This award-winning design studio, responsible for the strikingly elegant interiors of many luxury hotels around the world, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year – but it has flown under the radar for most of that time. Says Lim Hong Lian, founder and principal partner of LTW Designworks, “We’ve always been low-profile. As long as we enjoy the process of design and are proud of the end results, we don’t really care about the publicity.”
The work of Lim and his team can be seen across a span of international hotels, from the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul to the Grand Hyatt Xi’an, yet you’d be hard put to attribute them all to the same firm because each looks so different. This is due to the fact that it does not have a design signature – the primary reason for LTW Designworks’ low profile.
He elaborates: “We are not designing for ourselves but for the client and appointed hotel operator. They are all variables, therefore there is no recognisable LTW style.”
What ties them all together is something else. “We are not interested in quantity. In a good year, we don’t sign on for more than six projects. This means we can dedicate our time more intensively to each project.”
This selectiveness challenges the firm to tackle one of his biggest grouses in the industry – a lack of originality in hotel design. Lim ensures each of his projects is unique by instilling a sense of place and telling a story. Grounding each hotel in its location is also crucial, especially for the frequent flyer. “You don’t want to get up in the morning and not remember where you are,” says Lim.
The process involves diving deep into each location’s culture, customs, cuisine, history and people. For the Jumeirah Nanjing hotel in China, that meant reflecting the organic movement of its external architecture – designed by Zaha Hadid – on the inside, while evoking the cultural refinement and scholarly history of the city within.
When working on the Grand Hyatt Xi’an, the desert was the design inspiration, given the city’s status as the start of the Silk Road. Here, artful shapes reminiscent of shifting dunes, a sunset palette of warm reds and oranges, and lift shaft cladding in the form of laser-cut bronze conjure up a shimmering desert mirage.
The love of art runs in Lim’s blood. Born to parents who were both artists, he says: “I used to squat by the drain to wash my dad’s brushes when I was five or six, and the smell of linseed oil and the oil paints left a lasting impression on me.”
Later mentored by Chen Wen Hsi, a Chinese-born Singaporean painter famous for his avant-garde Chinese artworks, he became a painter himself and went to art school in London, where he moved from painting to exploring sculpture and then studying interior design and architecture.
“The way I got hooked on interior design was unique. I realised that art didn’t have to be for art’s sake. It could be something I could use and live with, and be applied to the environment.”
Lim’s portfolio proudly displays his inclination towards hotels, with their sheer range of public and private spaces – from lobbies to function rooms and restaurants to guestrooms, as well as spas to fitness centres. “They have one of the most complex types of interiors. It gives us a lot of meat to chew on.”
Looking back on his career, Lim reflects on what it has taken to get to where he is.
“You need to be patient and truthful about what you are doing. There are no shortcuts and there is no room for ego in a process where collaboration is key. It’s been about dedication and knowing how to work with people. So many are involved when it comes to a hotel that it’s like making a movie. You need a team you can create with.”