THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I am a warrior by nature. Conflict doesn’t frighten me.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, December 2022
AS: I am Andrea Dawson Sheehan. I was born Andrea Herron, in Tacoma, Washington in 1958. I’m a third generation Washingtonian. My family arrived in the United States in the 1600’s, so I’m a long-term pioneer, as far west as I could [go], except I guess, for Hawaii.
JW: Tell us a little about your background in your family, ethnic background, your childhood.
AS: Well, I’m your classic wasp. They fled from England, Scotland and Ireland in the 1600’s and landed in Virginia, on both sides of my family. They had at one time owned a big plantation on the Potomac before, pre-Revolutionary, before they lost everything, because they used to be Brits. My grandparents arrived in Washington State just after statehood. My mother was an artist. I have four other siblings and she was a homemaker. Her husband, my father, was in World War II. He was in the Navy and he was actually in Pearl Harbor when it was bombed and he suffered from PTSD his entire life.
JW: Oh my gosh. Your family is history.
AS: Kind of. Yes, that’s right. I mean, when we do the research, we find out that there were not a whole lot of families in Virginia in about 1685 so, everybody seems to be related to each other. Those are all distant cousins. My father is from Tennessee, and it’s funny because when he married my mother during World War II, she was 18 and she really didn’t know him very well, other than that he looked great in the military Navy’s blue. I think that’s what really drew her. She was 16 when she met him. I always bring up my parents because they are like all of our parents, they have a huge impact on who we become as adults.
They had a very tumultuous relationship because of the PTSD, and he tended to be violent. And so, she escaped through art, and painting and drawing. When I was about eleven years old, she went back to university. Actually, she went to college for the first time when she was 48 to get her degree in fine art. I was the original generation of latch-key children, where I at eleven, I had nobody at home when I would come home. But then I would stay up and work with my mom at nighttime when she would do her homework and paint, and I would paint with her. She gave me a pretty thorough education in the arts at a very young age.
I have good memories of that. She was always telling me how I needed to be independent, that I needed to be self-reliant, that I didn’t want to get trapped in a bad relationship, and that she was trying to save herself, and I totally understood. We championed her as a family for doing that. In the end, she never left my father. They died in their late 90s, but at least she had the option if she’d wanted to.
I think that really stuck in my mind about the need for financial independence, the need for problem solving, not leaning too heavily on others, and just learning how to do things independently. So, I think I’m just a natural feminist in that I am a survivor. I learned how to navigate by hit and miss, trial and error, and it made me stronger through the years. I wouldn’t redo any of it because I’d be afraid I’d unravel something. I think it turned out okay in the end.
JW: So, you went into the arts, then?
AS: I did. I’ve always had a gift for it. Definitely, it runs in the family. My mother was very gifted. She had a studio after she came out of school, and I was raised with turpentine and oil paint on every smudge of my clothes. I have always been around artists, so I’ve never really been put in a box. My mother told me early on that my trees could be any color I wanted them to be, and that coloring books were just guidelines, so I had no problem coloring outside the lines. My teachers, fortunately celebrated that, because I was always winning awards for breaking the rules.
So, you see, I was rewarded for being a rebel early on. I think that gives me my self-confidence as far as my vision and my artistic pursuit, which has been lifelong. I’m a natural explorer, and diversity and curiosity go hand in hand with me. I never find something I don’t find interest in. I never see an object that I don’t see beauty in, or interest in at least. And so, when you’re raised with somebody who’s always pointing at the shadow lines or the veins of a leaf, you develop a very intense sense of detail. Because when you have to paint it, you have to study the subtleties of it. So, I think all those years she went back to college just really gave me an early start.
JW: Tell us a little about your career.
AS: I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I started my first consignment painting business when I was 16. I was doing holiday windows and had quite the gig going on and I carried that on through college. I was going for fine arts, and I was kind of a bit of a prodigy at the time. Then I met my first husband. The problem with my mother was of her generation, she was very conflicted. She taught me about the desperate need for being independent and being financially independent.
At the same time, she taught me I needed to marry a doctor. She taught me that belonging to the country club was, of course, the golden rule. And so, I had this very interesting conflicted childhood between independence and domestic. My first husband was the son of a doctor and studying to be a dentist. Very handsome, very charming. His family felt I would be more appropriate to be an interior designer. Then I could be a good hostess and help my husband’s clients. I was 21 years old, and it felt a little weird to me, but I was pretty pliable.
So, I dropped my fine art and I moved into interior design, and I tailored my life around doing what I thought I was supposed to do, for the most part. What society expected me to do. And so ultimately, like so many of us, I mean, that was the generation. I’m the youngest of five. I graduated from high school in 1976 and watched my siblings go through the ‘60s, so by the time I came around, I was pretty adventuresome and pretty wise for my age.
When I met my husband, something clicked in and I went into what I thought I was supposed to do. After we got married, I began to realize that the role he wanted for me and the role I wanted in my life were not the same. The training I was getting from him so that I would learn the proper way to iron shirts, fold socks, entertain clients at the country club, dance with their partners, to me, I realized it was not a life I wanted. That it would smother me, and that it was not the training I wanted. The poor guy, there was no way he could have ever trained me for this role and I was just not Junior League stock.
