Design Conversation with Liz Lambert

I admire the work of Liz Lambert, Austin-based hotelier and community builder.
I look up to her ability to generate compelling spaces and experiences that are fully complete – they allow guests to immerse themselves with no hesitation and no sense of artifice.
These spaces are real.
You sense it as gravel crunches beneath your tires while pulling into the driveway of El Cosmico – a vintage trailer, tent and teepee hotel in Marfa, Texas.
That feeling of displacement isn’t by accident; it’s designed in, and few are able to accomplish it as thoroughly and appealingly as Liz and her Bunkhouse management team.
As a designer interested in the ways designers can positively shape human experience, I wanted to know more about Liz’s process. We sat down at the Hotel Saint Cecilia to talk about her work. Here is the conversation that resulted:
Callie Thompson: I think you have a more radical eye than some people who are designing hotels, and you have more radical ideas. How does that end up manifesting in the things that you make?
Liz Lambert: For me, it comes back to Christopher Alexander when I am trying to distill what our [Bunkhouse Management’s] approach to design is. It is in the design of the places but it’s also in the design of the business and everything else. You know, Christopher Alexander, he wrote A Pattern Language?
C: Yeah, my parents actually built their house based on A Pattern Language. Yeah, I love it.
L: Yeah, so Christopher Alexander talks a lot about how important it is to create something that makes us more whole. He talks about the “quality without a name” which I think we all recognize when we see it. When you go to a place, and you just feel truer, and just more in tune with everything. That could be a garden, that can be a restaurant, that can be somebody’s “Quality without a name’…we all recognize it when we see it”home, but it comes a little bit closer to making you feel in touch with everything and in touch with yourself. There are lots of ways to approach that but that’s by looking at the place you’re building in, looking in the community, looking in the neighborhoods, looking at the materials things are built out of, and the way that people go about building. So that’s all stuff that completely informs what you’re doing. You want the place to look like it’s of the place. But it’s crazy, I think what happens in the world now is people design things in architects’ offices and developers’ offices and then they just put it there.
C: Yeah, I’ve been seeing that completely un-local vernacular style in the giant duplexes being built in my neighborhood, Bouldin Creek. It’s sad. Speaking of A Pattern Language, when I was talking to Ginger [Griffice] before the Trans-Pecos Festival she was talking about how you had gotten really inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog. Are there things from the Whole Earth Catalog You want the place to look like it’s of the place.that have manifested in what you’ve made?
L: I think the Whole Earth Catalog has a lot to do with El Cosmico, and it’s that radical sense of self-reliance, about teaching people how “to do.” I think El Cosmico has a lot to do with aspiring to be a better self, the myth of the American West, the road trip out to someplace, the huge open sky. I think that inspires people in that manner, so it taps into the same thing that the Whole Earth Catalog does. We’ve thought about having a really fantastic gathering at El Cosmico, based on the principles of El Cosmico, which have to do with land use, land art, “El Cosmico has a lot to do with aspiring to be a better self, the myth of the American West…the huge open sky”building, crafting, music and definitely some form of cooking and growing food. It would be a fair that’s four or five days long where you bring a lot of people out to teach, and then do it as a gathering. So that is the Whole Earth Catalog influence.
C: Okay, I have a long range question that I’ll explain a little first; I was talking to my friend Claire, who is an art curator, and she was expressing her frustration that everyone is using the word ‘curated’ these days when really what they’re meaning is just ‘picked out’ or ‘selected.’ The distinction she made is that the responsibility of being a curator is that you a) thoroughly research the history of the objects or art you’re selecting, and b) you are responsible for the stewardship of those objects while they are in your care. I started thinking about What is your vision for Hotel Saint Cecilia in fifty years?what you do and the fact that you’re creating these really grand physical artifacts. You’re almost a large-scale artist who is making these giant spaces/experiences that people can inhabit. So, thinking about stewardship, how will Saint Cecilia be stewarded? What is your vision for Hotel Saint Cecilia in fifty years?
L: Well it should just get better and better and better and more and more layered. To me, one of the problems with hotels, and why you can feel either so happy in a hotel, or feel so much alienation, is part of that. There was a time when hotels were all really different, and were part of a community and a gathering place for the people from the community as well as for the traveller. In shorthand, as a traveller you didn’t know what you were going to find, so that’s where the Holiday Inns of the world started to come into play. The idea was if you could make everything the same so that the traveller would know exactly what to expect and know what they were getting into, then that would be revolutionary. And it was.
C: So that was a moment, the Starbucks-ification of hotels?
