Hotel Designer Tony Chi

Eric Laignel

The top hotel designer’s projects, from Shanghai to Geneva.

A hotel designed by Tony Chi might have a housekeeping closet in each room, so there are no carts trundling down the hallways. But it may not have a reception desk, so that guests can be greeted personally by hotel staff. And most of all, a Tony Chi hotel will have a calmness that conceals its inner workings. Chi, who moved from Taiwan to New York when he was six, grew up in a tough section of the Lower East Side. During his teen years, his chief artistic pursuit was drawing hot rods. He then went on to study interior design, becoming an expert at showcasing everything that’s beautiful and hiding everything that isn’t. He’s a control freak—a phrase he embraces—so guests don’t have to be.

Chi works for a range of hoteliers—current projects include a Ritz-Carlton in Singapore; a Mandarin Oriental in Guangzhou, China; an InterContinental in Geneva; and a Park Hyatt in Moscow—but he is effectively creating his own brand (call it Tony Chi Hotels), which is beginning to attract discriminating travelers.

No matter that many of those travelers have never heard of him. In fact, Chi is happy to avoid publicity, in part because he is determined to keep his firm at its current size of 50 people. Leading a tour through his office, he stops to examine mock-ups of lighting, furniture, ceramics and wall and floor treatments, almost all of them in the neutral tones that allow his interiors to glisten without being glitzy. In a Chi hotel, rich materials—wood, metal, stone, glass—are layered into gorgeous compositions that reward second and third looks. “Even if you’re only staying for 24 hours,” Chi says, “you should be able to develop a relationship with your room.

John Wallis, Hyatt’s global head of marketing, recalls that the company first asked Chi to design a restaurant, then a spa, then a hotel renovation and, finally, the Park Hyatt in Shanghai. There, one of Chi’s triumphs is the entrance sequence: Visitors escape from the chaotic city into a series of perfectly proportioned chambers, feeling elevated even before they reach the elevators. Upstairs, the dazzling interiors compete with the views for attention. William Pedersen, the New York architect who designed the Shanghai World Financial Center, of which the Park Hyatt occupies the 79th to 93rd floors, was blown away by how the serenity and elegance of Chi’s hotel complement the building design.

“He pushed the envelope each time,” Wallis says. And if Chi’s work is expensive, Wallis says, it’s okay, because it is high-quality and will last. “Some of his peers,” he adds, “when they push the envelope, you’re going to have to redo it in five.”

While Chi was studying at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology in the ’70s, he got a start in restaurant design; soon he was creating showplaces for chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Alain Ducasse and Michael Mina. After the stock-market crash of 1987, which made it hard to find work in New York, Chi began focusing on his native Asia. One of his first hotel jobs was designing restaurants at the Mandarin Oriental Jakarta. It was more than a decade later that he was tapped to do the Park Hyatt. Like many new hotels these days, it is part of a skyscraper that also houses offices, condos and a shopping center. “Because the real estate is so valuable, we can’t have our own building,” Chi says, “so we learn to cope with it.”

Chi and his wife, Tammy Chou, vice president of project development at TonyChi and Associates, live in New York, but Chi spends as many as 200 nights a year in hotels. During one recent trip to Washington, D.C., he couldn’t get a room at the Park Hyatt and had to stay at a competing hotel, which felt “a little stiff. His hotels are informal and never “confrontational”—the word Chi uses to describe the work of some competitors. “I like fur throws and pillows, but I wouldn’t use them in a hotel,” he says. “You can’t please some and offend others.”

When they aren’t working, Chi and Chou spend as much time as they can in their getaway apartment in Buenos Aires, next door to that city’s Park Hyatt (which, by an exclusive arrangement, enables them to call room service). Chi began renovating the apartment by turning its seven smallish bedrooms into just three master suites, one for himself and his wife, the others for his two grown children, Alison and Andrew. The bedrooms could be in hotels, except, he jokes, that they don’t have minibars.

As for the main room, he describes it as a hotel lobby: a place for eating and drinking and working on laptops. The decor also includes bright woven rugs. “I don’t usually use a lot of color,” he says, “but in South America I’m a little more courageous.”

Chi still has new heights to scale. He’s particularly excited about the Andaz in Tokyo, where he is plunging into the world of traditional Japanese crafts. For the Grand Hyatt Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi, he is planning a restaurant in the midst of a vegetable garden. Knowing Chi, he’ll choose the seeds and redesign the hoes. But for all their successes, Chi and Chou maintain an essential modesty. “We’re immigrants,” says Chou, “and we both keep striving. What Tony has achieved is a beginning.

Around the World with Tony Chi

“In another life, I’d be a hotel manager,” says Chi. “I’d love living and working without ever leaving the building.” In this life, he can almost manage that feat, thanks to the mini-chain of Chi-designed hotels, each small enough (generally about 200 rooms) to feel intimate, but spacious enough to make a long-term stay a voyage of discovery.

Geneva: At the InterContinental, Chi’s parchment-covered reception desk incorporates The Recumbent Eight, a wooden sculpture by South Korean artist Lee Jae-Hyo.

Washington, D.C.: The Park Hyatt’s Blue Duck Tavern recalls an early-American kitchen with 21st-century comforts; the millwork is white oak and the counter, Arabescato marble.

Shanghai: Shagreen for the walls and antique walnut underfoot soften the edges of the skyscraping Park Hyatt.

Bangkok: One of his two Bangkok hotels, the Grand Hyatt Erawan features cottage bedrooms with cane headboards and ceramic-tile floors.Traces of old-world grandeur will inform Chi’s sleek designs when his renovation of Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow is complete.

Moscow: Traces of old-world grandeur will inform Chi’s sleek designs when his renovation of Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow is complete.