JW: This sounds familiar to me, but keep going. I love it.
AS: Yes, exactly. I read your bio. That’s what had me laughing, because so many of us followed this path before we realized that that is the path designed pretty much for a patriarchal society, where women don’t have equal power. We were all taught that. I understand it. I understand religions teach us that too. But the fact is, I have always had a really intense feeling that we are 100% equal. And I love men. I mean, I really love men. I find them very amusing and entertaining and smart, but at the same time, they also were a victim of the society that raised us to be somehow in a tier system. I don’t hold it against them. I just like to work towards educating, not training. Teaching more and sharing our points of view of what you really get from a strong woman, or a confident woman, a powerful woman.
Back to my history. I married my husband and after three years, I gave myself three years because for some reason that seemed respectable for me, I left him on the date. Three years. Now, I look back, I think whoa, that was vicious. Gave him the keys on the third-year anniversary. I did try to work it through with him sincerely, but he just wouldn’t go to counceling or even listen sincerely with any interest or understanding that what I wanted and what he wanted were not on the same planet. So, we parted ways, and I figured out that I had to learn to pay my own bills, make my own money, navigate life for myself. I just knew I had to learn. Early marriage had been more of an alternative path, a shortcut. That doesn’t really work in life. I had to do my own work first.
The month I married my first husband, I had landed a job as a restaurant designer, and I was working for three years. I was married to him for three years, and then I decided after the divorce that I needed to leave Seattle and work on a national level. I drove to Dallas, Texas, sent my resumes, moved to Dallas, and worked for national firms designing nightclubs and hotels.
JW: Can you tell me around what years these are you’re talking about?
AS: Let’s see, I left my husband – we didn’t get divorced for a few years, but I left him in 1984 – and then drove to Texas in 1985 and began to work. At that time, Dallas was the heart of the hospitality industry and Seattle was a pretty small town at that point, pretty provincial. It was very backwater in that era. It was before it became this kind of international pacific rim city. I worked for a firm doing nightclubs, and I really enjoyed the theater of designing space where I could serve people, but also manipulate their environment.
So, it was experiential and it satisfied some need in me. It was like I was the orchestra, I was the conductor, and they took joy from it. I really liked that connectivity between me and my guests and how they were impacted by the choices I made in their environment. It was a natural for me. I’ve been doing it all my life. We were experimenting in nightclubs in the late 80s, when one of our nightclubs was in a Newsweek magazine, along with a hotelier in New York called Ian Schrager, and a hotelier in London who had done the Hotel Blakes’ by a famous English designer.
The hotels looked like nightclubs, and I said, “I can do this.” They were comparing our nightclub to the hotels, so I jumped into hotels, and within about three years, I had been building my reputation client list. That is when my current boss, because I was building my own clients, kind of felt like he was losing his power and actually pushed me up against the boardroom wall with one hand on my neck, and a fist in my face, telling me that I was just the type of bitch who would make it to the top.
The thing was, fortunately, I’m tall. I’m five foot nine and probably had three-inch heels on. He was about five foot four, and I just wasn’t overly intimidated by him. But I took him seriously. As soon as he left that evening, I packed my bags and that’s when I started my company. I left that night.
JW: Before you go into your own company. I want to ask you this. During this time you were evolving, had you been influenced by any of the feminist readings or all the stuff in the air that was going on?
AS: 100%, Judy, I loved Gloria Steinem, and I’ll tell you a funny story about that a little bit later on, on how I still love Gloria Steinem. For me, I didn’t join any organizations because I was organically that being, where I just inherently believe in fairness. I totally believe that women get the short end of a stick and I’m kind of a warrior by nature, so I didn’t join anything because I think I was born a feminist and I so believe in it as a right. I just fight it every single day. I chose a profession that was dominated by males. My first boss used to lean against the drafting table over me to give me a full body rub. I just remember turning around and saying, “You do that again, I’m going to punch you in the nose.”
JW: I see, you were not intimidated then either.
AS: I think that’s the key. I wasn’t intimidated, and also because I was tall and I’m powerful. I have a lot of Viking blood in my genetics. I just had that shield maiden type of nature where conflict doesn’t really frighten me, and so I was happy. I still am really empathetic to women who have never had the freedom that I’ve had in my life. I sit and listen to them, I hear the stories, and it just makes me crazy. Infuriating. I raised my own daughter with the same belief and she is following in our shoes. She’s a filmmaker, and we’re both very strong feminists and we write scripts together. But again, that’s a little different down the line. We really believe in the power of women and when they find themselves, we know how strong and amazing they are.
JW: Well, go on with when you started your business.
AS: I started my business on a dining room table in my apartment, having walked out of my job. Fortunately, all my clients came with me and I was in Dallas, Texas, where I didn’t really want to be. I had to deal with contractors who called me “Honey baby,” who would try to get into my face to intimidate me physically. One Harlan kicked over a bucket of nails at me when I told him to rip something out that he had built incorrectly. At this time in my life, I’d had about eight solid years of dealing with contractors and architects and bosses and understood.
