch Bedner Associates umbrella, which has 15 offices across four continents. Although founded as a hospitality firm, the London team is now working on a wide range of residential projects, from large-scale projects in the capital to a private weekend house outside Moscow.

We're here to talk about HBA London's recent hotel projects, and Hutchins has a wealth of stories to tell. He has been with the firm for 13 years, beginning in Los Angeles where he worked directly with HBA chairman and CEO Michael Bedner on his first day. He moved on to Hong Kong, via Las Vegas, and finally decided on some "European adventure", moving to London seven years ago.

When I ask Hutchins what defines an HBA project, he says that the office is not known for a house style or a specific look. "We try to look at things that can make each project unique, special and relevant to its place, and to develop a story that can inform our interiors and inform the soul and character of a project," he says. "You elicit an emotional response from the end user of the space. And that's what we've honed our skill set in London on developing for the last five or six years."

The latest hotel project for HBA London was the Alpina Gstaad, which opened on 1 December 2012, just in time for the winter ski season. The hotel features some appropriate incentives for its elite clientele, such as the Kids Room - or "spoilt parents' room", as Hutchins likes to call it - where children can be left to adventure in the tree house or experiment with the media centre while parents have the day on the slopes. There's also a luxurious cinema replete with sofas, giant armchairs and beanbags to cuddle up on under blankets. "We wanted to have the feel that you're in your own home," says Hutchins. "The other great benefit is that because it is subterranean and the acoustics for the sound system had to be really good, by using this freestanding furniture we can pull it out of the room and use it as a private nightclub for the few weeks during the year when the younger crowd comes up."

The glamour of the Alpine location played its part in the frenzied final days of installation. When a large sofa and daybed had still not found their way up to the Panorama Suite on the fifth and sixth floors - and Hutchins realised it was going to take countless hours and half a dozen men to get them up there - the solution was to go James Bond style and get a helicopter to drop one in through the roof and one onto the terrace. "This entire experience of moving them in this way took about three minutes per piece of furniture," he says. "This is how they do things in the Alps. Sometimes they just get a helicopter."

The hotel reflects its alpine location through and through, with lots of rustic timber reclaimed from old Swiss chalets, hand-crafted furniture and natural materials. Many spaces in the 56-room hotel have working fireplaces. I ask Hutchins whether it's important for HBA to reflect the country the project is located in. "They need to feel authentic to where they are," he says. "That's not always going to mean that it

has to be entirely recognisable... for instance with the ESPA Hong Kong, it's hard to say what makes that project specific to Hong Kong, but in other ways, not many places in the world have a spa that is hundreds of floors up, so the design concepts there were about making you feel cocooned in the clouds. Does that specifically imply Hong Kong? No, but it's an authentic response to its location."

The Ritz-Carlton Spa by ESPA in Hong Kong - an HBA London project overseen by Inge Moore, president Europe - was completed in 2011, as was the ESPA at the Edition Istanbul, which was directed by Hutchins. The Istanbul spa was inspired by traditional Turkish hammams, referencing the carved ceilings, ornate cornicing and star patterning, but changing the scale and using a "completely different language", says Hutchins. HBA worked with local metalworkers and glassblowers, and played around with shadow play and scattering patterns across spaces. "It was a challenging project, because a lot of the time you think of a spa project as light and soft and open air, with views, but this was actually completely subterranean," Hutchins tells me. "The building was built as a bank originally, and this was the car park of the bank. We were stuck in the basement, and rather than having a beautiful, large floorplate to play with we had three floors. It's quite challenging fitting a sizeable spa into three floors of a parking garage."

Despite such challenges, Hutchins is quick to emphasise how much he enjoys working on spa projects, because "they're a fantastic scale", something small enough to "get your head and hands around". It's also about the material tactility of such spaces. "It's not every project we work on where you know that, ok, in this area the guest will probably be barefoot," he says. "It's nice because you really have to sit there and think, more than other projects where people are fully clothed, what are they touching, what can they see, what's the temperature going to be, should we be using stone or timber here as the body's going to be resting on this. Materiality becomes increasingly important the less layers of clothing or protection you have on your body."

A material that finds its way into lots of Hutchins' projects is not one you would necessarily expect: horse hair. "It has a really rich texture, it's nice to touch, and it's incredibly durable. You can actually wipe it clean," he tells me. It also has good acoustic capabilities. "I'm doing a project in London at the moment, a residential tower just south of the river, we're doing a screening room for them, and I'm doing all the walls in horse-hair panelling," he adds. Hutchins works with a British firm, John Boyd Textiles, which still produces horse-hair fabric on original Victorian looms.

Such detail is incredibly important to HBA London, and when I ask Hutchins what he looks for personally in a hotel visit, he says it's all about the simple things: primarily, the location of the light switches and plug sockets. "You can tell when a designer's been involved and when they haven't," he says. "We pick and locate every socket and every switch. Our point of view on hotels is, anything that a guest can touch or see, we want to have some input on."

So what's next for the Gallery team? "In St Petersburg we have two ongoing projects," Hutchins tells me. "One of them is a freestanding restaurant on an island on a lake, but in downtown St Petersburg. It's in a park, surrounded by birch trees, it's absolutely stunning. We're also doing a 78-room boutique hotel in a beautiful old bank building, with a very imposing façade. It's fun to have the variety of a complete new build, freestanding project and a very heavy, masculine, strong piece of architecture at the same time." Let's see what HBA London conjures up from the marvels of this Russian city.

www.hbadesign.com

Rosie Spencer

Rosie Spencer is a writer and editor, and has contributed to publications including Disegno, Icon, Domus, The Art Newspaper and Onoffice.