The Wonder of Working with Light

Constantina Tsoutsikou manages the creative direction of HBA London’s hospitality interior design projects and began her career as a designer for Estée Lauder’s beauty brands. Australian-born and raised in Greece, she holds a BA (Hons) from the Technological Educational Institute in Athens, Greece, and an MA in the Built Environment, Interior Design, from University of the Arts London.

Since joining the studio twelve years ago, she has worked on award-winning projects around the globe. From luxury hotels to exclusive spas, her talents have been integral to the success of destinations such as the Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, which garnered widespread praise for its innovative approach in establishing a new benchmark for airport hotels.

In addition, Tsoutsikou’s passion for wellness has infused her concepts for esteemed luxury spas throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. From spaceplanning to meticulously designing the finest details, she has created nurturing environments at the Raffles Istanbul Zorlu Center; the ESPA Ritz-Carlton Macau and the ESPA at The Europe in Killarney, Ireland.

Currently, the studio is working on the design of the St. Regis Marrakech, Piramal Aranya luxury residences in Mumbai and the Waldorf Astoria Doha; the renovation of a celebrity restaurant in London’s Marylebone; and, in Croatia, the conversion of an historic bank in central Zagreb into a boutique hotel. In addition, the team has just completed The Orient Jerusalem by Isrotel Exclusive Collection.

Here, she talks darc through her experience of creating atmosphere with light…

The ability of light to inspire emotional reactions has always fascinated me. As an interior designer, it’s a vital part of my ‘toolkit’ that, like pattern and texture, brings richer dimensions to hospitality and residential spaces. Together with form and colour, illumination completes the essential framework of spatial design and is one of the first things I consider when imagining how an atmosphere will make people feel.

Understanding how to create the right mood is a high-tech team effort between lighting designers, architects, engineers, façade specialists and interior designers. A cooperative coordination of services and engineering leads to a stronger process for bringing a shared vision to life and results in a higher quality of design, operations and user experience. I feel fortunate to have worked on international projects with top-level partners, in settings where expertise is valued regardless of gender. Internally, HBA also has a culture where strong, creative women and men have equal opportunities to bring their talents to project teams.

Our London-based studio approaches interior design as a journey – a sequence of events, moods and atmospheres that flow seamlessly as guests move from one area to the next, and from the activity of the public spaces to the quieter calm of the guestrooms. Lighting effects always amplify the feelings we aim to instil. I like to use light to balance or accentuate special finishes and architectural lines, and focus it to create pathways that invite people to explore. When it comes to functional fixtures, my preference is to hide or disguise the sources whenever possible, and for large-scale decorative installations, to treat them as part of the overall ‘choreography’ that brings movement and rhythm to the ambience, as seen for example in the three-storey chandelier that hangs in the centre of the dramatic spiral staircase in the lobby of our recently completed project, The Orient Jerusalem by Isrotel Exclusive Collection.

With the ESPA at the Raffles Istanbul Zorlu Center, we found inspiration in the Bosphorous strait that weaves together the city’s Occidental and Oriental worlds, and used the concept of flowing water to connect various zones within the spa. One of the highlights is a long swimming pool within a soaring atrium framed by windows and a skylight. We designed a vast ‘floating’ light installation made from handblown iridescent glass discs and cubes hung at varying lengths from the ceiling. The sunrays that filter through create a sparkle and emphasise a sense of freedom and airiness, as if guests are swimming amongst the swirls of bubbles in flowing water currents.

Whenever I start a new project, my goal is to make the best use of any natural light available. You can never completely recreate the warmth, the sense of joy and the life that sunshine brings to a space, so I always try every possible avenue before completely blocking out daylight. In fact, prioritising this can inspire the direction for a space’s entire design concept. At The Orient, two exquisite 19th Century Templar houses were restored and reinvented as a collection of luxury guestrooms, with the addition of a modern, nine-storey building, which features an elegant rooftop pool and bar. For the subterranean guestrooms in the heritage buildings, we realised that the sunlight streaming through the tiny, black iron-framed windows at street level would create a ‘monastic’ feel that emphasises the history of this special place. This helped shape our decision to use a neutral, understated palette that lets the architectural form stand out and creates a sense of serenity.

