Kitty, Kitty

She is the world's most popular feline fetish. She inspires such devotion throughout the world that the phenomenon gets its own word: Kitira. She is the ne plus ultra of infectious cuteness and the proof is in the 12,000 iterations of her licensed products that include a theme park, airline, cars, buses, and motorcycles, a Fender Stratocaster, wedding gowns, wines, cafés, and even a hospital.

Maybe its her perennially inscrutable expression that demands such wallet-baring affection. What is hiding behind her mouthless visage – an ageless stoicism that allows us to project our own feelings upon her – that draws us in? She is at once sphinxlike, zen, and the very symbol of acquisitive materialism. And then, in 2014, at 40 years old and following a banner year of $7 billion in worldwide sales, she got her own convention in Los Angeles.

 

In celebration of the world's very first official Hello Kitty Con, The Line Hotel installed a Hello Kitty VIP guest room. And once again they came to Sean to design it.

Designed to be more celebration than tribute, it would've been easy to let the room to become a cathedral to Kitty kitsch. Sean kept his use of the icon subtle and strategic, mysterious even. Using a generous amount of restraint, though it might've seemed impossible, Sean was able to keep the Kitty – the alpha and omega of commercial archetypes – tamed.

At first glance, two aspects leap out: a liberal use of pink, and the motif of stacking and layering that undergirds the overall design. The pink, of course, was unavoidable as the color is one of Kitty's base elements and an integral component of its radiant kawaii.

(An inside joke: The subjects of the wall's large framed photos are from a band called Nylon Pink.)

The room's decor is both a juggle of colors and textures and a disciplined balance. Together, they have a dreamlike quality. Sean balanced hard and soft, the cute and the edgy. The more traditional elements – the patterned wallpaper, the bare concrete of the walls, the squared poufs – frame the room as punctuation marks, to clarify and contain. It couldn't have been Kitty without whimsy and that concept is highlighted in the use of Dejana Kabiljo's surreal dessert-ified couch (entitled Let Them Sit Cake) and the pink splat wall mural.

Then there's the stylized graffiti on the living room's coffee-styled tables and the more street style of the lettering used on the walls of the bathroom. Throughout the room Sean has the actual Kitty logos obscured or hidden. This is demonstrated with both the bundled blankets and in the tiny Kitty representations on the toilet paper wall covering in the sitting nook/bar area. Also, in the way the Kitty disappears through the sheer repetition of its image as in the white plastic figures tiled in the bathroom or quilted on the bed. Even when Hello Kitty is written in neon, as in a hanging piece collaboration with artist Kelly Lamb, the words are superimposed over one another to cloak their conspicuousness.

While his approach to the icon is never less than deferential, Sean takes an affectionate impertinence in the way he addresses the Kitty itself. The way he straps it in bundles – as in the bundled comforters pouf/benches – or nails her to the ceiling and paints over its plush finish. In folding-in the logos of the the bundled blankets Sean makes them unreadable, the give-away being Kitty's characteristic hot pink – the straps that bind them together end up looking something like bondage wear. Also, the various plush and plastic figures used as a kind of mosaic tiling, the pink splat on the wall – all of these depictions take Kitty out of her cuddly suburban ambience and into the tension of the urban landscape.

Pushing on further with the concept that Sean first explored with his Leaf Table and it's simulacrum of stacked books, in the Hello Kitty room he expands the concept with towers of paper folia stacked like origami sheets. While Sean makes the sweep of the room active and ups the energy quotient, he's careful to stay within the boundaries of comfort: Kitty doesn't overwhelm her environment. Turning down the volume slightly on the hyperglycemic kawaii factor, Sean turned to the use of extreme non-traditional materials: toilet and craft paper, discarded product packaging, and the graffiti strokes of a spray can. Though the palette remains heavily tilted toward the pink, Sean even had his Mexican blanketed Negril chairs pinkened, they are counterbalanced with industrial grays and blacks, neon white, and the earth tones of the couch. Sean takes the icon downtown proper at last.

Welcome to the jungle, Kitty.

The Line Hotel, Pt II

It is the most densely populated district in the most densely populated city in the country. Two-thirds of its residents were born outside of the United States. It also has the city's highest concentration of restaurants, bars, and insomniac late night action – more than 500 "nightlife" establishments by The New York Times count.

It's Koreatown.

And now with Sean's reimagining of the The Line, the neighborhood is finally getting a world-class hotel worthy of its throbbing intensity

It was an extraordinary move by the hotel's developer The Sydell Group to place the majority of the design of the hotel all under the hat of one designer – something that rarely happens, especially in projects of this depth and scale. The backers were looking for an extraordinary hotel experience and knew they'd found it at Knibb Design.

In the end Sean has no regrets about any of the design decisions he made. He was able to do much what his initial designs proposed to do – a rare enough happenstance with clients in general but extraordinary for a client with the dimension and reputation of The Sydell Group. Often was the case that Sean was able to proceed to construction without design approval.

The Sydell team of developers envisioned The Line as part of a new generation of lifestyle hotels. What Sean presented was a concept to take the building (originally constructed for Hyatt in 1964) down to its original industrial finish, exploit the beauty of the natural materials – including making extensive use of natural light – and continue this aesthetic throughout. He would do this through the exploitation of both existing and new materials. These materials would include a play on the traditional ­–plywood, raw concrete, acoustic finished ceilings, custom made furniture and carpets – to the downright eccentric – t-shirts, burlap, animal hide-shaped throw rugs, Mexican blankets, mylar balloons. The diversity of color and constituent materials were kept strategically limited. Sean believed in “the simplification of material”: Rather than using materials to connote luxury, he used materials not often associated with high status and would elevate them through luxurious recontextualization. In this way the effect of the material becomes subliminal. Here, design celebrates the often overlooked, everyday material and brings the process of the building's history and construction into the story.

As to that story, it's a tale that begins before guests even step inside the lobby doors. You see it in the vegetables growing as ornamentals in the motor court and in the black enameled shopping cart chandelier hanging above the stark slab-like parking kiosk. Moving inside, the tale unfolds with the twilight blues of the benches and booths, the sunset oranges of the wood chairs and barstools, the soft round edges of the benches meeting hexagonal beehive outlines of the lounge conversation areas. Embedded overhead are t-shirts applied flat to the ceiling fresco style, alluding both to the area's history as a fashion district and the ubiquitous casual uniform of the tourist. On the border of the lounge area guests are lead under a soffit edged in an ombré of t-shirts, this time stacked, in hues reminiscent of a Pacific sunset – a covered path that leads to the Pot restaurant's entrance at the end of the room.

Sean arranges colors and materials together like a choirmaster. Each layer important in its own individual role but bringing something greater when they all sing together. In music this is called “the fifth voice,” that magic other voice that happens when all the voices blend together. For Sean that fifth voice is about the comfort. For all of the interplay and interconnection of the elements, every choice of color and material, every form and shape and object, all of it is designed with the intention of bringing a spirit of comfort. The elements acting in harmony to bring the guest in deeper into the experience of the space rather than keeping them at a remote distance. This is not a corporate lobby, it's living room blown up to a lobby's scale. This is not home but a vision of what a home can be.

Enter the hotel and you'll feel it immediately: You are welcome here.