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Interview

Dana Kalczak

Four Seasons’ vice president of design talks to Neena Dhillon about reaching new heights in Philadelphia, working with Norman Foster and innovations in guest experience


While Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts is accustomed to opening landmark properties, its newest offering in Philadelphia represents several firsts. For starters, the 342m-high vertiginous tower redefines the skyline, its sleek silhouette taking the prize for the city’s tallest building.

The Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia occupies the top 12 floors of the new Comcast Technology Center, and is one of the highest hotels in North America, with Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant and cocktail bar affording the best views in town. And then there’s the unusual design approach. While owners Comcast and Liberty Property Trust brought Foster + Partners onboard to design the tower itself, the award-winning British firm has also fulfilled design for the hotel interiors, its reach extending from façade to furniture.

This is not typical for Four Seasons, as Dana Kalczak, vice-president, design explains. “Usually, we like to take advantage of the tension created between architecture and design, appointing different talent for each,” she says.

“Through experience, we’ve found this push and pull makes for the best results. But Brian Roberts [Comcast’s chairman and CEO] came to us with the vision of aesthetic consistency between exterior and interior. It’s rare for us to agree to this but we’ve been blown away by the talent of Foster + Partners. It’s hard to bang heads when you’re working with genius.”

Collaborative effort
With design oversight across all new build and renovation projects at Four Seasons, Kalczak’s role in matching world-class architects and designers to the luxury group’s developments is vital. But in her 21 years with Four Seasons, she’s never witnessed anything quite like this project before.

“I knew we were working with the best architects in the world but the level of thought poured into every detail by Norman Foster’s team has been something to behold,” she says. “You could describe it as highly engineered architecture. They are masters in spatial design, they understand how to get relationships between intersectional spaces right, and they’re detail driven when it comes to conceiving the smallest element of bespoke furniture. They can be single-minded in the pursuit of perfection. And they put the user at the core of all their decision-making processes.”

This is not to say that one company defines Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia. From Comcast has come the clear and integral vision for a high touch, high tech product – and one that embraces the future. Kalczak’s team has worked with Foster’s to shape that human-centric guest experience, intervening with a light touch where necessary to advise on operational aspects and functionality.

On the ground floor, where connectivity to the local community is key, Tihany Design were appointed for their restaurant expertise, envisioning the lively, inviting surroundings of Vernick Fish. Floral designer to the stars Jeff Leatham has injected beauty while Brian Eno was approached to create an onscreen video-soundscape for guest rooms and Tokyo-based teamLab to produce a digital art installation for the hotel lobby.

The art of technology
“Within the architectural statement of the building, we have beautiful monumental public areas in which visually stimulating interior spaces provide sanctuary and convivial interactions,” says Kalczak. “As a component of this virtuoso design, there’s a thread of technology that weaves its way through the hotel, sometimes visible, at other times behind the scenes. The building is chock-a-block with hidden technologies; take the system we’ve developed with Lutron to control window treatments and lighting scenarios from the bed, affording guests full mastery of their rooms. We also explore the possibilities of digital art and animation in rooms, elevators and lobby. Comcast has been fully supportive of this endeavour – hotel art is no longer confined to canvas and frame.”

Of all the achievements in the hotel, it is perhaps the reflective ceiling panels in the Jean-Georges Philadelphia restaurant on the 59th floor that stand out. Kalczak describes a process of thorough review and approval by Foster to engineer the custom-built kaleidoscopic panels, designed to not only capture views of the dining room but also angled glimpses of the city below while housing necessary systems such as acoustics, lighting, air supply and fire detection. But surely everything can’t have gone so smoothly?

“There was no throwing down of architectural capes, if that’s what you’re asking,” laughs Kalczak. “Money and time are always challenges but we were supported by generous budgets to achieve the right results without compromise and with few bumps in the road.” She does concede that her team imparted guidance to Foster + Partners about the manufacture of furniture suited to a hotel rollout, matching the beauty of form with the nitty-gritty realities of function in high-traffic spaces. Rigorous testing of model rooms helped.

On the manufacturing side, they opted to work with Four Seasons’ preferred suppliers of Louis Interiors and ArtCo. And while her team had initial reservations about the interiors feeling too spare or intimidating, together the partners were able to achieve a harmonious balance between the spare and monumental, layering and comfort. It has been a happy experience, says Kalczak and they will work together on undisclosed Four Seasons locations to come.

