Hilton Hotel Heathrow Airport, UK

March 17, 2022

The Hilton at Heathrow Airport received a redesign by interior design consultants Hirsch Bedner Associates in 2021. Matteo Pace, Associate at HBA, discusses its design approach with darc to tell us about their design approach to the public spaces.

The concept for the redesign of The Hilton at Heathrow Airport is centred around connecting guests to the great British landscape with a “view from above”, inspired by the sights captured when flying in and out of the airport. 

Building on the existing architecture, HBA’s new design included a full refurbishment of the ground floor entrance lobby, café, bar, and restaurant. “We started the project in November 2019, and completed it at the beginning of April 2021,” Pace tells darc. “The initial briefing was to create a synergy between the landscape, and the view from above. This concept was the starting point and direction that Hilton wanted us to go towards.

“The brief was very clear from the beginning and well received by our team, so we didn’t face any major challenges when developing this project. We were brought in to enhance their preliminary ideas and bring our expertise to the fore,” he explains. 

Elektra Lighting was appointed to work on the project by the hotel as lighting consultants to aid the design teams with the overall scheme. “The hotel appointed Elektra as we had worked on many projects for them before, we were fully familiar with the brand’s standards and had a wealth of experience in independent restaurants,” says Neil Knowles, Director of Elektra. “This experience was very important as T4 was one of the first sites for the new Hilton F+B concept, Oxbo, so the lighting was to some extent left open to interpretation.” 

Pace continues: “Each of the spaces reflect a different element from above, whether it be breaking through the clouds to see the greenery of the trees with soft lighting in the countryside to reaching the city, which is reflected with distinct and dynamic lighting features. The lobby evokes the city/urban perspective with street-styled lighting. Giant pendant lights hang down as though they are directing the flight path, acting like large signage for a plane. The middle area is the bar and café space, which demonstrates the rural view from above. Softer tones and lighting are placed with intimate moments such as by the chef’s table. Finally, the restaurant reflects the sort of hidden places that one can’t quite make out from above and so the aesthetic is darker and cosier. The lighting gives an added layer to create a moody kind of ambience.

“Finding a balance between natural and artificial light is an element that one can tend to overlook. The Hilton space is vast and so the natural light can have a big impact on the colours. They look most vibrant when the sun sets and the lighting is adjusted to set the mood. Understanding the benefit of natural light in conjunction with artificial light with design is crucial when planning a space,” he adds. 

Pace believes that lighting was a key item when it came to the final design, and that the team had to explore ways of manipulating it sculpturally as well as in a soft, decorative way. Being able to create moments of cosiness and intimacy in the vast open space of the airport terminal was just as important as creating eye-catching centrepieces. 

“From a lighting point, the space represented a challenge,” reflects Knowles. “The main reception, bar and restaurant are all located in a five-level atrium, a huge open space that was also painted entirely white. This does not make it easy to create an intimate atmosphere and from the start, we were focused on this.

“Lighting in the bar is largely built into low level items – all the planters have at least three light sources (uplights to trees, linear under plinths, linear around plant beds to make plants glow). The bar is lit in every shelf both front and back bar, as are the kitchen servery units.

“In addition, free standing steel frame elements have tiny little spotlights built in (the size of a small lipstick) to add accenting and focal points. These are used both for servery display areas and to add spots to table tops in the restaurant area.

“The floor finishes were retained in some areas and we wanted uplights to many of the decorative screens that separate areas. So these were designed to have small plinths detailed in, and these plinths include small floor recessed uplights.

“The interior design required a lot of decorative lighting to create focal points in the space and these tended to be oversized pendants, creating artificial ceilings.

“Lighting is, of course, all on a modern dimming system with multiple scenes set over the day to accommodate the varying needs and uses of the space.”

Pace explains the importance of working with a lighting specialist on projects, and how flexibility is key to the success of a collaboration, particularly as HBA work on highly bespoke projects. “We work with lighting designers all the time, and for this particular project, we worked with Elektra Lighting. Working with lighting specialists is a highly important part of the job. Lighting designers tend to follow the brief and nothing really changes once we’ve discussed the items required in a highly detailed fashion. You also have to find the right manufacturer that can produce specialised elements with quick turnaround time and luckily we know some excellent people in the industry.”

Nearly all of the decorative lighting pieces were made bespoke for HBA, with Imagin Lighting providing a large proportion of pieces. Penta Lighting created fixed lamps for the balustrades in the restaurant and Flos supplied the unique lamps and wall lights. 

“The areas were divided up based on different perspectives of the ‘view from above’,” says Pace. “One perspective is from the standpoint of the plane landing, so this impacts the surroundings and therefore the lighting. Part of the design process included designing lighting to create unexpected vignettes.

“The lighting is part of the architecture. It became part of the interiors as a structure and an integration of the elements and joinery.”

Despite not facing any initial challenges when designing the brief at the beginning, unfortunately the team struck obstacles when it came to the installation, which coincided with the global pandemic. Pace elaborates further: “The original brief didn’t change over time, however, the project was underway during the Covid-19 pandemic and so this did pose challenges. Design teams were ever-changing and so trying to connect our ideas with teams that didn’t stay the same throughout the process was at times difficult. 

“Given time restraints, we had to be fast when working out elements such as weight within the architecture. Co-ordination and adjustments were key. Another major issue was the ceiling height, as this created issues such as hanging statement chandeliers and feature pendants from significantly high reaches.

“Despite all of this, we managed to orchestrate the principal ideas without affecting the final design.”

Upon reflection of the final design, despite the challenges it brought with it, Pace was very pleased with the outcome. “We were very happy with the final result. An airport hotel is completely different to typical hospitality structures. We have been able to create something that is quite ambitious. I think that with the considerations that went into the space and lighting, we have created an elegant and atmospheric space.

“We never produce the same projects; we don’t do roll outs of projects. Each development is always very different, which of course brings varying challenges. I really enjoyed working on this brief as it isn’t something you see every day and had a very clear concept.”