But one woman in Texas, she was really a wealthy restaurateur told me, “Honey, you’re going to have to learn to lose your edge. What you do in Texas is you smile and you smile sweetly when they talk, and then as soon as they leave, you do what you want, but the way you just challenge straight up, is not going to do you well in Texas, okay?” And I said, “Well, Pam, I really appreciate that, and I totally understand that this is probably true, but it’s not my nature to pretend that it’s okay. I’m probably not meant to live in Dallas, Texas.”
I pretty much thought it over and I opened an office in Seattle and I had two offices for a little while. I really appreciated her just telling me that if I was going to be successful, I was going to have to shift, and I didn’t want to shift. So, I went back, and I opened a second office in Seattle and began to build my clientele again, eventually. That was in 1987 when I started my company, and I still have it. I have offices in Seattle and in London, still doing hospitality.
I’m a natural hostess, so hospitality is perfect for me. I mean, in a certain way, I am Junior League stock. I do know how to serve people, and I want to have them entertained. I want them to have good conversation, but I want them to have it in a way where we’re all equal and we’re all participating in the conversation and sharing points of view.
Hospitality gave me that salon where I could have my events, and I could orchestrate the surroundings, and I could trigger the conversations by what I brought into the space. I learned early on, the power of artists has always been in society, always critically important to reflect what’s going on. I learned a long time ago that art is the best way to get conversations going, because it seems to be a neutral ground where everybody will argue about a Rothko. Either I could paint it, or my kid could paint it, or they just love the depth of the color and the power, and they’ll stand and they’ll argue and they’ll look at each other like they’re crazy because they can’t relate to each other.
I always pick Rothko because of the simplicity and the power of the scale. And so, I always like to sneak in my conversations in art, so that I get them comfortable. I give them alcohol, I make them comfortable in a safe surrounding, and then I put a powerful piece of art in front of them with a layered-in message, and ideally painted by an artist who has a very layered-in message, so that I can get them to read about the artist and hear what the vision was, and hear about the artist’s life as it applies to the painting. It’s like a history lesson.
JW: So, this is restaurants you did?
AS: We began experimenting with this in restaurants but then I switched over, when I started my company in ’87. By the early ’90s I had jumped and started working with Bill Kimpton’s group in San Francisco with the Kimpton Hotels chain, and he was competing head-to-head with Ian Schrager of New York, who had Morgan and all the famous nightclub designers in New York. We were competing head-to-head, east coast, west coast with this new movement now called boutique hotels.
So, I was one of the original boutique hotel designers, which is all about experiential design and weaving in something beyond just a nice bed and a beautiful environment. It’s a little bit more provocative. So that became my medium, I would say. I started working with Kimpton in the 1990s and really understood and learned my craft, and saw that I could learn how to put people at ease, I could learn how to make people laugh, I could learn to make people uncomfortable, I could learn how to make them insecure if I wanted to. So, I began to dial with human emotions and how they reacted and responded to environment, stimuli, lighting, art.
I dialed an experiment for years and I began to see that the more I introduced the ideas of conceptual arts, where it’s really the person’s reaction that makes the experience, rather than the actual environment. So, it’s about the idea underneath that space, that becomes so much more memorable and powerful as a tool of communication. I began to more and more experiment, and try different stories and narratives behind my work to see how I could draw people in. Always, as in film, when you sit down in the movie theater and the lights go down, you disappear into the experience.
I read a lot and studied a lot about brain science, and what it is that gets us to drop into middleearth within 10 seconds of sitting down in the movie theater. And technically, scientifically, there’s all kinds of cues we can give the brain to do that. And so, my goal has always been to narrow that gap. My audience is really my guest walking from the curb and how quickly can I draw them into my experience so that they really forget what they were doing. They come into the experience and they begin to explore and discover out of curiosity, before they realize that I’ve drawn them into something that maybe has some hidden and sometimes barbed messages underneath.
The first hotel we did where we began to bring in social activism into our hotels was a hotel in San Francisco. It was in 2012, and it was right down the street from Facebook’s corporate office. We wanted to capture the Facebook market, and we wanted those people to come to our hotel. It was an old hotel that was pretty boring and nondescript. I wanted to do something on social media, and I’ve always been uncomfortable about social media because it’s such a non-transparent form of communication. You don’t know who you’re really talking with, you don’t know what the facts are, and [that] bothered me a lot.
So, I did a hotel, and I made a whole wall that was softly backlit, and it was actually mug shots from Alcatraz. I called it the original Facebook, and it makes the whole lobby glow with warmth. We put in a two story Plinko wall that the guests can play, because Plinko is like a perfect form of chaos. You don’t know where the ball is going to drop. You just don’t know who was going to get your emails and who would get your photographs. We made all the art out of recycled garbage, and it’s really beautiful, but again, it’s packaging somebody else’s garbage and making it look beautiful. So, I did the whole hotel based on the pros and cons of social media in 2012. And the techies took it over. They loved it. They saw the irony.
