Design vision: Maria Garcia-Arribas of Bar Studio

Maria Garcia-Arribas, director of Bar Studio’s new Madrid office, talks about the challenge of establishing the hospitality design practice in Europe in our latest TOPHOTELDESIGN exclusive.

Founded by Felicity Beck and Stewart Robertson in Melbourne in 2003, Bar Studio helps create hotels, resorts and F&B environments around the world, working with high-profile brands like Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, Park Hyatt, Grand Hyatt, Westin Hotels & Resorts and Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts. In 2021, the hospitality design practice established a new Madrid studio as its European base, led by Maria Garcia-Arribas.

What does your role at the company involve?

Since our European office in Madrid only opened fairly recently, there’s plenty to work on, from the very general to the very specific hands-on tasks such as finding our studio space and managing its renovation to finding the talent to join our European team.

At the same time, we have several projects going on in Europe, and that means anchoring the teams and trying to pass on the Bar philosophy and way of doing things to this group of people; plus ensuring the connection and continuity between our Melbourne and Madrid teams. I am also project-leading some of our projects, which means dealing with consultant teams, clients and operators to make sure our design translates from paper to reality as smoothly as possible.

Could you tell us about your career to date?

I started working in interior design somewhat by chance, even though it had always been my passion.

My first work experience after graduating from architectural school was in Turin, Italy. A lot of the work we were doing then involved the renovation of historic buildings into residential spaces for private clients. That gave me a real taste for creating tailored spaces to suit a way of living.

When I moved to Australia, I began working for an interior design company specializing in high-end hotels. It was a small firm, and we did almost everything in-house, from the FF&E design to the accessories’ selection – we even went shopping around when hotel launch time came to fill the shelves with thousands of books.

It was great fun and a massive learning experience. It really got me hooked on the exciting, challenging and ultimately satisfying process of creating a space with a team of very different people that comes together when the hotel opens its doors to the first guest.

What key hotel projects have you worked on down the years?

My first experience as project lead for a hotel design was for The PuLi Hotel and Spa in Shanghai with Layan in 2009.

After that, I joined Bar Studio in Melbourne and ever since then I’ve been lucky to lead some amazing projects, such as Park Hyatt Sydney in 2012; Rosewood Phuket in 2017; and our first European project, Rosewood Villa Magna in Madrid, which opened in 2021. I also fulfilled smaller roles on other Bar projects, including Rosewood Beijing, Park Hyatt Niseko and Grand Hyatt Seoul.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I think every hotel project I have worked on has been an inspiring experience, mostly because of the people I have met and the realisation that, without a strong team, nothing we’ve achieved would have been possible. I feel extremely lucky to get to know other countries, cultures and ways of working through my job.

The opening of Park Hyatt Sydney, though, was one of the highlights of my career, both on a personal and professional level. More recently, taking part in the establishment of Bar Studio in Europe was a dream career opportunity. It has allowed me to keep working with people I love and respect profoundly, taking on incredible projects, while still living in my home country Spain, something I had longed for after many years abroad.

What’s been the biggest challenge in your career?

Probably the biggest challenge has been the opening of Bar Studio’s Madrid office. It has been an interesting learning curve managing the complex process of establishing a company locally.

Thankfully, I’ve had the support and unbreakable passion for this project from both founders of Bar, Felicity Beck and Stewart Robertson, who have never doubted that this was feasible.

How would you sum up your design philosophy?

I think it all starts with a solid and well-resolved masterplan. Creating visual and spatial links between different areas, ensuring a deep connection between indoors and outdoors, and layering spaces with diverse levels of sensibility.

From the lighting to the interior finishes, furniture, fabrics, art and accessories, everything needs to be part of a well-considered design process with the guest experience at its centre. It is not about creating a theme, but about recreating an experience, understanding how a person will live through the space we design and ultimately making it feel natural and effortless, as if it all belongs together.

Then, of course, introducing some elements of surprise and the unexpected to accentuate a sense of discovery.

What would your dream hotel look like?

Ideally, it would be by the seaside, connected to nature, using local materials with an understated design. It should feel private and have a sense of ease, without grand gestures.

For me, it’s more about tactile fabrics and finishes, beautiful lighting to tie it all together, and a space that feels intuitive to live in. With great food and relaxed service, it should definitely feel like the family home you are always longing to retreat to when you need to reconnect and rest.

Who do you admire most in the industry?

It has to be the people who I work with every day. I have met lots of talented, interesting people through my work and I really admire that energy and drive to overcome issues that arise in any project.

At the end of the day, creating a hotel requires teamwork, from the designers to the owners, operators, builders and other consultants involved. It is a question of finding that common ground to build a great project on.

What’s your advice to up-and-coming talent looking to make a name for themselves?

In every project, you’ll have some major challenges thrown at you, but if you keep the focus on the big picture they’ll be easier to overcome.

Forget about the designer ego and build a strong team because great relationships build great projects – and always take good care of your team.

What are your main hobbies outside work?

I love going to the movies, doing yoga and Pilates, spending time with good friends, and I’ve recently started knitting. I find it quite relaxing…it’s almost like meditating!

For more info about the firm, and to view an extensive gallery of hi-res images, check out the Bar Studio page on the TOPHOTELDESIGN website.

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