For someone who has been an integral part in the designing process of luxury hotels, all Clint Nagata wants is for guests to have a good time and build wonderful memories

To interior designer Clint Nagata, his work is not just about creating beautiful interiors, it’s also about helping to create beautiful moments for users of these spaces to look back on.

“What we do is really to help guests create their own memories… whether it’s a wonderful spa treatment room or rooms that are very romantic. It’s just very fun to create these spaces [which] really help as a stage setting for people to create memories,” says Nagata in an interview with Options.

The Japanese-American is the founder and creative partner of the award-winning luxury hospitality architecture and design firm Blink Design Group. The firm was established in 2006 by the Hawaiian native after he moved to Bangkok, Thailand, around 16 years ago.

Nagata himself comes with over 30 years of experience in the industry. Some of Blink Design Group’s works include Capella Singapore, Conrad Bora Bora Nui, the Four Seasons, Jimbaran Bay in Bali, Indonesia, Raffles Maldives Meradhoo Resort, and Six Senses Uluwatu in Bali.

More recently, the group has worked on the Roku Kyoto under the LXR hotels & resorts brand, the W Dubai — Mina Seyahi in the UAE and the Regent Phu Quoc in Vietnam.

To Nagata, the firm has always sought to create spaces that reflect the place where the hotel or resort is located, its spirit, as well as the spirit of the people. “We always make it a point to create spaces that resonate with our clients. So if you look at the group’s portfolio, although there is a thread or common novelty between the projects, the differentiators are three things are the place, the brand and the owner,” he says.

During his visit to Singapore in June, Nagata tells us more about what helps him remain inspired, his favourite cities to travel to, his most thoughtful work and more.

How did you get into designing for hospitality, and why hotels and resorts in particular?

When I was in Hawaii, my first and only job out of college was for a firm that is now known as WATG. WATG did hotels and resorts around the world, mostly architecture. That was [how I got into designing for hospitality] and from there, I started my own company.

During your years of designing, you never thought of branching out into other forms of design like buildings or offices?

No, I wanted to have the opportunity to travel and work around the world. So I decided to specialise in hotels and resorts.

So travelling is an interest of yours?

Yeah, I enjoy meeting new people and going to new places. Exploring and experiencing new culture, new food…

Do you have a favourite place that you’ve been to so far?

I like going to Europe because there’s so much history in places. I [also] like Asia, because [there are] a lot of places that I have not discovered and [I want to] be able to go and see places that are different and [taste] amazing food, obviously.

You have been living in Bangkok for the past 15-16 years, and you moved from Hawaii. Why did you make the move, and what is it about Bangkok that appealed to you in particular?

When I left Hawaii, I knew I wanted to move to Asia, because most of my clients were here. Back then, I was deciding [between moving to] Bangkok or Singapore. But Singapore 15 or 16 years ago wasn’t the Singapore that exists today. It was a lot quieter. You didn’t have Marina Bay Sands and a lot of all the development and interest that came after that followed that.

Bangkok back then was still quite a vibrant city. It’s chaotic, but it’s interesting at the same time. There’s a lot of energy like this, and for most of the time, [the people are] just very creative. I was inspired by their artistry.

Bangkok was extremely different from Hawaii. But I liked that they’re so different.

You were born and raised in Oahu, Hawaii. How has that inspired your designs today?

For me, it goes back to the fact that while I look Asian, I’m actually quite Western. And I think the same can be said of my approach to design where it’s sort of a hybrid of two views — a Western view and an Asian view. I’ve been told I have sort of this Asian set aesthetics of refinement, which you can see is sort of applied throughout the firm’s work.

On Blink’s website, it says that the group believes in creating memorable spaces. How would you define the term ‘memorable’?

I guess it depends on what kind of place. But what we do is really to help [our clients’] guests create their own memories. [This can be applied to] a wonderful spa treatment room or rooms that are very romantic. If they can take their loved ones to a restaurant bar, it’s just very fun. So to create these spaces really helped to set the stage for people to create memories.

