we want your job

We Want Your Job: Hotel Design Manager

by Amy Azzarito

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Earlier this week, we peeked into the Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin. I was so blown away by the design of the hotel, that I thought it would be fun to pull back the curtain look at the nuts and bolts behind it. Hotel Saint Cecilia is part of the Bunkhouse Group, a hotel management company founded in 1998 in Austin, Texas and responsible for some of the area’s coolest hotels (and I’m not throwing that word around lightly). There’s the Victorian Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin, the Hotel San Jose, also in Austin,  and, the hotel that’s on top of my personal wish list, El Cosmico in Marfa (trailer or teepee? I can’t decide). Anyway, so how on earth do you get to be involved in designing a space like this? We asked Bunkhouse Group’s Design Manager Tenaya Hills for the 411 on how she landed her job. (Follow Tenaya on instagram here.) –Amy

Design*Sponge: What did you want to be when you grew up? Tenaya: When I was in high school, I made a list of five careers I wanted to have over the course of my life. At the time I was really inspired by all of the women writers in the early days of Jane Magazine, so naturally I wanted to be a magazine editor. Next on the list was to own an architectural salvage business, and next was to run a company from a cool brick warehouse in San Francisco. I am not particularly sure what we would have manufactured, I just wanted to be in charge and run a fun, cool company with yoga breaks during the day. The other thing was a photographer, which I did. I don’t remember the last thing on the list. I’ll have to dig it out of whatever box it’s in in my parents’ basement one day.

Image above: The Hotel San Jose in Austin

Design*Sponge: What did you study in college?
Tenaya: I studied photography, but ended up with a history degree. Then I headed to Austin for grad school at the University of Texas School of Architecture, which is actually how I ended up in my job. I have an M.S. in historic preservation – I love architecture, and older buildings especially, which is why working for Bunkhouse appealed to me. Three of our four hotels are in old buildings. The Hotel San Jose in Austin was a 1930s motor court hotel, part of the Hotel St. Cecilia is an 1890s Victorian manse and the Hotel Havana in San Antonio is a 27 room former residence hotel built in 1914. Our other properties are El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas, a 16-acre desert property with tepees, safari tents, a yurt and restored trailers from the ’50s and ’60s, and Jo’s Coffee, in Austin.

Image above: El Cosmico in Marfa

More about how to be a Hotel Design Manager after the jump!

Design*Sponge: What’s the best part of your job?

Tenaya: The best part of my job is taking a great design idea and making it happen. It’s very satisfying to navigate the paths and challenges of the creative process on a project and deliver the final product. I love coming to work every day because it’s always different, always creative and of course, because of the people I work with. Liz (Lambert) is the creative force at Bunkhouse, so by proxy I get to be involved in the fun stuff we do, whether it’s working directly with her and the rest of the team on concepting a new hotel, developing custom products and furniture (we develop custom products for each hotel – textiles, robes, candles, etc.) or construction projects at the properties. Whatever the project is, Liz always brings together a collection of talented local architects, artists, craftspeople, musicians and writers, and working with them is always inspiring.

Image above: Bolivian Blankets from El Cosmico Provision Company

Design*Sponge: Can you describe a typical day?

Tenaya: It’s a mix between my responsibilities at Bunkhouse and the properties. I keep a list of daily tasks, so the first thing I do is check that – sometimes, it’s simple things like talking to an upholsterer about a custom headboard project or checking in on the status of a construction project. Our most recent project was replacing some existing gates and adding a 50′ cedar arbor near the pool at St. Cecilia, so there was coordination there between our architects, Lake Flato, with Design & Direct Source for the tile and with the the metal artisan, Lars Stanley, for the hand-forged metal gates. It turned out really well! Usually, there are a few meetings – with my bosses, with the properties to discuss any design questions or needs, with furniture or textile reps or our design consultation clients. I also oversaw our retail program for the last couple of years, so our new Buyer and I meet regularly to discuss the program and our online stores. There’s also a fair amount of sourcing furniture or textiles for the properties. I generally make an edited selection from Liz to choose from. I’ve been working for her for about six years now, so I have a good handle on what her aesthetic is (most of the time!).

Image above: Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin

Design*Sponge: What have you learned about life from your as a job as the Design Manager of a hospitality company?

Tenaya: I think when approaching a project, design or otherwise, it’s best to take the approach of looking at the big picture first, and then figuring out how reality comes into play. If out of the gates, you come from a place of thinking about limitations – ie, what’s easiest, most convenient, or conforms to budget, you’re doing a disservice for yourself from the get-go. It’s best to start big and scale down with a reality check from there. I think there is always a way to do something strong and creative within your scope of budget, time and resources. Liz is a visionary: she inspires us with her big ideas, and it’s our job to bring those to life. She is also a smart and successful businesswoman, so it all has to make sense financially and realistically, too. Naturally, I’ve also learned a lot about project management, budgets and time management.

Design*Sponge: What advice would you give someone who would love to design hotels? How should they get started? What should they study in school or learn about on their own?

Tenaya: Our field is pretty unique. Of course, if one wants to get into hotel design for a large hotel company, they could study architecture or interior design and then get an internship in the design department for an architecture firm or hotel management company. Otherwise, I think it’s about finding the companies you admire and trying to get your foot in the door in some creative way, which is what I set out to do after I met Liz for the first time. I called her up after she spoke to a class I was taking and asked for a job!

Image above: Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin

Design*Sponge: Do you know other hotel designers? Do you think there are common characteristics amongst you all?

