Inspirationist exclusive: Interview with Constantina Tsoutsikou, Creative Director of HBA London

Constantina Tsoutsikou, Creative Director of HBA London is a leader in global hospitality design, creating meaningful and memorable experiences for hotel, restaurant and spa guests.

Australian born and raised in Greece, Constantina came to London as a design student and has since made it her home and the base for her globe-trotting lifestyle. No day is ever the same – with visits to sites across Europe and the Middle East, the creative direction of new work in the studio to manage, a team to lead, international design awards to judge and speaking at events such as Maison et Objet. In all of this, Constantina believes in fun. “Fun and discovery are the lifeblood of great design” she says.

Her work emphasises the joy of discovery of the location, its history, and its culture. Her ways of bringing playfulness to hotels are utterly different – from a cosy, artistic boutique hotel Amadria Park Capital in the heart of Zagreb to a larger scale Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol hotel, offering respite for international visitors and travellers, through to a coastal resort on the Adriatic Sea.

She is a true trend-setter in luxury hotel design: leading the European arm of a global hospitality design practice and an active explorer of new ideas herself, who gives time to join speaking platforms and judge awards. Last year, she and her team created an outstanding concept room at Sleep + Eat which, working in collaboration with London’s National History Museum, delved into ideas such as nature, exploration, and discovery.

Constantina took a few moments out of her busy schedule to talk to Inspirationist about her roots, her visions for the future and how she brings fun and playfulness to hotel design:

INSPIRATIONIST: Where are you from and where do you live now?

Constantina Tsoutsikou: I was born in Australia to Greek parents but when I was seven we left the leafy streets of Adelaide for a small rural town in Greece.  It was a big change of scene, a new way of life. By the time I was a teenager, I was eager to search for my place in the world. Design studies took me to Athens and then onwards to London. It was here I made my home, although home to me means the place where I love to be in between my travels.  I still have the same thirst for discovery as when I first set out so it’s fortunate my work takes me on creative journeys around the globe.   

INSPIRATIONIST: What’s your background? 

C.T.: I grew up in a creative family. We owned a picture framing workshop, which was something of a social hub for our neighbours. Friends would drop by for conversation about art, philosophy, politics – or fishing. At other times, my sisters and I would be doing our homework in the front room while our father moulded cast plaster sculptures or experimented with paints and new patinas in the back. My mother had an interest in wool weaving, while she also ran a business selling linen for the home.

INSPIRATIONIST: Tell us a bit about your time at Esteé Lauder and what it taught you.

C.T.: Esteé Lauder is a global company with a grand vision and multiple iconic brands such as Clinique and La Mer. Working within its design department gave me the opportunity to master brand implementation across a range of different brands and learn how to make an impact and create an experience, all of which are invaluable in hospitality design.

INSPIRATIONIST: How did you fall in love with design and why? 

C.T.: Culture, arts, a love of nature and being creative formed the backdrop when I was growing up, so it wasn’t a question of falling in love with design, but rather a natural progression in what I had been exposed to. Our house was full to the brim with vintage books, artefacts and collections of fascinating objects. You could find hand-painted Japanese scrolls and rolls of block printed silks collected from travels in Asia next to wool yarn spinners, and everything else in between! The idea of layering in my approach to hospitality design is informed by these early memories. 

INSPIRATIONIST: What is your favourite part of your job?  

C.T.: I love the fact that my role touches on every aspect of running the studio, from leading the team to fronting the drive for new business and overseeing client relationships. Equally, I am so pleased that I can remain very involved in the project work itself, especially at the beginning in leading our creative direction, then reviewing ongoing progress and, finally, at the end, making a difference with last minute adjustments and accessorising. In fact, the favourite part of my job is probably just this – rolling up my sleeves with the team on-site.

The favourite part of my job is probably just this – rolling up my sleeves with the team on-site.

INSPIRATIONIST: Where do you spend most of your time, and what does a typical day for you entail?

C.T.: To say that no day is ever the same would be an understatement! If I am in our studio in West London, the day starts at nine and I make sure to touch base with all the teams first thing. 

Projects run at different speeds, so while one may be at concept stage, another may require problem solving in minute detail. This development stage is crucial to get right. The tiniest touchpoint can make a difference. I use quick pencil sketches to convey an idea and am very hands on with materials. 

Since many of our clients are international, video conference calls are very much part of my typical day. If I am in London on a Friday, I pick my girls up from school and take them swimming or ice skating. I try to balance family life around the job, or sometimes vice versa. It takes precise planning and a few blank spaces in the diary to allow for last minute things that come up.

I am often on the road, attending project meetings, reviewing site progress or evaluating a new assignment. I prefer to test what feels right or wrong on the ground, with a tape measure to hand and trusting my intuition rather than trying to solve all problems by looking at drawings on a screen in London.  The slightest shifts in scale, proportions, or light can make or break a design idea. 

When I am out and about, my antennas are always alert for innovation. I look for inspiration everywhere and travel never disappoints. I usually return to the studio with a bulging bag of books or magazines and numerous photos of what I have found interesting.   

The slightest shifts in scale, proportions, or light can make or break a design idea. 

INSPIRATIONIST: Can you describe an evolution in your work from when you began until today? 

