“Good hotel design is when a guest is taken on a journey and is able to experience a deeper level of emotion,” muses Leonard Lee. The Regional Creative Officer for Wilson Associates, a US-founded architectural firm with its largest global office in Singapore, Lee started with the company 17 years ago as an entry-level designer. Today, he oversees everything from the schematics in the initial stages of a project to the final product, and what he calls its spirit: “Every property has to have a soul.”
A self-professed dreamer, Lee gleans his inspiration from the minutiae of everyday life. “It could be an article I read, something I see online or just an idea that comes into my head during the day,” the 44-year-old tells me over lunch at Bread Street Kitchen, the Gordon Ramsay restaurant in Singapore whose décor was dreamt up by his firm. Clearly, design is an ethos that extends to his personal grooming, as evidenced by his immaculate jacket, perfectly fitted white shirt and crisply ironed pocket square.
Lee sees the region as a hotbed of ideas – “Asia Pacific really is at the forefront of design” – and revels in his work, even when he’s out of the office. “I can’t switch my mind off. At the beginning my wife would complain when we were in restaurants and my eyes would wander around the interiors. I’m too curious.”
Here, we chat with him about his work, his travels and his fantasy job.
What is your team working on at the moment?
We have quite a few exciting and innovative hotel projects at the moment. These include the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur, Ritz-Carlton Saigon and Autograph Tokyo.
What do you look for in a good hotel?
The Park Hyatt Shanghai by Tony Chi is an example of amazing design. Shanghai is bustling, but the hotel is so serene. It’s not loud; instead, you get a sense of an understated calmness when you enter.
Aman resorts are also architecturally driven. Plus, they are usually in far-flung locations, so getting to one is an exciting journey.
Above all, however, the most important attribute for a successful hotel is definitely the service. The hotel might be backed by a celebrity designer and have the best facilities, but if the service is sub-par, then nothing else matters. It could manifest itself as a small gesture, like a barman spontaneously pouring you a glass of Islay whisky after you return from a long day of meetings. Hotel operators should look at empowering their employees to make such decisions, not merely follow the employee handbook.
What’s the best hotel you’ve stayed in, and why?
I was extremely lucky to get the opportunity to stay at North Island in the Seychelles. It’s a private island with only 11 villas, set in a natural environment with powdery-soft sand and crystal-clear turquoise waters. The service is exceptional; the food is farm-to-table and prepared based on guest-specified preferences. Each villa is also assigned its own buggy that you can take anywhere on the island.
What are some of your favourite travel destinations?
My wife and I love London – its heritage, its buildings, its food and its people. Many of our holidays are driven by food and a love of the outdoors. I always feel in awe of Mother Nature.
The most memorable destination for me is probably Sabi Sabi in Kruger National Park. As the actor Will Smith put it [while shooting the film Ali in Africa], “it feels like God visits everywhere else but lives in Africa.”
What would be your dream project?
I’d like to do something in Europe, because it has always been my dream to restore an old house. I’d combine elements of the old and the new: some things you should respect, but there are also reasons a place should be given a new lease of life, because people want transformation.