Tara Bernerd creates luxurious spaces for the world’s leading hotel brands

The interior designer’s latest project is the new Conrad Los Angeles

When Starchitect Frank Gehry broke ground on his Grand LA building project in California in 2019, it was the start of a giant downtown presence – a sprawling, billion-dollar complex located across from his iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, in all its reflective, curving glory. Grand LA, which opened in July, was designed as a self-contained urban block. For years Bernerd had worked alongside Gehry, determined to create interiors that lived up to the dramatic promise of the exterior. “It’s a beast of a project,” she says, gesturing with her fingers covered in articulated, highly decorative armor-like rings by her friend Loree Rodkin. “The Conrad Hotel, which is a central part of it, has 305 rooms, incredible restaurants, three bars and a huge terrace with a swimming pool. Just walking around it takes three hours.

Bar at the Conrad Los Angeles / Photo: Courtesy of Tara Bernerd & Partners

Bringing a sense of intimacy and emotion to such a project is an enigma. Any talented interior designer can create a boutique hotel with a few samples and a whimsical backstory. But as interior designer and lead designer for all of Grand LA, Bernerd had to step back to see the big picture: “We created staggered ceilings, with graduated curves, and considered each column before we even started thinking about the walls and floors. We had to think of so many things, because it’s both residential and hotel, with all its other destination elements. We were able to inject lots of warmth and a sense of seduction in the spaces, and even before anyone dined in any of the restaurants, we got so many emails from chefs and people in the industry saying how excited they are, just of a Preview.” Bernerd has been designing interiors for almost 20 years, and although she still occasionally works in private homes, it is in the hospitality world that she spends most of her time. When asked to define her style, she says she always aims for something “seductive and ambitious, but still cool.” Many evoke an industrial aesthetic that runs through his projects, but always with a warm touch. “There are certain books that I have in my office that I go back to over and over again,” she says. “There’s one on the Maison de Verre — the ‘Maison du verre’ — by Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet, which was designed in Paris in the 1920s. It was one of the first times we saw this what we would now call loft living, and it has always influenced me: the steel columns and beams, and the use of burgundy and iron-framed glass. I was also heavily influenced by Mexican modernist architect Luis Barragán, whose old house and studio in Mexico City is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Penthouse Suite at The Hari, Hong Kong / Photo: Dennis Lo

Unlike many contemporary designers, despite common denominators in her influences, there is not one obvious style attributable to the Tara Bernerd studio. Each project she has done for Belmond, the Four Seasons, Rosewood, Sixty, Starwood and Thompson has its own DNA. There’s always wood, and strong color, and comfort, and that aforementioned industrial essence, but the mix and balance is always location-dependent. What works in London is different from, say, Hong Kong, although she has created Hari hotels for the same owner, Aron Harilela, in both cities. “What’s interesting about The Hari is that it’s not a big commercial enterprise,” Bernerd says. “Aron is a great friend, and when we started working together we were in the process of creating a new brand. Each of the hotels has an urban sophistication, but is also unique and out of place. When we worked on Hong Kong , we were paying a little homage to the London hotel, but we changed some shades of green – with darker tiles on the floor of Lucciola, the restaurant – and used different forms of furniture. I chose fabrics that reflect Savile Row, as Aron is obsessed with his amazingly tailored English suits.

In London, The Hari is finished with a darker palette and warm leathers. It’s the same level of tactile luxury as the new Conrad in California, but in Los Angeles, every room radiates the kinds of tones synonymous with the golden hour towards the end of a day at the Pacific Rim. She knows what works with a city’s history and the quality of light it has.

Many of the stories in Bernerd’s work stem from his constant travels. The eccentricity of English heritage interiors and the layers of color inherent in them are part of its canon, but so is the minimalism of Japanese homes – the clean lines and sparse but functional furnishings of traditional lodges. “Travel opens my heart and mind,” she says. “I love it when I see someone else creating an exciting combination of styles. I always think what Christian Liaigre did with The Mercer in New York in the 1990s is a knockout blow. The energy and attitude are excellent – the mix of brick walls and flirty velvet seating.I like a room that evokes a feel, like the Hotel Costes in Paris, and also some of the real old classics, like the Splendido in Portofino Even though our way of life has changed a lot, I still think we can learn a lot from great lady properties, like The Carlyle in New York and Claridge’s in London.

Lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences Fort Lauderdale, Florida / Photo: Rich Stapleton

When Bernerd was working on a new Four Seasons in Florida recently, she did what she always does and took extensive notes about the story she was going to tell. The Fort Lauderdale property is right on the water, so she wanted it to have the essence of a yacht club. But she also wanted it to have a depth that many modern properties in Florida lack. “A lot of people think this part of the country is where you go for spring break,” she says. “As a stranger to this culture, I was able to overlook that and basically work against it. Sometimes it’s a real advantage to embark on something without being influenced by the previous connotations. Instead, I wanted a blend that brought something from the French Riviera. We wanted a sober, subtly Mediterranean elegance. We didn’t want a generic look. We put in beautiful flooring and highly varnished furniture, which reminds you of those luxury boats you might see near Riva on Lake Como. The most important thing is that it was comforting and like a home, despite being a major resort.

Working internationally involves a large team, and various assistants who can research the best manufacturers in each country. Bernerd is currently creating a hotel for Belmond on Maroma Beach in Mexico that was originally a private home, and his team is busy finding the best craftsmen who can work with local stone and wood. There is no low-budget Tara Bernerd project. “I choose beautiful materials that will last forever,” she says.

Although Bernerd’s look is modern, it’s not overloaded with technology. “Lighting is crucial,” she says. “One of the reasons Costes in Paris is so good is that he’s lit to be sexy. It sometimes feels like you need a flashlight to get into your room, but it works. I always collaborate with experts on what we should put on – I don’t want too many downlighters and I want the art we choose to be properly lit. And the light should change depending on the time of day. Technology is really difficult because what is current today is outdated tomorrow. Things should be smart, up-to-date, and hidden. You don’t want to have to roll up a towel to cover the lights that come on in the middle of the night along the floor when you go to the bathroom. And you don’t want a hard-wired outlet in the wall that a company then stops using on their devices, so you have to change everything.

Lobby bar at the Thompson Hollywood, CA / Photo: Trevor Tondro

One thing all Bernerd hotels have in common is a sense of fun. It’s in the warm lighting of a restaurant that everyone looks good, and it’s the way the rooftop pool is laid out in Thompson Hollywood that makes the place glamorous. Its use of marble and patterned floors and scale makes everything grand, yet still pleasing to the eye. Its bathrooms are functional and bright as well as luxurious. All of these places are places you want to linger. Although we’ve seen the home-based subletting revolution all over the world, there’s still nothing like a bustling hotel lobby and bar to make you feel connected to somewhere new and exciting. When you’re at Bernerd’s Four Seasons Downtown in New York, you know where you are. It’s three-olive martinis, striploin steaks and Wall Street.

It’s surprising that, despite creating bespoke pieces for just about every project to date, Bernerd has yet to launch its own line. There have been pieces produced by The Rug Company – textile floor coverings bearing huge monochrome butterflies – but its peers, including Yabu Pushelberg and Patricia Urquiola, all have extensive collections of their own furniture. When will we see his universe expand to incorporate works that we can have at home? “In fact, I’m going to Italy next week to talk about exactly that,” she said. “I was nervous about doing this, as I would feel compelled that we would take pieces from our own range, as well as the work of other designers, for a project. But we’ve been designing for so long now, and we’ve got so many pieces we could do, and got so much feedback from people who want them, so it’s going to happen. But after 20 years, it will be difficult to boil down to a capsule collection.

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