Studio Gaia’s founder shares his strategies for creating a “kitchen table” work environment that encourages conversation, questions and risk-taking. Studio Gaia is not the place for anyone who wants to enter a “design monastery.” Founder Ilan Waisbrod talks—a lot—and he wants all of his eight employees to join that conversation, regardless of experience or seniority. He sees his role as mentoring rather than managing and drawing out each staff member’s creativity in a way that complements the firm’s signature style. While Waisbrod makes it clear that he is the filter for what works in terms of project concepts, he also makes sure everyone feels free to contribute. Since the 1995 launch of the New York-based architectural and interior design studio named for his oldest daughter, the Israeli-born Waisbrod and his collaborative team have expressed their new vision for hotels in projects as diverse as the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (where he first worked with one of his own mentors, Adam D. Tihany of Tihany Design), the renovation of the New York Palace Hotel and the sleekly modern W Mexico City.


BD: Let’s start by talking about the characteristics you look for in building your team —and why. 

Waisbrod: We hire based on the applicant’s workload, work samples and creativity. No previous experience [in hospitality] is required for a creative position, just creativity and enthusiasm. What I want to see is that the individual is not afraid of trying something new, of taking risks.

BD: What sends a resume to the bottom of the pile?

The ultimate turn-off is a resume with lots of writing and little creativity in the work.

BD: What do you look for in an applicant’s approach to design?

The guiding principle starts with function and audience. The designer has to understand social dynamics—how people interact in a space and how that space becomes an experience. He or she should be aware that travelers want a hotel that is intimate, comfortable, open and encourages togetherness. She or he should also know that our style is about using bright, vivid colors and making strong yet simple visual statements to elicit a reaction and an emotional exuberance. It’s definitely modern, but not at all minimalist.

BD: What skills have you found are typically missing in the tool kits of young designers?

Vision of the entire dream, communication, daring—as in not being afraid of any crazy direction and the ability to lead, not to follow. The most unrealistic element is the expectation [of young designers] that the client will say yes to all we do. That takes time, learning and listening.

BD: Once someone is on board, how do you integrate him or her into the team?

First, I want to point out that my priority has always been to assemble workers from around the world so that we get a wide variety of influences in our work. Our staff brings together people from Israel, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey, Korea, Brazil, India, Hong Kong, Mexico, Japan and Dominica, etc. Their unique viewpoints contribute to the diversity of what we do. I want a free flow of ideas, but I also want the end result to match my philosophy, my design style and the studio’s work style. The most important element for me is teaching—helping designers learn not only my style but my objectives.

BD: Do you have specific mentoring initiatives?

Not really. It’s a natural process with lots of discussions, review and decision-making. When I get a commission, I begin my process by thinking, not sketching. Once the idea takes shape, I’m ready for the drawing board. I give the employee a sketch, direction and a written story line. From there I let him or her struggle with himself/herself or with me. We talk and talk and talk. We also sketch out our ideas together. I give young staff members the opportunity to generate their own approach but I also guide them so that they understand everything that’s entailed in design decisions—the research, the innovation and the ability to do on-site problem resolution. With conversation and direction, we work through it until we all achieve perfection.

BD: How do you encourage staff to embrace their individuality but still be collaborative?

Both individuality and collaboration are welcome and needed. I decide on the project according to the style and personality of the individual. If a designer feels passed over, it’s time to move on.

BD: How will you evolve the way your studio works?

The next generation of my studio is about being small and concentrating on the most important and creative clients and projects. It is not about doing just another hotel; it’s about doing it so well that we reinvent ourselves every time. We are doing it now with the design of the new W Bogota—again, not following the trend but creating one. The goal is to say something new and fresh.


Click here to read the interview on Boutique Design.