Cheryl Rowley: Composing the Poetry of Place
I hate tan,” says Cheryl Rowley, evenly and firmly. She’s not kidding. To Rowley, tan means overcautiousness, conventionality and the mediocrity of playing it safe in design—all the things, in short, that Rowley is not.
Pushing the boundaries of interior design has its rewards, especially in the well- capitalized hotel industry. Twenty-two years after opening her own firm, the Southern California native has projects literally all over the world: Mexico, the Caribbean, both sides of the US, and a mystery project near Scandinavia. Currently on the boards are the Hotel Regis in Costa Rica, a hotel on Waikiki in Hawaii, Epic Hotel and Residences in Miami and a Hotel Palomar in Westwood, California.
The chief executive of Beverly Hills-based Cheryl Rowley Design is a serious woman. She is also attractive, with disarming, gray eyes and silvery hair that curls gently down either side of her face. She looks good, her tone is modulated, and she’s under control. She brings to mind a line from Bob Dylan: “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back.” And she does not gush or divulge much personal information. But why should she? She conveys an atmos- phere—and atmosphere, after all, is one of her primary gifts.
Shealsolooksalittlepreoccupied.Beneathitall,hermindseemstomovevery quickly in the silences between her answers and in the time it takes an interviewer to form the next question. Her shop is hopping this morning. Deadlines loom on several projects, and her staff of 35 people is talking quickly and rushing around. Those deadlines are so short, in fact, that staying cool may be harder work than it looks. Notwithstanding, Rowley keeps a composure about her.
A glance at her recent work reveals very quickly why her firm is in such demand. As Rowley herself likes to point out, she likes to design boldly, pushing the sometimes-conservative taste of the hotel industry into hitherto-unseen colors, textures, images, and well-chosen contrasts. She dares materials and colors to clash, and somehow they don’t. Possessed of a sure taste, she pushes design ideas to the limit, but never beyond.
The paramount idea is always about capturing the sense of place, she says. During her early years in the profession, she recounts,“I learned how important it is to design for a place—being very sensitive to the essence of that place—and letting that essence shine through in the creation of spaces.”That concern with place, she adds, is “at the heart of what we do.”
The evocation of place reigns at the San Francisco Palomar, a Rowley proj- ect finished in 2000.The lobby of the Union Square hotel could almost be a re-creation of a surrealist painting by Giorgio de Chirico. A diagonal metal grid covers a dark wooden reception desk.That grid combines richly with the illusionist pattern of the wooden floor, which could be mistaken for a row of three-dimensional blocks.A solitary green sprig of plant life adds a hint of nature, while a side table with an inset golden frame recalls historic furniture without being an actual antique. In short, the San Francisco Palomar lobby is a pleasant clash of patterns and symbols that seems apt for this multicultural city.
A very different sense of place can be found in the Palomar Waterview in Arlington, Virginia. Using a kind of one-to-one exchange of modern counterparts for heirloom objects, Rowley is able to evoke New England subtly, without gewgaws or antiques. To summon up a sense of Yankee handicraft, Rowley has included a Georgian-inspired end table and pearl-gray satin drapes. A zebra-striped pillow adds an exclamation point to the bedding, while faux-leopard-skin-upholstered chairs recall the Great White Hunter motif in a lighthearted, post-colonial way.
Although she works at all scales, Rowley says small hotels remain among her favorite projects “because they’re on a residential scale.”
Inspired by her stepfather, a designer as well, Rowley traveled to Europe after college and worked in the Caribbean. She was a project designer for the famed James Northcott for several years, before opening CRI in 1986.
She asks politely if there are any fur ther questions. Before leaving, she repeats one of the basic tenets of her firm.“We believe in being fearless,” she asserts.
Given the inviting nature of her design work, let’s hope she stays that way.
Photo by David Phelps.