The Roku Kyoto. Photo: Ben Richards for Blink Design Group

How do you get inspired for each project?

It’s so varied. I always just try to stay very open in terms of my thinking and try not to be inspired by others — necessarily only other interspaces or architectural buildings — but just be inspired by many different things.

For instance, recently, I’ve been fascinated by collaborative efforts between two brands, like the Gucci and Adidas collab. I find these collabs interesting. And it kind of forced me to think [about how] these collabs work, because usually they’re from two opposite directions, luxury versus sports apparel. And they create something that’s different. So from a design perspective for hotels, how can we think [in terms of] very polar opposites and try to create something that is sort of a collaboration between the two ideas?

Is there any particular brand or other agencies that you would love to collaborate with?

We were thinking of collaborating with another design firm that’s just so different in comparison to Blink. To create a hotel [together] would be fun. I couldn’t name any now off the top of my head, I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

With your many years of experience, how do you remain constantly inspired?

I have this fear of being obsolete as a designer. And designers tend to go in cycles. I mean, you know, what’s in trend now or who’s famous now may not be famous tomorrow if they don’t reinvent themselves. I’ve watched certain designers or firms that just sort of stay stagnant and then they may become overlooked, because their product may look old or something like that.

So that anxiety of always having to stay current really pushes me to just keep trying to be more creative and do something better. And better and better and better.

The other way that I find interesting to stay current is to always look to the team for new ideas. Because the older I get, I realise I’m no longer the youngest person in the firm. When I was their age, just starting out, I always had ideas that I thought were better than my bosses. But they’re always my bosses.

I guess this is why I do the same [now]. They [my bosses] always gave me an opportunity to express my ideas. So a two-credit platform like that here in the company was very important in terms of generating new ideas. Sometimes I’ve got projects I may have started and I have a strong idea, I’ll ask the team to develop it further. Sometimes I’ll just draw some plans, and they will then create the direction and I’ll guide them to make sure that it’s going the way it should.

But I believe that giving people opportunities has helped to produce this sort of freshness that you now see coming through in the company. Otherwise, I think I would have — and all of us have this — a natural tendency to kind of lean back on what’s comfortable.

In a previous interview, you said that you learned about the hospitality design business under the mentorship of Donald Goo at WATG. What was your biggest takeaway from him?

When I started, I was not even six months out of school, and he gave me the opportunity to be the main designer for a US$200 million [$280.6 million] convention centre. At the same time, [I was given the chance to] work on a renovation of a Sheraton in Hawaii. These were amazing opportunities. For some reason, he believed that I would do it. And I did it, but he gave me the opportunity to fail.

Your portfolio ranges from hotels in the city to resorts all around the world. Do you have any particular favourites?

Based on photos, because I haven’t seen it yet because of Covid, I like the Regent Phu Quoc (below) in Vietnam that we just opened last month or so. I hope to go back there in the next few months. 

The Regent Phu Quoc in Vietnam. Photo: Blink Design Group

What is it about the hotel that you like?

For one, I like it because the owner likes it. The owner’s happy, which is important (laughs). It’s Vietnamese, it’s modern at the same time, it expresses the place quite well. We did architecture and interiors, so the connection between the indoors and outdoors is quite strong, [which] works well. Because of Covid, the landscape grew quite well so that’s another nice thing I hope to see when I go there.

How did you complete your projects during the pandemic when there was a travel ban?

With a camera via Zoom. We had people on site that were basically our eyes and ears and they walked through the site with their handphones and showed us what the rooms looked like.

Did it take you guys longer to complete projects because you guys weren’t able to go on?

Yeah, because a lot of construction sites have stopped at some point during Covid.

Looking ahead, are there any projects that you’re excited about?