JW: Now, I’m curious about the faces from Alcatraz. That did not offend anyone?
AS: They’re really interesting. I did them all in a warm, sepia tone, and it’s all backlit. Actually, their light fills the room and it’s only when you get close to it that you can see that they’re hardcore killers looking at you. We had a book on the table that had some of their mug shots, “This one killed that one, and that one killed this one, and this one is Al Capone.” And so, people would sit down and they were always looking and trying to find the different people. I realized how much people loved it because they were surprised by it. And it was so surprising what it was. I was just talking about what everybody was already worried about with social media, and which has proven true. And so, it did really, really well.
What allowed me to do these activist hotels, is in 2000, I had been working for the Kimpton Hotels as one of their designers. Not for them, but they were my client, and they had a new investor in, who happened to be based in Washington, DC. at Bethesda. It was a real estate investment trust fund at Lasalle Hotels. They were going to hotels in Washington, DC. and they were old run-down hotels around Dupont Circle. We needed to convert them into stylish fashion hotels, so I was hired to do two of them conceptually through the design, and then the other two in production – I would help the designer who they hired. I opened the first Kimpton on the east coast in Dupont Circle. There were four hotels within blocks of each other. As you know, those neighborhoods on 14th, 11th, 13th, all those areas, they just had been kind of mid-market hotels, Quality Inn type of hotels.
I was commissioned to turn them into stylish hotels that the cool and famous would hang out at in Washington, DC. The first one eventually was called the Topaz, and then the other one was the Rouge. I didn’t do the concepts for the original Rouge, but we did all the production drawings for it and evolved it years later. The other one was the Helix, which is now the Viceroy. The other one was called the Hotel Madera. At the same time, the Hotel Monaco was being built, which was the other Kimpton, which is another we worked on later. We designed their restaurant and bar in 2016 named “Dirty Habit.” It is about corruption in politics and how dirty habits always seem to get swept under the table.
The Topaz opened October 1, 2001, meaning right after 911. I had done an Arabian Nights theme, and I had based it off of Whistler’s room at the Smithsonian, the Peacock Room. About Whistlers power struggle between he and the patron who hired him, and who tried to control the artist. Whistler painted this room in London with all these amazing graphics of peacock feathers, actually, because of his pompous clients. He made both his patron and himself into fighting peacocks. It’s a famous room at the Smithsonian, and it was done right about the turn of the century, 1890, 1880s, something like that.
It is really the story of conflict between artist and patron, and who really controls the art and the artist. And it’s brilliant blue. It’s overdone. It’s exaggerated. I used that as the undertone of this hotel, and I made it over the top, extravagant, with the peacocks because of the politics in Washington. I just wanted to make fun of it. I thought those personalities were still there. And it was a huge hit. The hotel had a two-page spread in the Washington Post in the Arts and Culture section when it opened.
And so, then I really understood what they loved. The idea that I was reinterpreting Whistler’s Peacock Room and evolving the story. For the same reasons, Kimpton hadn’t wanted me to do the design because it was too provocative, but the client who was paying for it said, “Let her do it. I trust her.” We had never worked with each other, but he just believed in my vision, and he loved the undertone of it and has become my client for the last 22 years. My main client, his name is Jon Bortz, and he is the CEO of, then it was Lasalle Hotels. He left and started and then became Pebblebrook Hotel Trust in 2009.
He understood the power of social activism, or at least commentary in controversial subjects as a subject matter in these urban hotels, where you have a little bit more intellectual market, probably a higher educated market and a more curious market by nature. And so began 22 years of exploration together. Pebblebrook is the largest independent lifestyle hotel owner in the United States now, and has been the investor behind these controversial projects. Jon and his team really have fun doing them. He has a lot of great ideas that get woven into this tapestry that we create and has always pretty much given me free artistic license.
He generally says yes, but if they didn’t make a lot of money, he would not give me the key to the car. I’m still working for him. I do other types of hotels, and I do have other clients that own important hotels. I mean, I’ve done the Rosewood in Bermuda. I do W Hotels. I do Autograph Hotels for Marriott. I do other luxury types of hotels, and it’s nice to have a beautiful hotel without any political provocative sub-messaging. But me, I’m kind of addicted to the political provocative. I feel that I can do more good, and tie into society, and really actually celebrate artists and letting them and their stories shine.
JW: Well, I want you to tell us all about Hotel Zena.
AS: So, the first one on social media was called Hotel Zeta, and that was in San Francisco, and it was a big hit. Then I did the Hotel Zephyr, which is Zeta’s brother. Zephyr is on the waterfront in San Francisco, and it’s about technology. In the middle of the big courtyard, I’m burning a 13-foot tall pile of computer monitors as the fire pit, and it’s surrounded by games that you have to play, old fashioned types of games, and the bed covers say SOS on them. If you go to the roof and look down, you’re looking at a game of Candy Land, where the players and the guests are playing the game as we lead them through the experience. That also was a huge success.
