Issue 06 | Interiors

Bring the Drama

Los Angeles, CA

Kelly Wearstler takes the “fiercely local narrative” of Proper Hotels to downtown Los Angeles

Creative director of Proper Hotels, Kelly Wearstler

“Narrative is everything,” says the award-winning LA-based interior designer Kelly Wearstler, “whether it’s residential or commercial.” We’re on the phone discussing the launch of the Downtown LA Proper Hotel, the fourth instalment of the US-based hotel chain creatively directed by Wearstler and founded by Brad Korzen, Brian De Lowe and Alex Samek, the team behind Viceroy Hotels. Korzen is Wearstler’s husband, with whom she has two teenage sons, and Proper is their tenth hotel partnership in 20 years.

The hotel, which opens in October, is housed inside a 1926 red brick building designed by Curlett & Beelman. It was a private club in the 1930s before becoming a hotel in the 1940s and then finally a YWCA until 2004. It’s now spectacular, and sure to be a success thanks to Wearstler’s impeccable taste.

“The building hadn’t been touched for years,” she says. “There was a mishmash of architectural styles and renovations, so it definitely needed a lot of TLC when we started working on it four years ago.” The exterior had been designated a historic cultural monument, so the brickwork and original window casings were kept. The rest, in Wearstler’s hands, is now pleasingly colourful, modern and very clearly placed in its fashion district locale.

That’s a signature for Wearstler and now the Proper Hotel brand she’s helped develop: neighbourhood architecture and culture is key, therefore her design always feels rooted in its vicinity. Furniture, materials and works of art are mostly fabricated or sourced locally, while artist collaborators are often drawn from a pool of emerging talents from the area. Downtown LA, where this hotel is based, has a distinctly Spanish-Mexican-Californian vibe, with hints of Moroccan and Portuguese style too. It feels fitting for this place.

Suite at Downtown LA Proper
Wearstler's design makes a statement
Sludgy walls and ethnic textiles in a Downtown LA Proper suite

“We really looked at the history of the building and found that it had a Spanish Mission flavour,” explains Wearstler, “so having looked at a lot of historic photographs, the property is early Californian/Spanish, slightly Mexican themed. There’s a lot of warm colour and pattern and we’ve worked to bring visual drama to some of the spaces. The Proper brand is fiercely local in its narrative, so it’s been an amazing time working with a lot of talented local people, from ceramic artists to chefs and sculptors, exploring many different skill sets.”

Originally from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Wearstler, who studied graphic design and architecture in New York, celebrates 25 years of her studio this year. Her very distinct brand of luxurious laid-back design layers deliciously unexpected combinations of colour and pattern with her great love of both contemporary and rare vintage furniture, lighting and art; she and her 50-strong team are heavily in demand.

Her portfolio of residential and commercial projects is impressive: private homes in New York, California and Texas, as well as hotels and restaurants including The Avalon in Beverly Hills, Viceroy hotels in Santa Monica and Miami and a Four Seasons in Anguilla. Collections of branded products, including furniture, lighting, wallcoverings and rugs, which sell both on her own website and her showroom in Los Angeles, have been a great success, as have collaborations with other brands, including The Rug Company, Lee Jofa and Ann Sacks. There are five monographs dedicated to her work and the latest, Evocative Style, was published last year by Rizzoli.

Texture and pattern in a bedroom at the LA Proper Hotel
Narrative is everything – whether it’s residential or commercial

One of the many things Wearstler is adept at is creating an immersive lifestyle experience that feels both dynamic and relevant. Her interiors are achingly cool and elegant, but somehow still welcoming and relaxed. As part of her remit for Proper Hotels she’s had a hand in all aspects of branding. “When you go to a destination, it needs to ignite all of the senses,” Wearstler explains. “When you walk into a hotel, you want to know what’s the smell, what’s the music playing, what does the card key look like? The design of everything has to work cohesively and tell the story of where you are.” The Proper Hotel in Santa Monica, which opened in 2019, is the perfect example. “You’re by the ocean so you want to feel like you are. Every chair, every book in the library, every material used makes you feel like you’re at the beach in California,” she explains.

At the new Downtown LA location, visitors will find 148 rooms and suites, each individually designed. A hundred different types of tiles were incorporated, from antique discoveries to handcrafted new works from a maker based in Pasadena (and Wearstler also recommends the flea markets in Pasadena for great vintage art and furniture). A large-scale custom stained glass screen has been created for the lobby by Judson Studios, while a hand-painted mural greeting guests at one of the hotel’s entrances is by local artist Abel Macias.

The historic brick exterior of Proper Hotel in downtown LA

The hotel’s life as a YWCA has been swept away, or imaginatively incorporated: an indoor basketball court has become a supersized suite, as has an indoor swimming pool, which now features a ceramic mural by local artist Ben Medansky. A pool and restaurant have been built on the roof and they are clearly set to be a hotspot. Set within a lush landscaped sky garden, there are numerous decked levels for the bar and lounge areas and a dining terrace with views across the city, proof of how brilliant Wearstler is at creating theatre.

The one thing Wearstler isn’t good at is sitting still. During the lockdown earlier this year she worked at full pelt, either from her home office or alone at her studio, with her team working remotely. She even managed to up her daily 90-minute workout to two hours. Of course she did. She’s plotting another monograph for 2022 and is working on the next Proper Hotel opening in Portland, Oregon for next year. A new partnership with a well-known paint brand (“I can’t say who it is yet, but it’s incredible”) launches in spring 2021. What else can she possibly fit into her schedule? “We have several new residential and commercial projects on the go and actually I’d love to take the Proper Hotel concept to London. I would so love a project there.” We look forward to it.