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Some of the world’s most stunning luxury hotels owe their interior design to a Kiwi company with a stand-out success record. Director Vee Kessner explains why Space Studio has earned so much global respect.

Growing up in South Africa Vee Kessner had always dreamt and worked towards a career in design. She completed a business degree and design diploma in Cape Town before heading to the US to study interior design and work, and later “following my heart” to New Zealand.

Vee (pictured below) recalls interior design being a tough industry to be in initially – following the 1989 stockmarket crash – but in the years since then she has been pleased to see the change in the value that companies place on design.

After ten years working for an architectural practice, it was time to start her own business, and the focus of Space Studio right from day one was to establish a creative environment that fostered collaboration and encouraged young talent.

Initially Space Studio designed retail formats – a highlight being the rollout of Bendon stores in New Zealand, the UAE and Australia.

As the years have rolled by the business has grown significantly. Today 20 staff specialise in design and procurement for hotel, retail and commercial spaces – but predominantly for luxury hotels and including large projects in New Zealand and the wider Pacific region.

So why has Space Studio performed so well in export markets?

Vee says a lot of it comes down to attitude. “We’ve always considered ourselves designers in the world as opposed to New Zealand designers.”

She says they’ve always been open to the locations they’ve worked in – embracing the local culture and the challenges and opportunities that the various regions present.

“The development in electronic communications and the ability to work collaboratively across borders without being present has certainly been crucial in being able to work remotely,” she explains. “One cannot, however, underestimate the importance of face-to-face contact and the establishment of relationships. These relationships have continued over the years and certainly been one of the components in establishing us in further projects.

“In delivering projects in remote locations we’ve also had to develop robust systems to help us manage the challenges of geographical separation. This is one of our strengths.”
The sheer length and scale of Space Studio’s projects means the company’s services market themselves, says Vee, and establish the brand in a market. Success also comes from the development of relationships with the many different parties involved with the hotel projects.

“To gain respect, one must give respect, and this has allowed us to be recognised in the various markets that we work in.”

Proudest achievements

There have been many satisfying and award-winning projects completed during Vee’s 30 years of design practice – but her proudest achievements have featured the five-star Grand Papua Hotel in Port Moresby, Six Senses resort in Fiji and the Marriott at Fiji’s Momi Bay.

Often her team can be based in multiple countries, and that presents a real challenge. In the case of the Grand Papua the team was spread over three countries.

“The outcome was well worth the challenges,” she says, “to deliver a high standard of design, well-coordinated and in tandem with local designers, builders and craftsmen, and coupled with coordinated supply from offshore”.

Looking forward, Vee says they’ve completed the design on the SO by Sofitel in Auckland, and that hotel is due to open before Christmas. “We are looking forward to this signature project opening,” she says. “We are also working on two major hotels that are due to open before the America’s Cup and APEC in 2020 – both are interesting in design and cultural engagement, and that will be woven into the design.

“Our goal is to be the best hotel interiors firm in Oceania.”

Changes and challenges

To be the best you have to help drive the changes. Vee says they’ve noticed a global trend in tourism towards individuality of brand that meets the needs of a more tightly-defined travel market segment. This influences design in many ways she says, and the key buzzwords that tourism is addressing in delivering hotels are: ‘supporting wellness’, ‘engaging with local culture’, ‘authenticity and integrity in all engagements’, and ‘sustainability in operational decisions’.

As for Space Studio, Vee says the biggest challenge along the way has been learning to manage growth. “One often finds oneself stretched and afraid to make the commitment to the next step that inevitably moves the business forward,” she explains. “Sometimes you need to bite off more than you can chew, and then chew like crazy!
“The toughest lesson I have learned is that if you work for a client that does not respect or value what you do, the relationship will not last. Don’t tolerate or accept excuses for late or non-payment – something the non-respecting client is often guilty of.

“We are about building good relationships in our business – with clients and suppliers and our staff. Pay your bills on time and you will have the best service and support from your suppliers – especially when you need to push them to meet a deadline.”

Written by Glenn Baker. This story first appeared in the December 2018 issue of NZBusiness.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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