From Ace Hotel, a New City and a New Brand

A rendering of the Ace Hotel in Kyoto.

Making hotel lobbies socially magnetic and in-house restaurants and bars urban destinations has become the blueprint for a lot of boutique hotels. Arguably, Ace Hotel, the small hotel company founded in Seattle in 1999 by a trio of musically focused entrepreneurs, perfected that design. Its nine hotels — including locations in Chicago, London, Los Angeles and New Orleans — aim to distill the creative vibe of each city by hosting events featuring local musicians, artists, writers and filmmakers.

This fall, the company plans a relatively restrained spinoff hotel in New York called Sister City and next year it will open an Ace in Kyoto, Japan designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma on former imperial palace grounds. Kelly Sawdon, a partner and the chief brand officer for Ace Hotel, has been with the group from the beginning. The following are excerpts from an interview with Ms. Sawdon on the direction of Ace.

How will Sister City be different than Ace?

Ace is about taking the city and the culture and bringing it within our walls. Sister City is a place that’s still encouraging people to go out and explore these cities, but it’s about having a place to come back to that’s quiet and calming. It allows the guests to engage with the community as they please and not be participating in it when they come back to their hotel.

Why Kyoto for your second international hotel?

Kyoto is the cultural center of Japan. It’s a place that a lot of people found inspiration and creative evolution from David Bowie to Yoko Ono and the Talking Heads. It’s always been one of those places that people go to and really find a different point of view or a different way to evolve their craft. For one, it’s just a beautiful creative city. And two, there’s just a lot happening there. Historically there’s a lot of crafts and arts and music coming out of Kyoto. I’m sure everyone expected us to go into Tokyo and for us it was, why not start with Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan?

This is your first project with a well-known architect. Why did you choose Kengo Kuma?

He’s a kindred spirit in that he’s very thoughtful and his approach to architecture is in line with our point of view. Our point of view is about creating spaces that feel handcrafted, that really feel like the city that they’re in. Going into that country we want to still be ourselves but embrace Japanese culture. Kuma-san’s attention to detail and the way he uses a lot of natural materials and really celebrates those materials we feel is similar to our design approach.

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Credit...Lindsay Byrnes

Ace started scrappy and now will have a star-chitect in the portfolio. What philosophy do the hotels share?

The original philosophy is friends taking care of friends and how do we create a space for them. Every hotel we look at with a fresh lens. We look at the history of the city and find things that inspire us and people we can collaborate with. There’s no set formula. It all varies but the through line is focusing on making this hotel feel authentic in the city that it’s in and working with people there that are craftsmen or furniture makers or designers and engaging that creative community within each city so that spirit and that energy of that city authentically comes through.

People are more mobile today and travel is growing. What role will hotels play in the lives of future travelers?

Technology is really allowing people to be their own concierge or curator and people are looking for experiences more than ever these days. Hotels are ways to create those experiences and a way to encourage travel, to encourage people to come and understand the city and the culture of that community.

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