Yeah, we have a lot of nice new things on the boards. One is a ski resort in Saudi Arabia [which will be completed in 2025]. It snows twice a year there. [It’s] fun what we’re doing in terms there. A lot of Middle East projects, I think, will be quite well-received and they’re different [for us], because most of our projects have been in Asia.

As a designer, what do you hope guests take away from the experience in a hotel or resort that you’ve designed? A good time and memories. That’s why we go to resorts particularly; you go there to relax and spend time with your loved ones.

And is there anything that you tend to look out for in particular when you’re on your own travels? Do you stay in the hotels you’ve designed?

I do. It’s really weird, because I never end up switching off; you end up looking at things a lot could have done better. But it’s interesting to watch people use spaces to see if they’re being used the way you thought they would be used.

What about places that you’ve not designed? What do you look out for in particular?

I tend to like [to stay in] different types of places. With urban hotels for example, I like hotels that are more lifestyle-like, something like the Nomad in London, which I stayed at last December. I like city hotels that really embrace the local culture and people; when you sit in the lobby or the lounge and the bar that’s full of locals, that’s a good thing for me.

I [also] enjoy resorts that are quieter, more luxurious, [that has] more space.  

What would you say is the most thoughtful design that you’ve come up with?

Just because it’s at the top of my mind, I just stayed at the W that we did in Dubai and I really liked the bar in the rooms. [Instead of a mini bar], it’s more like a maxi bar. It’s got full-sized bottles of tequila, vodka, gin… It’s basically for the pre-party crowd. There’s a makeup table with a mirror that folds open next to the bar. It’s to create this ability for guests to gather in the room, so they can stay in and invite their friends. It’s quite fun.

The W Dubai. Photo: Blink Design Group

When you stay at other hotels, was there any design that you’ve come across and wish you thought of instead?

All the time, but I don’t know if I can think of anything specific. But all the time. I mean, there’s some, there’s some amazing work out there, it’s hard not to be inspired. But then we always try to figure out how to use that to be inspired, to do something creative, and not just copy what [others] did before.

What is the current trend in hospitality design? And is there anything that you see emerging as a future trend in hospitality design as well?

Last year, I was saying biophilia is quite interesting as a design. But I think I ended up seeing too much of it, it kind of feels like it’s passé now.

I think a trend that will be big for the next couple of years is the blurring [the boundaries] between work and going on holiday. We see it now where some hotels in Asia are changing some of these public areas to “more like WeWork” kind of spaces. They want to attract the younger generation that wants to work remotely to work in their hotel for a month or so.

With employees now returning to offices, do you still see that happening?

I think so. I think we will land somewhere in the middle because I think Covid taught us how important it was to communicate or to relate to other humans. Although, Covid also forced us to work alone in isolation and I think a lot of us like that to some degree. Even for Blink, we’re practicing a hybrid model. So the staff have the flexibility of working remotely. For me that’s okay, as long as [they] get the work done.

What was it that you enjoyed during the lockdown during Covid and how did you stay sane?

I actually started gardening. I have a lot of plants on my balcony now (laughs).

Now that the borders are reopening, what are the cities that you look forward to visiting the most?

I’ve been fortunate to go to Japan three times now. It’s complicated getting in, but I still enjoy going to Japan. From a design perspective, I feel [the] Japanese have always been very good and their environment, built environments.

I am [also] supposed to go to Portugal to see the design director that’s there. I actually have never been to Portugal, so I’m looking forward to it!

How would you advise someone who’s looking to break into designing hotels?

I always encourage our designers to travel. I think travel is important. You learn more the more you see, the more you experience. That’s why I like travelling so much. So for designers, if you’re able to travel to another city, and you’re designing even offices, then you [want to] try to look at other offices and how they work and get used, etc. But especially for hotel design, you have to experience and see different hotels.

For someone fresh out of school, my advice would be to educate yourself and don’t worry about the name of the school you [graduated from]. Also, maybe try to get some practical experience at a firm. 

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