L: Yeah. And it was a good thing at the time, knowing what kind of quality and standard you would get and what to expect. Obviously that became sad and soulless in some ways especially as time has gone on, and buildings materials have gotten cheaper. People just want to try to get their money out of a place and they don’t have any stewardship of it. They just want to put it up I think the hotels or places that interest me the most are the ones that stay the same and just get better and more layered as time goes quickly as they can, flip it, get their money out of it and go on. Then we had the beginning of the boutique hotel movement with Chip Conley in Northern California or with Ian Schrager. As the boutique hotel movement took on life, what you see in so many of those places is that they’re so trendy because they really want to be ‘of the moment’ and ‘of the now,’ which means they almost always will have to do a renovation from bottom up every 8-10 years. It’s a huge part of their budget. They’re just going to re-do it. I think the hotels or places that interest me the most are the ones that stay the same and just get better and more layered as time goes on. So I think this place, the Saint Cecilia, will keep getting better and better and better. If you put in the right It could be like Gertrude and Alice’s apartment in Parisbones, and if landscape grows up around it…This room could have ten more paintings in it eventually. It could be like Gertrude and Alice’s apartment in Paris, with paintings all over the place that somebody had dropped off, or given or we had acquired. So it becomes more textured, more layered.
C: I love that idea. Now I want to see this building in fifty years. They’re temporary spaces, someone only comes and inhabits it for a weekend, but your description of Saint Cecilia in fifty years would make it feel like a family estate where it has this history to it. Speaking of history, what designers from history inspire your work?
L: I love Donald Judd. But before Judd I loved [Rudolf] Schindler. I think Judd was inspired by Schindler. I think everything is really derivative at the end of the day, but I admire designers who create architecture — and I guess Frank Lloyd Wright falls into this category as well — of people who create a whole environment. So they’re doing the furniture, they’re designing the building, they’re doing the windows, and they’re even doing the bricks. Frank Lloyd Wright would cast the brick that the whole place was built out of with detail in the brick. Gio Ponti would go into this same category, somebody who created an entire experience. He did a hotel on the Amalfi Coast [Hotel Parco dei Principi] with encaustic tile all in blue, but a Phillipe Starckitects!different blue pattern for every room. That kind of designer. Looking back on design history, so much beautiful work was done throughout the centuries. I think we’re in a really sad place as far as building now, although structurally we have a lot more capability, but just the craftsmanship that used to be was just insane. We don’t do that anymore. I mean, look at Paris, it’s crazy.
C: Yeah, the feeling of being in that city is unparalleled. It’s interesting you’re talking about craft because in the research I did at the Austin Center for Design, with 70 to 90 year olds and technology, they talked about the ‘craft of communication’ and how that’s disappeared. It’s as though in general everything is speeding up to a level where craft is the thing…
L: …that’s lost.
C: Yeah, it’s left behind.
L: But you can look at places where there is less technology and people still build on a smaller scale, like the Lloyd Kahn book, Shelter, with lots and lots of craft, and using the materials that are available to them.
C: Yeah, and I know the pendulum is kind of swinging back where people are really getting focused on craft again, in food, and music, and objects and spaces, and there is such a value in it. It’s neat that the designers you thought of all had craftsmanship as part of their practice, that a designer would have such a hand in every little detail. It feels like a lot of the starchitects now don’t do that.
L: Philippe Starckitects!
C: Exactly! In what instances have you seen people use design to transform society?
L: I think architecture affects society a lot, creating spaces where people can either come together or not. It can affect our communities. If you’ve looked at Christopher Alexander, that’s a good thing to start with – the way you build neighborhoods and houses, city planning of whether there are sidewalks or not. I don’t know that design can radically transform society, but repeated design decisions do. When we’re faced with architecture of place-making, it’s bit by bit by bit.
the pendulum is kind of swinging back where people are really getting focused on craft again, in food, and music, and objects and spaces
C: That’s really great. It’s a series of decisions. There’s something about that, about individuals having kind of a collective power. They collectively start making better decisions and then the broader culture follows.
L: Exactly.
There’s something about that, about individuals having kind of a collective powerC: Because I’m sure there are however many people, thousands of people, who have been inspired by the work that you’ve done and thought ‘maybe I should try a little harder…’ You know?
L: That’s really nice… that’s really nice of you to say.
C: I’m not pandering, I promise… I think when you start to impose a really high standard on a field, on a discipline, like you’re doing on hotels, other people kind of follow suit out of inspiration.
L: I know I do, when I see other people, what they’ve done, it really spurs me on.
I like to choose a few colors and use them over and over and over again because I think that tells a story. It lets the people be the color in the room.C: Which is nice! The field kind of keeps evolving forward. How is your Texas heritage reflected in some of these spaces you create, if it is?
L: I think it has to be because I don’t think you can take it out of me. I think designers can only really do what’s in them, and kind of push those edges. I don’t know that I could design a place where there wasn’t a lot of me in it. I can do a lot of different types of projects but they all have to have a sense, a through-line, of what’s inspiring to me and what’s in my history
and past. There are a few things I do the same each project but they may go through a different filter. I like a lot of massing, I like to choose a few colors and use them over and over and over again because I think that tells a story. It lets the people be the color in the room.
Thank you so much to Liz for the inspiring conversation.

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130324-0140|1500Callen Thompson

Art & Maker Columnist
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Callen Thompson is an Austin-based artist and designer who studied art at Cranbrook Academy of Art and Dartmouth College.
Callen’s paintings, textiles and jewelry channel the land’s inherent geometry through abstracted biomorphic patterns.
Her work has been featured in West Elm stores, on Apartment Therapy, and Pattern Pulp.
Photography: Chris Perez