The big interview: Karen Hay, founder and creative director, INdulge Design

by | 13 May 2022 | Design

Karen Hay – Founder & Creative Director at INdulge Design

INdulge Design’s founder and creative director, Karen Hay, talks to TOPHOTELPROJECTS about her journey in hospitality design.

The Hong Kong based interior design studio, INdulge Design, takes pride in coming up with unique concepts and original solutions to luxury international hotel and entertainment environments throughout the Asia Pacific region. Founder and creative director of the firm, Karen Hay, draws on 25 years of experience in the design industry, during which time she spent several years working in theatre design before placing her focus firmly on high-end interiors in hospitality.

What does your role at the company involve?

Good design is like a well-orchestrated opera. I would say I am the maestro; I know what the audience wants to hear and what the music needs to portray, and then I conduct a team of very talented individuals to give their best performance.

Each member of the team has their strengths and weaknesses, but working as a whole allows us to get the best out of each person, and we balance the team according to the project requirements. I am more the visionary and storyteller. I know exactly how a design should look and function, then I have good technical people to make it happen.

I work directly with our clients to really understand their vision or help them to define it.

Could you tell us about your career to date?

After studying art and design and then interior design, I started my career working for a repertory theatre building stage sets. I learned a lot about lighting and effects, and capturing the audience. I then had an opportunity to move to Hong Kong, where I volunteered to work with a small design studio on a design competition, and if they won the competition, I would win myself a job.

We won the project and my interior design career kicked off with a focus on high-end retail interiors, including Lane Crawford, Harvey Nichols (then Saibu), Calvin Klein and Nike. I went on to do a few years of offices and commercial spaces until I was given a restaurant to design, and so began my love for hospitality design.

I spent 10 years working in Hong Kong then moved to Dubai in 2004. There I co-founded a company with a partner, which through the demand of our clients brought me back to Hong Kong in 2012. That partnership ran its course and in 2016 we went our separate ways and I established INdulge.

Over the years I have worked with larger groups and small studios, and I realised that I am better placed in smaller studios where we are very hands on with a few key projects and focused on every aspect and detail of that project. I therefore consciously choose to keep my studio boutique so I am hands on with every project.

What key hotel projects have you worked on down the years?

We have had the privilege of working with the most well-known and respected hotel operators and owners around the Middle East and Asia regions. Our list of prestigious clients extends to Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts, Sofitel and Fairmont Hotels, Hilton, Intercontinental, Langham, Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons and Hyatt.

Currently we are working with the Sofitel Metropole Hotel in Hanoi. Having redesigned Angelina bar and restaurant three years ago, we were invited back to take on the renovation of Le Beaulieu French restaurant. We are also working on a new-build Avani hotel in Kota Kinabalu for Minor Group.

What achievement are you most proud of in your career?

This is going to sound corny and not really to do with my career as such but being a working mum of two amazing boys, now young men, has been my biggest and most rewarding achievement. They have seen me work hard and grow professionally, and go through both good and challenging times. My career has taught them tenacity, diligence and a respect for working women. They are very creative and I have encouraged them to love what you do.

What’s been the biggest challenge in your career?

Moving to a completely new region and market, from Hong Kong to Dubai, required navigation and patience, and setting up my own company was a challenge.

How would you sum up your design philosophy?

Our design philosophy is captured in our combined company values; little indulgences, big expectations, simple kindness, high standards and memorable experiences.

Putting ourselves in the guest or user shoes dictates what we do and how we design. The purpose of why we are designing a space and being clear about the desired result, whether for the comfort of the guest or functionality of service in the back of house, is vital to achieving a successful outcome. We are not just creating beautiful interiors but enhancing the user experience.

We love the buzz of creating a concept that the client buys into, then delivering on that concept with authenticity, attention to detail and always a little bit of the unexpected thrown in for good measure. My theatre background and flair for story-telling is often evident in our projects.

What would your dream hotel look like?

Most definitely boutique, rural, earthy, bare foot, facing the ocean, surrounded in greenery, with extremely friendly staff and a great menu. Access to the local community and culture, with arts and crafts, is also a must.

Who do you admire most in the industry?

I would actually widen that to include any creative industry and say Jo Malone. I love her brand and truly admire her journey and story of how she created her brand and the risks she took. Doing what she loves most, she created her products from one soap and one hand cream into a globally famous brand. At the same time, she had a young family, beat cancer, then sold out to Estee Lauder, which she went on to regret so started all over again.

She gave me inspiration at exactly the time I needed it most. I was sitting on an Emirates flight to Hong Kong, having just finalised the paperwork to sell my shares as a partner in my previous company. I tuned into the in-flight channel and listened to a podcast interview with Jo Malone. I was so inspired that by the end of the flight that I walked off a different person. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and that was to start my own company focusing on luxury hospitality design. I went on to launch INdulge.

What’s your advice to up-and-coming talent looking to make a name for themselves?

Be true to yourself and do what you enjoy doing. Don’t do something simply to make a name for yourself. I truly believe if you have talent and tenacity and you are willing to work hard that success will come.

What are your main hobbies outside work?

I love ceramic art and spend every Saturday in a small studio near my home creating my own art. I love the hands-on craft and the magic of opening the kiln on a glaze fire and revealing the unpredictable results. It is also my quiet space in the week which has become my own form of meditation, which I believe we all need. I also love keeping fit, and have recently taken up sailing which is fast becoming a new passion. I feel very lucky to live in a city that I have loved for many years. I live with the sea in front of me and the mountains at my back.

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