Recently promoted, Yi-Zehn Jones is shaking things up inside the creative and forward-thinking design studio we all know and love, Twenty2Degrees Design Partnership. Following the completion of The Fellows House in Cambridge, the interior designer sat down with editor Hamish Kilburn to explain what working life is like inside one of London’s leading design firms…
There are few hotel design studios who can tell a story quite like Twenty2Degrees Design Partnership. Led by Joe Stella and Nick Stoupas, the duo are known for keeping the party alive (throwback to the negroni tap that was displayed and fully functional at their set at Sleep & Eat 2019) while also driving the industry forward. Having completed hotels such as The Dixon, The Artisan and Hilton Bankside (among others), the design studio secured its place in the hospitality design history books.
Recently, the completion of The Fellows House in Cambridge, which shelters a deep narrative I described in my review as “a history, chemistry, literature and art lesson packaged up in one unforgettable hospitality experience”, put the design firm front and centre as the city becomes a major hotel development hotspot. When researching the designers who were behind this sharp project, I came across interior designer Yi-Zhen Jones, who has recently been promoted as Associate at Twenty2Degrees. Move over, lads, Jones’ taking the reins and leaving her mark…
Hamish Kilburn: What’s it like working for a cutting-edge design firm like twenty2degrees?
Yi-Zhen Jones: Before I joined twenty2degrees just over two years ago, the majority of my experience was with global architectural & design firms which was a good learning opportunity. Now, as part of the twenty2degrees’ team, I am working in a specialist practice with an international hospitality portfolio of the highest level where we have the depth of hospitality expertise to work on varied projects and I can learn from and engage with people who really understand everything it takes to design a great hotel.
More than this, the directors really encourage everyone’s engagement and ideas. We are a small, very collaborative team which means there is a sense of freedom and creative expression but at the same time of personal responsibility. We all have our areas of expertise but we can pitch in and help each other out wherever necessary – we have a great team. We work hard but we are also able to maintain a great balance between work and personal life which is strongly encouraged by the directors. Twenty2degrees has been a refreshing change of pace.
HK: Can you explain your new role – how does it differ from your former role – at the design studio?
YZJ: “My role is evolving. As senior designer, I was involved in almost all the projects at some point – that’s the nature of a boutique firm, we are all hands-on. Now, as associate, I am more deeply involved in certain projects and taking on more of the decision making, but always in consultation with the directors.
HK: What projects have you recently completed – and what are you currently working on?
I have been working on The Fellows House Cambridge, part of the Curio Collection by Hilton which opened in June. It is an apartment-style hotel designed to offer a home-away-from-home, infused with the legacy of the university fellows and the cultural soul of Cambridge. The question for us had been how to achieve this without being too literal and while the design narrative is sometimes thought-provoking, it is also playful and layered to feed guest curiosity.
Currently, I am busy on Hyatt Regency projects in London, Paris and Nairobi, as well as the Marriott Brussels and a new Kempinski in Cameroon. We have an incredible variety of projects and there is never a dull moment.
HK: You recently participated in a panel discussion with us on sensory design, which will be published shortly. Why as an industry have we not given this topic the same attention as we are currently giving it?
YZJ: I think perhaps that the pandemic has something to do with this. We have spent 18 months enduring lockdowns which on the one hand deprived us of new experiences but on the other gave us the space to connect with our senses. As a result, people are now more aware about the benefits of sensory stimulation.
HK: Name one trend you hope that never returns?
YZ: Designing for Instagram
HK: Name one hotel brand that is impressing you as a real disrupter on the hotel design scene?
HK: Where’s next on your travel bucket list?
YZJ: Simple. A trip home to New Zealand to have a proper Christmas on the beach again when travel restrictions are eased
HK: What’s one thing people would not know about you?
YZJ: In my former life as an artist I was quite a prolific cross-stitcher
HK: Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
YZJ: Still doing what I love, designing great hotels!
HK: As a woman in a leadership position, what more can we do to practice (not just promote) equality in our sector?
YZJ: I consider myself lucky at twenty2degrees where people are judged by their talent and contribution to the business. However, I do think diversity in all its forms as well as gender equality need to be addressed in our sector and that this is a challenge that needs to be made to everyone in leadership positions. The more voices that are represented and heard the better and more interesting our industry will be.
HK: Young designers are struggling at the moment – what advice would you give young professionals?
YZJ: Keep your creative spark alive, whatever it takes, and don’t become disheartened. Actually, it was quite a difficult marketplace when I graduated with my master’s degree. It took me the best part of a year to find my first full-time placement and then another year before I started working on hospitality projects. Ultimately, if you are interested and determined, you will break into the industry.
Main image credit: Twenty2Degrees Design Partnership