Then we did Hotel Zeppelin, which celebrates activism. In the lobby I scrawled phrases of Allen Ginsburg’s The Howl along the top of the ceiling, that magically appear in certain hours under black light. It is a poem about a gay man’s pain in the ‘50s. A portrait of Grace Slick takes one whole lobby wall, in her prime when she was with Jefferson Airplane. Just celebrating the power of San Francisco and the impact it has had on the world, on social causes, social justice, how it’s always been at the forefront. That was Hotel Zeppelin, and that did very, very well. And then we did Hotel Zelos, which is the god of chaos, and that’s about AI, where all the art is made electronically by machines. We took the humanity and passion out of the hotel experience except for a sculpture of the Indian god Shiva who is half female and half male greeting arriving guests. She/he sits in the lobby with multiple arms and in each hand a different kind of communication device, trying to stay up with technology. The question we are asking is will artificial intelligence destroy humanity?
JW: Where is that one?
AS: That’s also San Francisco.
AS: As we’ve been doing these activist hotels, my client decided they needed their own brand. They are known as “The Unofficial Z Collection.” We have a reputation at this point for challenging the norms of the hospitality industry and also discovering that our guests like to be involved. We were starting our next project when Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump came along. Donald Trump, is a hotelier. We know Donald Trump. We knew him before he ran for president. He’s always been a sleazeball. I’m sorry, but people who don’t know that, are not in the hotel business. He has a reputation for being a crook and he burns people. I’ve heard that for the last 30 years. I fortunately never had the good fortune to work with him. I obviously would not be his fit, and for sure, I’m not his taste, thank God.
My daughter is a filmmaker, as I said, and she was just graduating from Boston U with a filmmaking degree with her masters that year. Something like 9% of all directors are women, so she had impossible odds to go against. And then Harvey Weinstein was all over the news and the Access Hollywood video. I started listening to the women who are my peers and my age, who sounded a lot like me. I was taught that you just slog through it. You just deal with it. You have to work twice as hard to get half as much. And we accepted it as being tough. We had to be hard and capable and competent.
But there are so many women who didn’t have that type of strength, who were so victimized by it. Had we turned around and said, “Wait a minute, stop. Hold the fort here. This is not okay,” then a lot of those women would not have been victimized. And we, I believe, have a responsibility in that we didn’t help those who needed help when we had positions of power. We just accepted it as how it was, and it was going to be hard. I think that’s the key. We accepted it as normal when it’s anything but normal, and though we were fighting pretty much for ourselves rather than for organizations for the women like you were, fighting for the masses, I was out there fighting in the ring. So, when I listened to these women being interviewed who had been victimized, I thought, okay, well, I have a podium. I have a client who would support this. So I shifted my ideas about the next hotel I want to do, and decided to take on female equal rights.
I began to put together a pitch for my clients, and it was originally going to be in San Francisco, where the Z’s are, and it was going to be a Z hotel, but I said I was going to call it a female Z. And I pitched this powerful hotel in San Francisco. It was actually the former Monaco Hotel there, which they owned, and this is what I want to do. And I showed him a presentation, and I showed him the history. I tied in MLK and how this is actually just about human rights and that we needed to take a stand. If you’re going to take a stand, it should be in San Francisco, where people expect that type of thing.
And my client, Jon, who’s also my friend, they all were looking at me in delight. They loved it. They all agreed, and half of his company is women, they were just like, “Yes.” And then Jon said, “You know what? I think we should do it in Washington, DC. where we can really make a big statement. I think we should turn the former Thompson Hotel, which is the Donovan House, into this new hotel designed to celebrate women’s accomlishments shining a light on equal rights. It’s right there on Thomas circle. Across is the big National City Christian Church, and we can do something here and be right in everybody’s face.”
JW: Yes. And you did it. I want you to explain to the audience what’s in the lobby.
AS: Well, let me tell you how it got there. I got the green light, and I got the hotel. I was like, “Whoa. Okay, well, I need to celebrate women in politics.” Because Washington is about politics and they can change the legislation, I really thought, “Okay, these are the women I want to celebrate.” Women in legislation, women in politics historically, all the way from early Greek all the way through. Eve, right? I happened to be going to Australia.
I happened to be going to Australia. My daughter and I take road trips every year. She was just on the set of Watchmen, an HBO series that she was working on, that was really powerful as far as equal rights go. Nicole Kassell the director was her boss and had recommended that she listen to On the Road, by Gloria Steinem. I flew in early. I picked her up at the Melbourne airport and she jumped in and she popped in Gloria Steinem’s On the Road audio tape. And we drove from Melbourne all the way to Cairns listening to Gloria. She also had brought along a book of Martin Luther King speeches.
We talked about what would a hotel be that was a celebration of female power and accomplishment. What was the visual that we could pull up in our head? What would do it without using any stereotypes? No pink, no girly, nothing that Hollywood has put out there. And we realized there just were not commercial spaces that did this. There was nothing. There was nothing out there. The closest we could get were like Barnard or Smith. We studied how the schools were doing that. But there was nothing in public spaces that celebrated women, where everywhere we turned, stadiums, Hooters, celebrate males and their fetishes. There was nothing out there.