C.T.: Designers are constantly on a journey and evolution happens on a daily basis. Starting out, one tests ideas, the work is task driven and it enables you to learn on the job. With experience, I like to push the design envelope further. I ask questions relentlessly and scrutinise ideas and assumptions until it all falls into place.

INSPIRATIONIST: You believe that “Fun and discovery are the lifeblood of great design.” How do you bring fun and playfulness to hotel design?

C.T.: Spaces dictate how we feel in them. In hotel interiors, formality is usually required or desired, but a total absence of things that are fun or of opportunities for discovery leave a hotel feeling very impersonal and uninspiring. I believe that striking the right balance between sophistication and a relaxed ambience is key. 

To my mind, design is not dissimilar to a conversation. I compare it with sitting around a table at a dinner party – sometimes you can feel stuck with a dull conversationalist or sometimes you are  exhilarated when you meet an interesting new acquaintance and a spark is lit. 

Every design choice says something about our intent. For example, a comfortable sofa with deep cushions and smooth upholstery is an invitation to relax and unwind, or a well-framed view through the window directs you to take in your surroundings. Quirky artefacts or a disruptive feature is often what makes a scheme charming. Nobody likes an interior that feels like a monotonous furniture showroom. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like to have some fun. 

Take for example, the Capital Hotel in Zagreb which we have recently completed. We introduced oversized illustrations by David Doran in the Café to give a dreamy perspective on the city’s laid-back culture. They make the sun filled space feel very much about Zagreb NOW, whereas the building itself is a restored bank that opened in 1923.  At the start of the project, I talked to many people who remembered the bank when it was still operating and they told me how depressing and cold it felt. I made it my mission to take it to the other end of the spectrum and rewrite the building’s narrative. Today you could describe it as playful, warm, welcoming and full of personality. There was no place for imposing or dreary in my plans.

A completely different project, but sharing the same principle of creating fun, was our design of the new Hilton at Schiphol airport. Historically, airport hotels have been anonymous experiences; guest stay there because they have to and forget them as soon as they leave. I was determined to make this hotel stand out and a destination of choice. We christened our approach the Dutch Touch. We took the local landscape, the waterways, craft traditions and the modern day Amsterdam spirit, we even played with the design of the city’s much loved Speculaas Plankjes biscuit, and we translated all of these into a hotel with soul, one that puts a smile on the face of even the most jaded global traveller.

Spaces dictate how we feel in them.

INSPIRATIONIST: Can you share with us any exciting projects that you are working on at the moment?

C.T.: In Dubai we are building a luxury hotel, and in Istanbul our beautiful guestrooms are coming together for a new apartment tower. In Europe, I have just set out the art and accessories in the guestrooms of the Camellia Hotel in the chic Croatian coastal resort of Opatija. The guest experience here is wonderful. We have designed a joyful geometric floor covering with an energy that feels entirely complimentary to an otherwise very calm room. At night, you fall asleep to the sounds of gentle waves lapping the rocks below. The next phase at Camellia will be a wellness space over two floors which we can’t wait to get started on. Meanwhile, in London, we have a wonderful residential project in the heart of a new city centre development and I am also dipping into the world of cruise-liner design for the first time, thanks to a very exciting collaboration.

The best projects are those where there is synergy and things happen!

INSPIRATIONIST: Do you have a favourite amongst all your projects? 

C.T.: I like maintaining momentum and working fast. The best projects are those where there is synergy and things happen!

INSPIRATIONIST: What are your visions for the future? 

C.T.: Given my wander lust, I would of course like projects in new locations, as well as opportunities to work on ground-breaking concepts. Last year, we were offered the fascinating challenge of designing a guestroom that expressed London’s Natural History Museum brand and I would very much like to work on more brand collaborations such as this. Whatever and wherever the project, however, it is clear that it is evermore important to design responsibly and act as custodians of Earth’s precious resources. My last, but not least, vision is to create more places where people can connect with one another and with themselves.

My last, but not least, vision is to create more places where people can connect with one another and with themselves.

INSPIRATIONIST: How do you unwind?

C.T.: Music is a big part of my everyday life. I also read as much as I can. My favourite weekend decompression is devouring the Sunday papers. In fact, I could easily spend the entire day without doing much else, but my family has other ideas and thankfully they usually succeed in getting me out and about. 

INSPIRATIONIST: What kind of music are you listening to at the moment?

C.T.: Anyone who has stayed in our house, knows that the kitchen radio is permanently tuned to Classic FM. It goes on first thing in the morning with the coffee maker and stays on until the lights are switched off at night. 

Most of the time, I am on the go however, and I rely heavily on a good pair of earphones that keep me connected to my playlists. I am happily addicted to music and outside my kitchen, my music is more varied. I am into synth pop, electronica and experimental. On heavy rotation this month, you will find John Maus, a small Swedish band called Amason, and the Russian artist Amnfx. Happily, I have a small group of like-minded friends and we ping pong tunes to each other, new tracks or just something that struck a chord.

INSPIRATIONIST: What is your favourite colour?

C.T.: Colour in design is a great tool. It can perk up a quiet scheme and add energy and vibrance. I like wearing colour too, not just working with it. This week, I have opted for forest green, and that’s just for my manicure!

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