Designful

Wellbeing

Dowling's at The Carlyle hotel
Dowling's at The Carlyle hotel

As New York reopened from its long COVID-19 lockdown, William Paley began to notice something about the restaurants. At first, he says, they were “going out of their way to space out seating and create partitions.” Then the vaccination campaign began in earnest, case numbers declined, and people grew more relaxed. Tables were moved closer and closer together until they were back to where they had been prepandemic.

“The ‘creep’ just happened naturally,” Paley notes. “It’s in our nature to be close. That communal noise, the rubbing of shoulders, and people-watching are so important to us. I’m a very deeply introverted person, but I want to be able to take my laptop or my book, my coffee, whatever, and sit in a place where there are a lot of people.”

New York City during the pandemic
New York City during the pandemic

It’s Paley’s job to notice these things. As the creative director of tonychi studio, the New York-based interior design firm, he is one of the key minds behind the studio’s renowned concept of “invisible design.” As founder Tony Chi once described it, “It’s what touches you rather than what you see.” It’s all the subtle cues a space gives the people who inhabit it, allowing them not just to exist within the space but to appropriate it and make it theirs.

The pandemic upended our relationships to many spaces. With a new and potentially deadly virus on the loose, places that had always been havens — like restaurants — suddenly became danger zones. It underlined something that has always been at the heart of invisible design: wellness. Now more than ever, spaces must be designed not only to be comfortable but also to enhance our wellbeing.

New York City during the pandemic
New York City during the pandemic

“You have the plastic side, which is the body, and you have the more ephemeral side, which is the mind and the spirit,” Paley explains. Understanding that concept means understanding the fundamental needs of a space and the people who will use it. And it also means moving away from what Paley calls “design with a capital D,” the kind of eye-catching interiors that are designed to be looked at but not necessarily to be experienced. “We’re here to turn that ‘D’ into a lowercase ‘d’ and try to get to the root of what it is we're trying to achieve with a residential client or with a restaurateur, or with a developer, a chef, or a hotel operator,” he says.

William Paley, Creative Director at toni chi
William Paley, Creative Director at toni chi

In Paley’s case, invisible design is a philosophy that has its roots in an unorthodox path to becoming a designer. He describes himself as a “late bloomer” who stumbled through his first years at university with “the worst grades I’d ever gotten in my life.” Despite failing calculus and barely passing physics, Paley thrived in the architecture studio, and a professor recommended he transfer to the architecture program at the Rhode Island School of Design. “I managed to make it through that,” he says. “And then I abandoned it. I graduated at 23 and I was very disillusioned. I didn't like the grind.”

He decided to backpack around Japan and ended up staying for three years, “just turning back into a sponge and absorbing,” he says. That eventually led him to take up an apprenticeship in a carpentry workshop where he learned traditional Japanese post-and-beam construction. “It was a much more joyful way of taking in the practice of building,” he says.

When he finally returned to the United States, a twist of fate led him to apply for a job at a start-up studio run by Tony Chi. It turned out that Chi had grown up in a Japanese-style house in Taiwan, and the two bonded over their shared experience. Over the next few years, their vision began to evolve into what they now call “invisible design,” which began as an effort to “make the design disappear,” Paley explains. It’s design that “touches you in all senses,” he says, instead of simply being visually striking.

Mandarin Oriental Guangzhou hotel lobby
The spa consultation area at Mandarin Oriental Guangzhou
Mandarin Oriental Guangzhou

The studio’s portfolio reflects how they have achieved that vision. The Mandarin Oriental Guangzhou, which opened in 2013, reimagines the hotel as a traditional Chinese home arranged around a central courtyard. The concept isn’t obvious at first glance — instead, it’s slowly revealed as guests move through the hotel, from the lobby’s marble floor patterned to resemble the flow of a river to the intimate nooks of the club lounge, with its carved wooden screens and wooden pocket doors.

The studio’s latest project is a renovation of The Carlyle, New York’s iconic hotel which opened in 1930. Much of their work focused on updating public spaces, guest rooms, and the restaurants while retaining enough of the original details to remind visitors of the hotel’s historic roots — an approach that Chi has described as emphasizing “the passage of time.”

Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle hotel
The suite at the Carlyle hotel. Photo credit: Humberto Cantu
The suite at the Carlyle hotel

For Paley, The Carlyle was an opportunity to explore how a post-pandemic hotel should feel: lively, warm, uplifting, and surprising — all important qualities after a somber and stifling two years. “It was built on the hope that we would have some kind of normalcy,” he says. “And that if we didn’t have normalcy, that we would still provide some way for people to come together.”

Kohler Design Studio Manager Erin Lilly interviewed Paley in Studio KOHLER Presents: By Design,
a new podcast produced by Kohler Co. 

The podcast Studio KOHLER Presents: By Design
The podcast Studio KOHLER Presents: By Design