So, we said, “It has to be about civil rights. And here, we’re listening to Gloria and her story, and we were jotting things down, we’re sketching ideas. She’s very creative and she and I get along great and always collaborate together. So, we decided art had to be the warrior that we had to pull them in, because if there was any indication in advance that it was a feminist hotel, it could turn them off before they ever got there. So, we had to draw them in like it was a gallery. The art had to be so strong and powerful, done by strong and powerful feminists, both male and female, with their own story, so that we would entangle them into the web before they realized everything was targeted towards this message.
We hadn’t decided it was going to be a Viceroy yet. It was still a vision. We knew it had to be soft and nurturing, kind and approachable, like a good hostess. All the lines had to be curvilinear, so it felt compelling to walk through it, that you weren’t going to get poked with something sharp, because we knew we were going to poke them, but we had to surround them and put them at ease first. Then I began to talk to women of my own age, asking them what they thought a female space would look like, and they were all so positive.
But then, they couldn’t think of a space, and it would always go back to their own home, and that their home to them was their strength. It was so fascinating. Everybody had a different idea, a totally different idea. I knew we were going to be controversial, because my experience is that often women are the worst at attacking other women. They may feel who gives you the right to say what a female experience is? I actually had that said to me in multiple conversations.
So, we were expecting it to be a kind of a fight. I mean they have fought over what color pink is appropriate? It’s the same type of argument that we hear in women’s groups. Everybody has a different emotional experience and idea, and we wanted this space to be inclusive of everybody. And so, we kept thinking, it had to be about the art and bringing people in, and putting a bar in the middle of it so people would drink and have an experiential, and talk about the art. And through that, we would trigger conversations that we’d hopefully need to change. So that was always our mission.
The first piece was the serpent that I designed. And the serpent is a 60-foot-long light sculpture. And of course, you can’t have the story of the female without a serpent. I like to say the serpent is knowledge, and all that Eve wanted was a bite of that apple so that they could open their eyes. I don’t see why that’s a problem. So, the light also is a beautiful warm light source made of natural wood and it wraps around overhead. It’s made in the shape of the colonial flag serpent made by Benjamin Franklin of the colonies, where it says, Don’t Tread on Me. The serpent is meant to lead you through the space and also light your path, but also to protect and keep a watchful eye, and so, it leads you through into the space.
I always knew I wanted to have a portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She has fought tirelessly for our benefit. I wanted something really simple, that felt like it was childlike, really basic, not overly complicated, but at the same time, super complicated – as I think women are. I’d always loved pointillism, and the idea of fractured light creating a bigger picture, and from a distance when you get closer it turns into something different. I thought of a Pegboard while we were on a trip.
I was sketching Pegboard ideas and I was thinking what can I use for Pegs? I knew it was going to be big and that I would lead people to this experience. And so, we were talking, I thought it was going to be pencils, or what if it’s pens? I kept thinking, what can we make her out of? It was actually one night, it’s been a long time since I needed tampons, but my daughter still has them. And I saw the powder room and, boom. What speaks to the female existence more than the menstrual cycle?
JW: I have seen this work of art and I did not know it was Tampons. I just want to say that for the record. I have to go back and look at it again. But anyway, go ahead.
AS: Her collar, which is metal actually, I’m going to say this for the first time, is made out of studs from a dominatrix magazine. And its metal because, of course, she always put her collar on when she was going to go to fight. Some people thing they are bullets. They are not.
Once I had it, then I came back to my office. I took a picture of Ruth. Then we pixelized it and we made it work, and I put it into a rendering of this lobby that we were envisioning. I pitched this thing to the clients who just stopped me mid sentence. Then he brought all of his senior team and partners into the room and said, “Okay, now I want you to start over again.” They loved Ruth and the tampon idea and thought it would be super powerful and provocative. They loved the whole presentation. For the button wall, of 20,000 protest buttons, I kept remembering this beaded shirt I had in Dallas in the 80s. I was designing nightclubs and how it was like armor. The sequins were always dropping as I danced.
It was hot. It was so stupid, and I spent a fortune for it, and that’s fashion. How women always buy fashion, and we love fashion, but in many ways, it’s not remotely comfortable. So, I thought that I needed the hotel to have this wrapping gown, and the sequins would be protest buttons.
With Ruth, once we decided on Tampons, this is 16 feet by 16 feet, this portrait. Viceroy was involved at that point, and they reached out to Tampax and Cora Tampons and somebody else, and they all were vying to do this portrait. They saw my rendering, and they wanted their name on it in Washington, DC. So, Cora tampon is biodegradable, and also, it took the paint right. When I came back, I don’t do the installations myself, I have a really dear friend in San Francisco who’s also a very strong feminist artist, Julie Coyle.
