The Royal Treatment

California Home + Design

September 2010


Text by Robin Rinaldi / Photography by Art Gray


With the renovation of its most iconic hotel, Waikiki Beach’s overhaul is nearly complete. Most designers of large projects have more than one client to please, whether it’s a husband and wife working on a home remodel or an owner and developer building a new residential high-rise. But when Marion Philpotts and Lowell Tom, co-principals of Honolulu-based Philpotts Interiors, set out to remodel the iconic Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach, they identified no fewer than five parties they needed to satisfy.


Tokyo-based Kyo-ya Hotels owned the property. Starwood Hotels and Resorts managed it and had tight standards for its luxury brand. The Hawaiian Historical Society reviewed details every step of the way, making sure historic and cultural significance were preserved. And in town hall meetings, the firm considered the opinions of the kama’aina, or the locals who had lived there for generations. Finally, there were the Royal’s devoted repeat customers, guests who had been coming to the hotel for years. “We’d be walking the property and guests would come up and give us an earful,” recalls Philpotts. “What we could and couldn’t take away, what rooms they’d stayed in – we’d get a laundry list. It was like the design paparazzi.”


But everyone agreed on one thing: “They wanted to keep the pink. From its debut in 1927, the Royal’s salmon-colored stucco façade, sprawling Spanish-Moorish architecture and pink details, including bed linens, towels, tablecloths and napkins, had earned it the nickname Pink Palace of the Pacific. The hotel’s history is interwoven with the story of Waikiki Beach itself. In 1901 the Moana Surfrider (now also a part of Starwood and recently updated) was erected, which launched the area’s tourism industry. Visitors the world over flocked to Waikiki by ocean liner long before the convenience of air travel. Child star Shirley Temple visited the Royal Hawaiian, where a (pink) non-alcoholic cocktail was invented for her. Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku evangelized the sport of surfing on the hotel’s private beach. During World War II, the hotel volunteered itself as a base for the US Navy, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt stayed there, dubbing it the Western White House. Other hotels sprang up along Waikiki Beach like wildflowers in springtime, taking advantage of the irresistible trifecta of tourism: perfect year-round weather, wondrously clear waters and soft white sand.


By the 1970s, that growth had led to bland, corporate high-rise hotels, boxy cement shopping malls and tourist-trap restaurants that appealed to the least common denominator. But a renaissance began in 1997, starting with Outrigger Resorts’ investment of a half billion dollars in its Outrigger Reef property and the transformation of the eight blocks surrounding the resort into the new pedestrian-friendly Beach Walk. The trend continued with Starwood’s recent renovation of its four properties: the Moana, the Sheraton Waikiki (which has gotten a hip midcentury facelift), the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani and the Royal Hawaiian.


Which brings us to the pink. Philpotts, who had nine months to complete the model (the first time the Royal had closed to the public since World War II), decided to replace the hotel’s iconic pink linens with crisp whites, but preserve the original color scheme by lining the headboard wall of each room in a pink-and-platinum wallpaper with a pineapple pattern. The rooms’ small footprints couldn’t be expanded due to the terracotta brick honeycomb walls, not to mention the fact that no two rooms were alike; each had its own layout and square footage. “The rooms are small, so we had to figure out what was going to be lasting and memorable,” says Philpotts. “The bright pink wallpaper is behind you, so it’s not offensive, but it gives some pop and freshness.” What used to scream 1980s floral now says modern classic, re-envisioned for the islands against a pleasing backdrop of green and ivory.


The grand lobby, however, could be expanded, and it was. Architect Rob Iopa of Honolulu-based WCIT Architecture opened up the space to the expansive back lawn, creating a huge, open-air lobby, where guests are greeted with fresh guava juice and cool washcloths as they await check-in. The design team looked to the private estates on Oahu for inspiration while designing the lobby and public spaces. “In Hawaiian homes, you see a lot of our local koa wood as well as exotic hardwoods and an international mix of furniture, with nods to Asian, Moroccan and traditional elements,” says Philpotts, whose team designed a huge koa entry table for the lobby and refinished the existing koa baseboards and trim. They framed vintage photos of the hotel in its heyday to anchor the historic references, and chose eclectic furnishings to capture the feel of the Hawaiian traveler/collector. In the lobby, wing chairs flank a Moroccan table, and a custom rug by Tom modernizes the traditional tropical Hawaiian patterns and plays off the original stencilwork of the ceiling beams above.


Starwood brought in Los Angeles designer Terry Henriksen of Henriksen Design Associates to outfit the hotel’s new seafood restaurant, Azure, where diners enjoy the catch from chef Jon Matsubara’s daily journey to the Honolulu Fish Auction at Pier 38 (try the moi, a native fish so delicious it was historically reserved for royalty; the penalty for a commoner caught eating it was death). Henriksen cast the dining room in a white, yellow and black Hollywood Regency theme with finishing touches, such as Moroccan lanterns, that repeat the Middle Eastern motif echoed throughout the hotel. Finally, the lanai between the historic main building and the newer 17-story Beach Tower (which is currently being renovated) was laid with simple chocolate-brown and hot-pink rugs, also custom-designed by Tom, and lined with tall white pots of orchids – an attempt to bridge the older architecture of the main building with the newer tower.


The work paid off, not only for the Royal’s guests by also for Philpotts Interiors, which has done business in Honolulu since 1963, when Philpotts’ mother founded the firm. The redesign earned the firm a Best in Show award from the IIDA Northern California Honor Awards. “Typically, those awards go to projects that are very high design, entered by significant firms like Gensler,” Philpotts says. “So it was amazing to be picked from that group.”


And of course, the new hotel has anchored Waikiki’s renaissance, serving as a nearly century-old symbol of the famous beach’s status in the hospitality industry. “It’s given Waikiki a whole new curb appeal, taking it out of a cement jungle and bringing back the magic of the 1920s and ‘30s,” Philpotts says. “It’s exciting to be part of that.”


View additional images of The Royal Hawaiian Hotel.