Evolving guest experience
Since she began working in hotel design, Kalczak has noted several sea changes with the formulaic and formal giving way to interactive, transformative spaces. Today, immediacy and empowerment are two pressing guest concerns and to meet this evolution, the design team at Four Seasons brainstorms ideas in a Toronto-based Research & Discovery Studio.

Out of this work, her team has dissolved major physical barriers around concierge and reception desks, facilitating speedy interactions between staff and guests. Coffee and cocktail bars are being introduced in lobbies to achieve “lively, energised spaces that welcome arriving visitors with the sound of convivial conversations, music and clinking of glasses.” Panoramic glass elevators, such as those in Philadelphia, provide visual connections to surrounding cityscapes. In guest rooms, traditional desks are being replaced with Activity Tables with supporting consoles offering multiple device connectivity. At present, Kalczak and her team are testing out a ‘wallpaper television’ thinner than a magazine and looking into equipping MyBars with filtered water taps and refillable bottles. As more people become design literate, it’s essential Four Seasons stays on top of its game.

With up to 50 projects under planning or in development, Kalczak invests much time and effort in findings designers and architects with the right talent and track record. If a project has an experienced developer attached to it, she is more likely to take risks with an emerging hotel designer. Her team is always on the hunt for rising talent, looking beyond hospitality. As an example, she spotted Meyer Davis’s residential work some years ago in a magazine and has since appointed the New York studio for large-scale renovations of a handful of resorts. Forthcoming Meyer Davis designs will be seen in new resorts in both Cabo San Lucas and Belize.

The design language of Paris-based Gilles and Boissier, meanwhile, will enliven a collection of heritage buildings framed by Mount Etna in Sicily’s Taormina, currently being transformed into a Four Seasons. In Dubai, another property is on the rise, with architecture by Daniel Libeskind and interiors by Tristan Auer. “We don’t choose tried-and-tested designers simply for expediency or ease, rather we’ll go to extreme lengths to get the right firm hired,” says Kalczak.

As she celebrates 30 years in design and architecture, Kalczak is pleased to see more women. “I used to be the only woman at construction site meetings; today I’m one of many,” she says. “It gives me great hope. There are more women not only in interior design but also working as architects, engineers and project managers. Smart, creative and committed, they should be encouraged and mentored to success. I try to do that every day with my own team and women who come into my orbit.”

The Foster perspective

“The tower itself has been a feat of engineering; the tallest in North America outside Chicago and New York. Its core is offset and supported by triangulated bracing, allowing for flexible and dynamic floor spaces at all levels,” explains Nigel Dancey, senior executive partner – head of studio at Foster + Partners.

Speaking of Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia’s interiors, he says: “At every level, the city is on display, whether reflected in the unique pyramidical mirrored ceiling in the sky high restaurant or overlooked by the spectacular infinity-edged swimming pool. Every room has full-height glazing providing panoramic views out across the city from multiple aspects including the bathtub.

“Where guests arrive at the hotel’s dedicated west entrance, a specially commissioned artwork by Jenny Holzer spans the lobby ceiling, delivering 17 hours of continuous content that includes words by Philadelphia-based writers and schoolchildren.” The working relationship with Dana Kalczak’s team was a true collaboration, says Dancey, with both partners challenged by a constant dialogue with Comcast, whose expectations and operational requirements facilitated an ongoing exchange of ideas.

“The overall result is a design intent able to shine while remaining highly functional,” Dancey adds.

Flower power

With the Kardashians, royalty, presidents and pop stars as clients, Jeff Leatham pushes the frontiers of modern floral design.

Having first worked for Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills as an assistant floral designer in 1994, he cemented his relationship with the company five years later when he was appointed artistic director at Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris. Today that role extends to Philadelphia where his dramatic floral displays are proving to be an essential balancing force, according to Dana Kalczak.

“If we had focused entirely on high tech in the new hotel, the artistry we usually strive for would have been compromised,” she says. “Instead Jeff’s flowers bring beauty to the monumental spaces of Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, creating a marriage made in heaven. Jeff is a true artist: he thinks about the emotions that each treatment should elicit and asks what each building needs. The inspiration comes from within.”

Leatham has taken the role of artistic director at the hotel, overseeing floral arrangements
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