I called her up and I sent her the rendering and said, “Okay, here’s our toughest project yet. We’re going to make Ruth, and we’re going to make her out of tampons, and we need to figure out what paint would adhere to what.” She is the one who came up with the dominatrix studs. I didn’t know it until after she had already done it. Her team is so fun. I have images of her making this. It looks like a munitions factory with mountains of tampon boxes and aerial views of them putting the tampons. They had a whole crew of teenage boys from some of the workers who were cutting off the strings.
They pulled a lot of people into making her. And the fact that we all laugh about it because we were all taught to be ashamed of feminine hygiene products. I mean, I used to drive around at the convenience store for an hour until I saw a woman clerk, to go buy tampons as a young woman, because I was always so horrified by it. I just thought, why are we horrified by it? We see everything on TV, about everything. Why should we be horrified about this? Why should we be taught that somehow, we shouldn’t talk about this, that this is something hidden?
The portrait was done, as was the hotel, while Ruth was still alive, and we had planned on showing it to her, but the hotel didn’t open because of COVID, and then she died before the hotel opened. I know the family has seen it. There was all this political controversy, as there always is. Some women on Twitter made the claim that the project was done for commercial reasons only. That the guys were just trying to make money off the woman’s movement. There was all kinds of bad chatter when it first opened up from both the right and the left, but as soon as I told my story and shared the vision and the reasoning, the chatter turned overwhelmingly positive and appreciative. I have received letters from around the world from women of many cultures and backgrounds. I mean, there’s no way that these stories were invented by some male.
I put together a list of art. We have 60 [pieces of] original art at the hotel. I wanted to have artists from all over the world represented. I traveled the world, meeting artists and getting their portfolios, interviewing them to hear their life stories. Before long, I had people reaching out to me. So, we picked the artists, and we have our portrait gallery, which we want to continue adding to. And also, we have their stories.
Like the nonprofit group in India, the Saheli women in Rajasthan, who employ and train rural women to sew and embroider so they can be financially independent and raise their children. They reached out and if they could make something and be included? I said, “Yes, can you do something about violence because it’s so dangerous for you.” And they said, “Oh, you Western women. They would kill us if we did that. You just don’t understand what it’s like in India.”
We have a collection we call the sewing circle, and it’s in honor of all the women who stitched their quilts and had their village meetings and sewed together and protected each other and communicated what was going on in the villages. So, the sewing circle has always been powerful for women. We have textile pieces in all the guestroom elevator foyers from these different artists, and the Saheli women’s piece is this wonderful jacket.
All the 28 ladies in the program stitched their own faces on this beautiful embroidered jacket. All the pieces have their own QR code so that guests can click on each piece and read about the artist, the cause and the purpose. You can even donate to their organization. They’re so happy about it. Even the big newspaper in Delhi did an article on it.
We published an art book that has the mission of the hotel and features the hotel’s full art collection so that our guests can learn about the artists’ experiences and their vision. We have artists from event continent.
The hotel has received amazing international press. It has won all kinds of European awards. The Americans are frightened of it. Of course, it doesn’t help that all the furniture factory owners are in the south, but we just won another big award, and it’s two years old. It has been featured in multiple newspapers and residential design magazines including Architectural Digest and travel magazines. We just had a concert there a couple of months ago.
We recently completed another Z collection hotel in Los Angeles called Hotel Ziggy. Ziggy supports musicians trying to be discovered. We make sure that female musicians get equal billing. We also help raise money for career musicians with mental health issues from being in the fine arts.
We just hosted a rock concert at Zena where we brought in a Washington, DC female band and a west coast band with a female lead. We had the concert in the lobby in front of Ruth and we were raising money for Women’s Global Fund. More and more, we’re taking the Z’s and beginning to use them for fundraising, bringing events in that support worthwhile causes helping people. It’s been really satisfying.
JW: That’s great. I will say, I was introduced to it because I went on a tour with a group called A Tour of Her Own. The tour was around DC. Different murals of women, the Stark sites, and the break was at your hotel, and it was just fabulous.
AS: And you didn’t realize what Ruth was made of?
JW: Yes, I didn’t. But before we leave your hotel, I wondered where you got all those buttons. I mean, I was thinking, wow, I could have contributed some. I have my own collection. But where did you get all of those?
AS: Well, a lot of them are not real. The ones that are up higher are. I mean, they are stolen all the time. We knew they would be a souvenir. They’re not meant to be a souvenir, but we have to add thousands to it. We had to add a couple thousand to it just this year. People can’t help but take one. So, the more expensive ones, the more vintage ones, the original ones, are up high where you would have to have a ladder to get to them. The lower ones are custom made. We made them at Julie Coyle’s studio. They’re the ones that people are taking and they were based on other buttons and movements, of course.
JW: Well, it’s really fabulous. There’s so many. It’s like, wow, look at all this that went on. It’s fabulous. So, what are you working on now?
AS: Right now, I don’t have a Z on the table, so I don’t have anything that’s political. We just opened the One Hotel in San Francisco. We did all the guestrooms and suites there, and that’s all about sustainability, and that’s very important. It was a great project to work on. But this is what’s really funny, that people don’t think I’m a one trick pony, I actually like lots of messages.
