Founder & Creative Partner
Blink Design Group
While the COVID years have been harsh to the luxury travel sector, Clint Nagata has been prodigiously updating his portfolio with a string of high profile launches slated for 2022 including W Dubai Mina Seyahi, Regent Phu Quoc and Fullerton Hong Kong. C T sat down with the founder of Blink Design Group to understand why the creative force behind such an impressive body of work remains on the cusp of fame.
A creative force like Clint Nagata presents a curious conundrum. You may not know who he is but chances are if you have a penchant for sleek, modern and decadent hotels in Asia, it is very likely you have checked into a hotel designed by his practice Blink Design Group where the Hawaii-born Japanese-American is founder and creative partner. The firm has been raising a bevy of iconic hotels in the region - some of the newest being Roku Kyoto, W Dubai Mina Seyahi and the soon-to-be-opened Fullerton Ocean Park Hong Kong, since it was founded in 2006. The group also owns JID, the design outfit of the late Jaya Ibrahim, and can now boast of trophy properties like Capella Shanghai, Capitol Kempinski Singapore and Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay on its mantle place. With such a prodigious and prolific body of works, Nagata has left an indelible mark on the architectural landscape of 21st century Asian hotels. Yet for all he has attained professionally, the designer doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page.
Evidently, it doesn't appear that Nagata is losing sleep over any of that fluff some of his contemporaries might spend their life obsessing over. The man is refreshingly unclogged and has clarity to boot. For all his lack of air and pretenses, he is remarkably refined and confident. As a designer he builds around the dreams of his clients and raises stories that tailor to the brief rather than his whims. As an entrepreneur he prefers to build a brand and nurture a team that can outlast him, instead of a vehicle of self-promotion that rarely extends beyond the name it is tied to, however iconoclastic it can seem. Thus Nagata as a creative force is on an enviable thread of longevity not viable to grand personalities in the business - his uncommon versatility, mastery over aesthetics and grasp on subtlety has long been imbued into the DNA of Blink and the many award winning hotels it has drawn into existence, all wonderfully varied in forms and conceptions in a landscape too dominated by the painfully contrived and coerced.
So while Clint Nagata may not be too moved if anyone knows who he is, his will be a name to drop in the coming era where hopefully the collective consciousness on recognition will shift back to style and substance from the hype and sensationalism clouding the current age.
What inspires you to design?
Growing up in Hawaii certainly helps when designing resorts because the islands are teeming with them. Now I enjoy crafting journeys and telling the stories of how we weave elements together to create something magical not just for owners but also the visitors who stay at the hotels we build.
How do you tailor to the expectations of the industry today, the industry being so brand-centric and fixed about how certain hotels should look to reflect brand elements?
To be honest, we really make it a point to fight for our owner's vision which sometimes get us into trouble with the operators who feel that they are our client and we should therefore toe the line. For example W Dubai design wise is quite 'off-brand' and not as in-your-face like most W Hotels. The owner has asked us to mute the colours at this property and we are happy to bridge the expectations from both ends in the final result. One of my first projects was the Conrad Sanya which really wasn't my cup of tea but it was what the chairman wanted - a European style resort in China, and it suited the brand to a T.
What is your design process? Do you look at the work of others to get inspired or avoid mistakes?
When I am working on a design, I can't stop thinking about it and can't stop working on it. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and start drawing because I just can't get it out of my mind. So much runs through my mind and I can't switch them off. As designers we need to stay current and gauge trends and see where we stand as well. I think it is more about what are the design trends today than yesterday and at some point we are all marked as references.
Have you fought teeth and claws with clients about realising your own design vision?
Not to that extent, we always make it a point to try and understand and realise the client's vision. Most of the time we backed out of project because the budget got shrunk to the point where we couldn't continue anymore.
How much of your own vision usually remains when you handover the projects?
About 80%, which I'd say is a good level.
How much of your business is in Asia currently? And what do you think of the landscape for luxury hotels in Asia now and beyond, given the proliferation of hotel building and how that always leads to a drop in standards?
About 70%. Asia is a great place for hotel building today because it currently houses some of the most stunning properties in the world. There is definitely a higher appreciation for design in Asia for hotels but we are also seeing traction in Europe where the clients there see what we are doing here and are curious to see how we can translate our design elements on European soil. it is fairly common to want more for less and clients, despite having deep pockets, aren't always willing to pay for designs they want. We do what we can to bridge expectations. Such situations will always persist in any given industry.
Talk us through your experience working on Roku Kyoto. How did you clinch the deal and what did you learn working with a Japanese client in this instance, you being Japanese ethnically but totally American otherwise?
We learnt a lot working on this project. This is probably the only time where the project is just 2 weeks off the design schedule, as they run a very tight ship and didn't drag out on decision making. They came to us to discuss their vision with us, which was something Asian, modern and minimalistic and I guess we share the same vision on the project and the chemistry was right. It was a journey working with the Japanese artisans in Kyoto, incorporating traditional art and elements into the building. There is so much to learn and I am still just skimming off the surface.
What do you like about this hotel?
I love the quality of light that comes into the lobby. The morning light is quite different from the evening light and at different times of the day the reflection off the pond into the surrounding space is quite beautiful. This was a project 5 years in the making and learning about Kyoto is quite the journey itself.
What are your verdicts on some other hotels in Kyoto?
I like the Hyatt Regency, which resonates more with me than say the Four Seasons, which seems to be more like Japanese designs and aesthetics through Westerner's eyes. Ritz Carlton seems to be the same as well. I like parts of the Park Hyatt because it's raised on a difficult site.
Any new projects coming up in Kyoto?
We are currently working on the Sixth Senses which would be completed in 2024.
What can we expect from the new Fullerton in Hong Kong? Do you feel like you are in the cast of Crazy Rich Asian working with the owners on this property?
It is a very interesting project to say the least. We work very closely with the family throughout the process and they are a very hardworking family! They are not showy at all and even work all day on Saturdays, just without the suits. Our goal was to create this urban resort surrounded by the sea, greens and this beautiful light coming through the glass structure. It is a homage to the Fullerton brand and the history of Hong Kong, but in a contemporary modern way.
What are your verdicts on other designers? Maybe Bill Bensley?
He and I are like opposites! I like what he does but his hotels can also come off as rather cliché, and I am not sure if people will go back after 1 visit, but more like 'been there done that' destinations in themselves.
I have great respect for him. He worked till the day he died and he wasn't quite as famous when he was at his most prolific. Fame found him much later.
How about Jaya Ibrahim?
We were friends and I have great respect for his talent and work. In his generation he was up there at the top and have made his mark on the industry from the design perspective. I hope I am in the next generation to leave my mark on the same industry.
Since you now own his design studio, do you think you will surpass Jaya Ibrahim's accomplishments? And be more famous perhaps?
For me I am always more intrigued by the brand I can create than me per se. I want Blink to live far beyond me and to even surpass my accomplishments. I am awkward with 'me'. It's cliché but there really isn't an I in TEAM.
Lastly, what are your views on sustainability in the hotel industry? Is it just all lip service?
Sadly yes. It's a buzzword but nobody wants to pay for it. Clients would start out saying we want to be 100% sustainable but by the end of the project nothing is in place because it will cost more money. I think the law has to step in and make things happen. Tax cuts on sustainability endeavours would be great, like for upcycling old furniture in renovation projects. I think if developers can get monetary incentives, there is a higher chance that sustainability causes will get more traction.
*Design visuals and renderings courtesy of Blink Design Group and Fullerton Hotel