Can a hospitality company's offices actually feel … hospitable? We can assume the brass is taken care of, but what if you're just a rank-and-file employee—chained to an IT desk, or stashed away in accounting? That was the challenge Global Hyatt Corp. executives posed three years ago to architects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, after Hyatt decided to consolidate its offices in a new location in downtown Chicago. "There was a disconnect between the staff at headquarters and the people who are managing and running our hotels all around the world," says Stephen Apking, the SOM partner responsible for the firm's interior-design practice. "It was hard for [headquarters] to experience the ideas behind a hospitality brand in a tangible way."
Hyatt's move came at a time when the company was sharpening a focus on design across all of its properties, from resorts in Acapulco to business hotels in Zurich. Apking's mandate for the new Chicago project thus became not only to deliver a state-of-the-art headquarters but to evoke both yin and yang—the efficiency and worldliness of an international business hotel chain as well as a luxe, high-concept aesthetic. He found his solution in the work of the late Japanese-American artist George Nakashima, whose minimalist walnut furniture was both sensuous and sophisticated, modern yet unintimidating.
"It was Americana," says Bernd Chorengel, the president of Hyatt International Corp., "but with a Zen touch." Nakashima's daughter, Mira, built all the elements the designers specified out of magnificent pieces of walnut she had collected in her studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania (including a colossal slab that she turned into the company's boardroom table). For its part, SOM designed a reception area with functional echoes of an actual hotel lobby: sofas, coffee, newspapers, and computer terminals where waiting visitors could check email or the news. A series of coffee bars were cantilevered off the main staircase, which runs through the building's open core (in keeping with Hyatt's signature atrium design); each contains an upscale Italian coffeemaker, tea, bottled water, and real china—amenities a guest might find in one of the chain's business centers.
Before the move, employees told SOM researchers that they were still nostalgic for the building they had occupied more than 20 years ago, when the company was smaller and less corporate. Those complaints have since evaporated. "Now all I hear," says Chorengel, "is, 'Wow, what a wonderful space.'"
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.