J Lee Rofkind is the Regional Leader of Hospitality at HOK Group in the Asia Pacific region. Based in Hong Kong and having worked in various companies, the designer now has 30 years of experience in hotel design, architecture, interior design, art, lighting, and landscape design.
Best Interior Designers had the chance to meet the designer and today we’ll tell you all about this exclusive interview!
How did you get involved in the interior design industry?
I studied fine art my first two years at university and then fell in love with the three-dimensional problem-solving aspect of architecture. I practiced architecture up and down the East Coast of the USA before joining WATG in Honolulu. There I worked on concepts for resorts, which led to me being a Design Director for Hyatt International in Hong Kong. At Hyatt, I worked with amazing interior designers including Tony Chi, Julia Monk from BBGM (later bought by HOK), and many others all around Asia. Eventually, I formed my own company, BUZ Design, and just before COVID hit, Julia Monk asked if I wanted to replace her at HOK. HOK is a global company and we are able to work on a wide variety of projects.
I have and am still leading a very lucky life, with one opportunity after another coming my way. My unexpected career journey has covered hospitality in three key areas of design: architecture, interior design, and hotel operations, all of which contribute to the success of my current work.
How would you describe your work style? Do you have any kind of signatures that help to identify your projects?
Each project has a unique solution. Generally, my style is more architectural and modern. If the project requires more historic detailing (such as the Ritz Carlton Montreal), I can work with that too but it may contrast with contemporary furnishings. I am very detail orientated and love to use a great deal of art and a variety of textures.
I am a bit of a control freak. If given the chance, I would not only design the interior finishes and furnishings but also direct the lighting, signage, staff uniforms, landscape, and guide the architecture.
Being in love with our work is always the key to achieving better results. Are you in love with this job? What do you love most about being an interior designer?
I love problem-solving. Putting all the pieces of a design together to create a successful design is like solving a very complex puzzle.
I also love working and learning from a wide variety of talented people, including my own design team and all the professionals we get to work with: developers, hotel operators, chefs, lighting designers, etc.
What is your philosophy on design and life?
1. Never stop learning.
2. Never work for free, if a client does not place value on your time then you do not want him/her as a client.
3. Do not let economic crises bring you down. I’ve survived many and my only regret is not taking advantage of the downtime to explore more of the world.
Keeping up to date on all the trends is essential for anyone who wants to conquer this market. In what ways do you keep current with new trends?
I think we are all inundated with design on media: e-mails, magazines, Pinterest – it’s sorting out the noise and sticking to ideas that are true to your soul.
Which major international events do you attend/follow to get the latest novelties?
I’ve tried to go to the Milan Design Week for the last two years without any luck. I’ve attended Maison Objet in Paris several times and for resort/handcrafts inspiration I’ve visited the Manila Fame Fair, that’s closer to home, a few times. I love rummaging local shops wherever I travel including markets/shops in London, Bangkok, Mumbai, and Shanghai. There is inspiration everywhere in this world!
How would you describe your personal decorating style?
All artists need some inspiration to work, and interior designers are artists too. So, what or who really inspires you?
Zaha Hadid still inspires me, she was an incredibly strong woman in a man’s profession. Not that I could create her style of design but I am in awe of her unique vision, strength, and consistency in design. Her designs were ridiculed as unbuildable when she first started out, but she always found a way to get them built, inspiring other major architects to create organic luxurious designs such as Frank Gehry. I wish she was still with us to see what she would create next.
Inspiration is something that pushes everyone to create unique things. What makes you see the world in a different way?
Traveling inspires me – I love to explore new parts of the world, not just the famous buildings and cities, but the back alleys and small villages. They all bring new ideas to my projects.
If you had to pick one project around the world that you wish was made by you, which one would it be?
Offhand, the first building I can think of is the Eiffel Tower – it is a beautiful symbol of a beautiful city and it always makes people happy.
How important is a perfect chemistry between you and your clients to achieve the best results?
Honestly, no chemistry is ever perfect (it’s like a marriage) but you learn to pick your battles and listen and learn from your clients. The best measure of your success is when they ask you back to design the next project.
Choosing the best pieces to compose a project can be the secret to getting the best overall result. Although it seems easy, this is a delicate task and needs full attention on time to execute. Do you have some tips for those who do not know well how to start a challenge like this?
Study the work of other designers, see how they compose their designs, seek a mentor whose work you admire – then develop your own vision.
Do you think working with teams in interior design is better or worse than working alone? Why?
The work we do is very complicated and with endless details – I could never design a hotel or even a restaurant by myself. It requires a variety of skills and knowledge. I can guide the big picture but we need extra eyes and ideas to implement our designs. Feedback from other designers also gives depth to the design – and ideas I may not have considered.
Is there anything exciting that you are working on at the moment that you can tell us about?
Our St.Regis Belgrade Hotel and Residences will be stunning and a unique look for St. Regis. It is part of a million square meter waterfront development on the Sava River that will be a new city hub for Belgrade. Belgrade is an ancient city with layers of history, culture, and traditions. We used elements of their traditions; old and new to inspire our design: intricately woven textiles, ornate metalwork, and contemporary art by Serbian artists. The hotel is scheduled to open 3rd quarter next year – can’t wait!
What has been your greatest accomplishment as a designer? What goals do you have for the future?
I cannot pick one project over another, each one represents a great deal of thought, creativity, and effort.
It’s like asking a mother to pick her favorite child. Where I am now is a great accomplishment. I’ve worked on projects around the world, survived quite a few economic crises, built a business that lasted nearly 20 years and now I am leading the hospitality design for one of the top design firms in the world.
As for goals, there are many places in the world I would still like to explore and work in. India is top of the list as it has such incredible craftsmanship for stone, metalwork, fabrics – anything can be built in India. HOK has also set a goal for all of our projects from 2020 on to be carbon neutral – we have been practicing sustainable design since the early ’90s, in architecture and workplace interiors – I would like to create a 5 star, fully carbon-neutral hotel or resort interior in Asia.
Do you have a favorite project or a favorite story about one of your projects?
Many years ago, I worked with the Oberois on the concept for a new hotel in Mumbai. PRS Oberoi insisted that we visited their hotels to fully understand the Oberoi vision. We started out at The Oberoi in New Delhi, took a train to Agra, stayed at the Oberoi Amarvilas, and toured the Taj Mahal. From there we took a limo to the Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur and the Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Finally, we flew to Mumbai to discuss their new project. Each hotel was richly designed and beautifully detailed representing the unique region where it was located. We also went to each town and visited palaces, forts, art galleries, museums, craftsmen, and suppliers. Our hotel project never went forward but the experience of traveling throughout India, the rich visual impact of that country, and each unique region left a lasting impression on me.
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