They say you should never meet your heroes. However, it was an initial encounter in 2005 with legendary resort architect Bill Bensley, which put Clint Nagata on the path of founding BLINK, one of Asia’s most distinctive hotel and resort design firms.
Nagata, who at that time was working as a corporate designer for US firm Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo, contacted Bensley while traveling Thailand on the off-chance that he could secure a meeting with the designer, who was already famous for turning out some of the most whimsical, flamboyant, highly personal five-star resort designs in the region.
He first encountered Bensley’s work through the American’s book, Paradise by Design, and had become enamoured with his escapist language and uncompromising approach to resort design, directing everything from planting schemes to table settings.
He recalls his first visit to Bensley’s studios vividly. “I remember going into the basement and seeing a bunch of artists at work,” says Nagata. “The whole thing was just so creative. For someone working in the States, where we don’t have such bespoke design, it was very inspirational. The process, the sheer talent, I was taken in.”
The pair became good friends and Bensley lent Nagata some back offices so that the 36-year-old Japanese-American, born and raised on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, could establish his own firm in Southeast Asia. Today, his acclaimed design practice employs some 85 people at offices in Bangkok, Singapore, New Delhi and Shanghai.
BLINK’s footprint stretches from the burgeoning cities of China to the pristine island shores of the Maldives, from mixed-use developments in Nairobi to boutique retreats in Istanbul. Its work for the Regent Phuket Cape Panwa saw the property pick up a Silver Award in the Hotel Space category at the 2013 Asia Pacific Interior Design Awards, while the classic lines of the Conrad Sanya Haitang Bay won the Hospitality Design Awards in 2012.
The breadth of clients and environments with which Nagata’s firm now works means that a signature BLINK style might seem elusive. But it is there in the strong sense of place retained for each project, in the utilisation of local materials, in daring to custom design that which can’t be found on the shelf, and in always using the local culture as a project’s starting point for design.
“I was taught that a sense of place is critical in creating successful projects,” says Nagata. “I find myself still to this day saying those words only with a different spin. Our role is to bring out the best in a location, but also to think about the brand and the owner. Often our clients are individuals with aspirations of opening hotels, personal projects, so we like to instil their tastes and likes into our design.”
One of those individuals is Wang Jianlin, owner of the world’s biggest private property group, Wanda, and China’s richest man. Jianlin provided BLINK with an early break when he commissioned the studio to work on the Conrad Sanya Haitang Bay in 2006, an opulent coastal resort which kick-started a fruitful relationship between BLINK and Chinese clients.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always believed it’s not only about talent but timing, being in the right place at the right time,” he says. “And I’ve always felt like I’ve had that behind me.”
BLINK now has 10 projects across China including a palatial Hilton amid the natural surroundings of Fengxian outside of Shanghai, a Renaissance in Hailing which takes inspiration from the white sails of a traditional Chinese junk and others which are still under construction.
Nagata is now also looking to open a BLINK office in Berlin – the company is currently working on several projects in Germany – where he hopes to establish a stronger foothold in European markets. Asia, though, remains where he believes the world’s leading hotel projects are being carried out.
“Asia is pioneering,” he says. “We’ve been fortunate that the market has been quite strong. Designers from all over the world are doing fresh projects here, which you now see reflected in other parts of the world.”
The Asian resorts which form most of BLINK’s portfolio are a far cry from Nagata’s roots. The son of fourth-generation Japanese American parents, he was brought up in Hawaii on Oahu’s North Shore, an area which during the 1980s was a byword for remoteness.
“Being surrounded by so much beauty made me see things the way I do now,” he explains. “I look for simple forms and translate that.” For a resort he is currently working on in Vietnam, for example, Nagata has taken a humble type of black stone used locally for outdoor flooring, and brought it indoors in favour of the luxury finish you’d get from importing Italian marble.
His reason is simple: “There has been so much excess in the world that people are trying to do less.”
This trend he feels is being reflected not just in materials, but also in the architecture of modern hotels and resorts, with clients increasingly preferring smaller spaces that can economically be furnished with custom fittings. “It’s not about creating the biggest room, but asking what that room is about, how it flows,” he explains. “With developers concerned about their bottom line, reducing the size and maintaining quality has been well received.”
Today, Nagata bases himself out of his Bangkok offices, where he says the quantity of skilled designers exceeds anywhere else in the region.
“If you were to go to Singapore or even China you would see that a lot of the design staff are Thai,” he says, adding that Thailand’s largest city is also a convenient geographic base for someone whose work takes him to upwards of 30 cities around the world each year.
His 1,000-square-meter penthouse offices on the 30th floor of the prestigious Bangkok City Tower is a far cry from the operation which Nagata set up in Bill Bensley’s back rooms 12 years ago. “I started the firm with really not much of a goal except to create really nice resorts and hotels,” Nagata explains. “I had no idea we would do as well as we have.”
This article originally appeared in Issue No. 142 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine
Images sourced from Property Report.
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