Conventionally seen as a feminine trait, the concept of ‘wellness’ is increasingly accepted as beneficial for everyone, and is now an essential consideration when designing a space. Getting light levels right in hotel bedrooms is particularly important because it affects people’s circadian rhythms. Sleeping and waking at the right times is crucial to giving business travellers and holidaymakers – who may already be fighting jetlag – enjoyable experiences. Disturbing these patterns can have a profound effect on mood, productivity and health, and being able to wake up and start the morning in natural light helps people feel their best. We like to allow ambient natural light into the bathroom whenever possible, and then use artificial light for focused tasks. It’s important that lighting helps people feel good about themselves. For instance, at The Orient, sheers covering a large window next to a freestanding bathtub provides privacy and soft, flattering illumination for easing into the day.

In this hotel’s spa, we combined natural light with textures to create a tranquil atmosphere that feels modern yet connected to the ancient landscape. Picking up on the angularity of the rough-hewn lava stone feature wall next to the indoor pool is a sculptural skylight with crystalline facets, some glazed and others with golden metal cladding. The effect is a gentle, diffused quality of light that accentuates the irregular, staggered wall surfaces during the day, and at night, reveals the moon and twinkling stars. Dimmed illumination levels automatically slow down the body so it relaxes, a technique that works well in spas like this one, as well as in corridors where at night guests shift from high-energy public areas to quiet bedrooms, and during early mornings, transition into their busy lives.

The shape and style of decorative fixtures bring personality to a project, too. Examples of this can be seen in a project we’ve just completed, a Sales Pavilion for Piramal Aranya, a new, 62-storey prime residential development within a 60-acre historic botanical garden in the heart of Mumbai. In the three-bedroom show apartment, stylish statement pieces reflect the natural, organic feel of the lush tropical surroundings, as seen for instance with the brass floor lamp whose three large ‘leaves’ sparkle in the sunshine to create a dramatic flair. We also included the iconic Dornstab luminaire designed by J.T. Kalmar in 1947 to have a gracefully curved black ‘stem’ that allows its shade to be positioned at different heights.

In hotel settings where hundreds of accent lights are specified, we can often customise them to introduce a distinct, tailored look. While working on the Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol I had the pleasure of designing from scratch the small SL01 series of lamps carried by rewired.dk, the independent brand under the helm of Danish lighting maker Frandsen Project. The collaboration resulted from many hours of work, sketches, mock-ups and onsite installations we did for other fixtures in the hotel. We started with a few variations of existing designs in their portfolio and then one bespoke piece after another, which resulted in numerous unique installations throughout the 433-bedroom hotel.

My vision for the SL01 collection was to create a design that encourages contemplation, a lamp that works best in cosy spaces with a calm, silent ambience – perfect for the guestrooms in an airport hotel where people want to retreat from the commotion outside. The collection has a Nordic aesthetic with clean lines, good, sturdy craftsmanship, and even switched off, it emanates a quiet aura.

Of course, designing with light is also playing with shadows. On the one hand, they inform our brains about shape, distance, position, texture, and other physical and tactile qualities. And on the other, shadows are mysterious, organic, romantic, fascinating… they make us dream! I wove this idea into the design of the ESPA Ritz-Carlton Macau, particularly its dimly lit relaxation and reflexology lounges. Our aim was to convey the languid aura of a clandestine, old-world opium den, with theatrical shadows created by carefully concealed spotlights in the ceiling and the pagoda frames, which amplify the ethereal ambience. A Japanese author I admire, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, has inspired my appreciation for the power of shadows to create moody drama and atmosphere. In his book In Praise of Shadows he says: “If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.” The wonder of working with light and shadow is their power to paint a dynamic atmosphere that can completely transform according to factors such as the time of day, the weather conditions or the mood to be created. The only boundary is a designer’s imagination!

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