We’re doing a big resort in Rhode Island formerly called Gurneys but it’s going to be called Newport Harbor Island Resort. It’s in Newport. And we’re bringing in weavers across Rhode Island and Massachusetts and Connecticut. Every room will have its own original weaving. We’re really shining a light on the Weavers Guilds, male and female, in New England. And it’s also a hotel where we’re going to be celebrating sustainability. I love Newport, Rhode Island. I’ve done another project there years ago, so I’m happy to do that. But it’s not political. It’s not provocative. We’re just celebrating New England and the New England independence.
This is a shocking thing, but I’m doing two Margaritaville’s. I’ve been hired to bring the first upper scale Margaritaville to the West Coast. My really wonderful clients are all Southern boys, for the most part. It’s all based on Jimmy Buffett, and I get to turn Jimmy into a California surfer dude, basically. His message of just hang loose, chill out, is a good message that we all need once in a while when we need a break from political and provocative interiors.
So, I’m not against drinking Margaritas. It’s been really fun because they had to trust me, a Seattle liberal, to take Jimmy and his identity to California. I had earned their trust, and they’re really great guys. I just openly said, “Oh, my God, you must be terrified. No worries, no worries.” Jimmy was writing with Jackson Brown, Joni Mitchell, he was very much part of the Laurel Canyon group. He’s a smart guy. He has a simple, honest message. And for me, it’s really about that.
So, I’m celebrating Jimmy down in San Diego with a couple of resorts that we’re doing for him. Waiting for my next Z. We had one on the board. It was going to have the collection of feminist artists on the Pacific Rim. We had done all this great research on the history of South America and China, Asia and how women have pretty much just been exterminated from their history. In many ways, truly exterminated.
We had all these great aboriginal artists involved and the design all done, and then COVID hits and it didn’t survive COVID. The client sold the hotel. It was going to be at the Old Monaco in San Francisco, the one that I originally pitched Zena for. It would have been spectacular but San Francisco is still a challenging market in recovering from COVID. So, it was not a good investment. And my client would not be a good businessman if he built philanthropical hotel projects and so it just didn’t make sense.
I’m writing a couple of scripts with my daughter. I’m new to this. I just love to write, and we love to write together. Having a 29-year-old daughter who’s also creative, means we have some differences of opinion on many things, so we have to negotiate and find the best path when we’re writing.
We wrote one script, which is about a woman dealing with expectations of family, who just happens to be driving an eighteen-wheeler across the mountains of Montana, back and forth, delivering product and loving the freedom of the road, and at the same time not conforming to her family’s role that she should be playing.
It’s done very well in the film festivals, and it’s getting close to going out to market. Actually, we are both in Hawaii right now, we were going to spend our time fine tuning it so that we could take it out to market because it’s pretty strong.
She just finished producing a movie in Boston two weeks ago, so now we’re going to start to focus on this movie and raise some money.
We’re halfway through a script on my grandmother from Tennessee who had five husbands by the time she was 35. Who had been married when she was 13 and had kind of basically climbed out of the hollow and escaped. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her grit and determination. So, we’ve been going to relatives down in Tennessee and visiting the hollow and hearing their stories, and they of course, know we’re feminists. We went to a family reunion and it was really interesting. They actually opened up to us. Of course, they were worried about what I might write.
JW: What would you like to add as we close?
AS: I really see myself as a hostess, as I said. I’m a caregiver. I like to nurture people and watch them grow. I like to nurture, especially young women, to teach them how to deal with confrontation productively, and learning how to do it in a way that is effective as well. I have spent the last 30 years training one young woman at a time, to dream bigger, push harder, believe in themselves. They don’t dream very big very often. It’s frustrating. They have a cap that’s really artificial. I try to help them break that as early as possible so they can stick their head up and see that there’s more to it.
So, I think ultimately, if all of us could just be more giving for those women out there. I applaud the women like yourself, and the women that you’re writing about, helping young women, because that’s what we’re doing this for. We’re about to leave this market. We’re baby boomers. I’m not sure we’re leaving it in a better place or a worse place. I thought it was a better place, but given what’s happening in the world right now, I don’t know. It’s going to be a fight, and all we can do is build one warrior at a time.
Will we ever win it? I don’t know. It’s so well entrenched. There’s so much for the men to give up, to give us equal power. That would mean that they’d lose a whole generation of servant-class women in a certain way. That they would have to learn how to do things for themselves. And I love men, but it’s hard to give away power when you have it. And so, it’s going to be a struggle.
At the same time, I think the best way is how Ruth Bader Ginsburg did it. She did it by education and starting conversations and kind of guiding them into recognizing that there’s more to it. And maybe, if they had a little bit of empathy, they would understand how we see the world, too, and maybe they’d be curious about that. So that’s why I always have so appreciated Ruth Bader Ginsburg, because I admired her strength, and at the same time, her ability to draw people in to that conversation and make change. We lost a real champion, and we have to have new champions to carry this on, because the war is not over. I think for the first time, my daughter’s generation is realizing how fragile it is.