“We try to get as much local feeling as possible in each hotel.” These words perfectly summarize the artistic view of hotel interior designer David T. Williams. Specializing almost exclusively in the interior design of hotels, Williams’ emotion-centric approach made him very popular with hoteliers looking to incorporate something special into their properties’ designs. Over the course of his career, Williams worked on projects varying significantly in size and style, and his portfolio includes renowned hotels such as New York’s Waldorf Astoria and the Gloucester Hotel in London. His clients included top brands and companies like Hilton, Canadian Pacific, Forte, and Hyatt, as well as independent hotels.
After serving in the military during World War II, Williams started to work in the hotel contract department for Chicago’s Marshall Field department store. While there, in 1946, he worked on the rehabilitation of the Stevens Hotel (now the Hilton Chicago), which had been appropriated by the military during the war and was in desperate need of refurbishment. Conrad Hilton liked the way Williams was updating the property—with a classic style and within budget. By 1949, Williams was hired by Hilton and worked there exclusively for the next 10 years. Then, in 1959, he opened up his own design firm in New York City. Until his retirement in 2003, Williams worked on hotels all around the world from that home base.
Fortunately, for history and the lodging industry, Williams, who passed away in 2014, left his papers and book collection to the Hospitality Industry Archive at the Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston. The collection contains items such as design sketches, letters, images, and clippings about the various hotel projects that Williams worked on. Some folders even contained fabric swatches that he used in certain projects.
These folders offer a glimpse into how he approached developing design concepts for various hotel properties. For example, one significant project was the 1955 Istanbul Hilton. Williams moved to Istanbul and lived there for several months to immerse himself in the local culture. He wanted to bring as much of the local design as possible into what would be the first modern hotel built in either Europe or Asia. The folder contains photographs he took of buildings and interiors in Istanbul that would inform his concepts. There is also correspondence regarding contracts with the local suppliers for the fabrics and tiles that would be incorporated into the hotel interior.
For Williams, functionality was an essential component in good design.
Another folder in the collection shows his designs for the restaurants at the Chateau Champlain, a hotel built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Montreal. The Chateau Champlain is a 36-story tower in downtown Montreal, and its opening coincided with the kick-off of Expo 67, Montreal’s World’s Fair. As his sketches show, he considered the free flow of guests and servers to be just as important as the design of the furniture and the wall fixtures. For Williams, functionality was an essential component in good design.
The David T. Williams collection confirms the importance of good interior design for hotels. He knew style, purpose, and layout all contribute to the personality of a hotel, and that as an interior designer he could help create the DNA for a memorable property and unforgettable stay.