Tenaya: There are other designers who I admire, whether for the actual design of the hotels, or their success in creating iconic hotels. I really appreciate Sean McPherson. All of his hotels are just so right-on. I don’t think it’s as much about being a hotel designer as it is just being a good designer and one who knows how to create the experience. It’s not just a hotel room and common spaces, it’s the staff, the music, the smells, the food, the coffee, the activation, the culture, etc. I would say the common characteristic of the hotel designers I like are that they infuse some sort of authenticity and soul into their projects. They are not trendy, too cute, flashy or insincere, yet all create some sort of fantasy and escape, whether it’s in the form of opulence, or the minimalism and de-cluttering that is not so easily achieved in your real life.

Design*Sponge: What else would you love to do in this field?

Tenaya: The idea of appreciating beautiful design elements is important to me, whether in hotel design or design from broader perspective. One day, I still think it would be fun to do something in architectural salvage. And I want to move houses and figure out ways to reuse them. I’d also like to one day start or be involved with an organization that introduces girls to building, design and architecture. But I really like my job right now though, so I plan to continue to evolve with Bunkhouse.

Image above: The Hotel San Jose in Austin

What’s the holy grail in your field- what’s your Oscar?

Tenaya: You know, I think I will be happy so long as I am involved in creating interesting spaces and experiences for people, whatever form that may take. But maybe working with Wes Anderson on real hotel! Can you imagine?

Design*Sponge: How do you stay inspired? (And where do you get your ideas from?!)

Tenaya: For my own sense of design, travel, anywhere. Living in Texas is pretty inspiring, as is visiting California, which is where I am from. I love both places so much. I also do my fair share of reading design magazines, blogs, books and try to stay connected with people in the field. Otherwise, just being in a completely creative environment is inspiring. I work around some pretty incredible, passionate people.

Image above: El Cosmico in Marfa

Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on? Or one that you are most proud of?

Tenaya: When we bought the Hotel Havana in San Antonio in 2010, we had 90 days and a limited budget to take an old building and existing hotel, upgrade it and make it our own. It was hard work, but very a very fun project. The hotel was built in 1914 and had an existing identity and story, so Liz wanted to expand on that and do a version of what you would see in a place that is stuck in the 1950s and unable to import new materials because of the embargo. This meant 1950s paint colors, vinyl-covered furniture, a patina on the walls and antiques, which the hotel was full of. And then we added the element we felt was missing that was more about San Antonio, its culture and people, in order to put the hotel into context. There is an overlap with Cuba and San Antonio – the saturated colors, the old world feel, the patina, the Latin culture. We wanted to infuse those elements and the hotel’s history with things like the imagery of Hemingway in Cuba, and that’s where our own touches came into play – old rugs, exposed light bulbs, red candles, vintage light fixtures, etc. In that 90 days, we did a full remodel on the building – reroofing, electrical and HVAC upgrades, new sinks and plumbing fixtures, refinishing the floors, repainting the interior and exterior trim, landscaping, upgrading life safety. We were redesigning the existing furniture in the hotel. We reused 80% of the furniture – sanded and restained or painted the wood, powder coated the iron bed frames, painted lamps, etc. I basically lived at the hotel for three months (okay, not in the hotel, it was pretty creepy when empty, but across the street). We sent it all to a warehouse, ferreted it out to various upholsterers or painters, sent it back to the warehouse and then brought it all back in during installation. I had things mostly organized, except for one thing – I didn’t put labels on any of the bedrails so we could easily match us which bedrail went to which antique headboard and footboard. There were 27 beds, so it was a like a puzzle, with very heavy metal pieces…Anyways, we did make it happen in 90 days. We might have been placing flowers in the rooms while the first guests were checking in, but we we made it happen.

Image above: Hotel Havana



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  • What a FABULOUS interview! Great questions, great answers. I’m about to open my own bed&bar up in the Catskills so I’m obviously a bit more interested in this than say, your average reader, but well done! You guys have really upped your game this year, just like you said you were aiming to.

  • This is the BEST interview! I LOVE knowing how all of these hotels came together since 2 of them are in my neighborhood. Tenaya’s answers were so detailed and interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  • Love this interview. This would be such an interesting line of work! I ive in San Antonio and am so lucky that all those places are close. Can’t wait for our trip to El Cosmico in September. :)

  • This is a great interview and it highlights a very unique company which is interesting to read about. I am professional hotel designer and I wanted to point out one thing which Tenaya touches on – regarding getting into the field of hotel design. Hotel designers typically do not work directly for a hotel management company or architecture firm. There are interior design firms that specifically focus on hotel design since it is a very specialized practice. If someone is interested in becoming a hotel designer I recommend majoring in Interior Design at an accredited school and pursuing a career with design firm that specializes in hospitality design. Most hotel operators do not have an in house design department so they hire outside firms.

    It sounds like Tanaya has a very special position it it was fun reading about such a unique company. Thanks for sharing!

  • What an awesome job! That is so inspiring! It makes me think of my sister, who’s currently getting her M.A. in historical preservation as well.


  • Hi. Can you please tell me where you sourced those super cool chairs with the green base and leather saddle seats in the photo of Hotel San Jose? Thanks !

  • Very nice post! Love this interview. This would be such an interesting line of work! I ive in San Antonio and am so lucky that all those places are close. Thanks for sharing!

  • Great interview, it’s good to hear the progression of time to how a person got to their present day life

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