Origin Story: Crafting the Heart of a Region

This is a story about stepping back, dreaming big, and doing something different. It’s a tale of turning the design process on its head, asking “What if?”, and taking a risk. And it’s an adventure unfolding in real time, a project that will celebrate the city of Richmond and reflect its culture in a whole new way.

This is a story that begins with mastering a craft and ends with crafting a space, and we’re out to capture all the details in between.

For the project’s lead designer, Matthew Marsili, it all started with a flicker of an idea: what if we found local artists and artisans to be vendors for the renovation of a local boutique hotel? What if every piece of furniture and work of art spoke to the identity of the region—resulting in a truly local guest experience?

With a lobby, a bar and restaurant, and 59 guestrooms, the Commonwealth Park Suites hotel was just small enough to make this inkling a real possibility. The design team pitched the idea to the owners, who were very interested in the concept. So, at the beginning of August, the team sent out an email to makers around the region asking them to submit samples and images of their handcrafted lighting, furniture, drapery, and artwork for consideration.

“Initially, we didn’t really know what to expect,” Matthew says. “We didn’t know if anyone would even respond.” But as soon as the campaign launched, he was getting more than 50 submissions a day, and the very first entry he reviewed sparked a vision for the entire project.

“One artist submitted these really cool graphics that totally blew my mind. Generally, our design concept is the starting point for selecting furniture, finishes, and artwork. In that moment, though, I realized that these submissions were the starting point. The space we’re designing is just a canvas for these amazing pieces.”

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Once known as Hotel Rueger, the building that now houses Commonwealth Park Suites has been a part of the Richmond skyline since 1846. Vintage postcards courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries Rarely Seen Richmond collection.

As they sorted through the entries, the design team found inspiration everywhere. Huge photo prints (taken by a photographer with a box-truck-turned-camera-obscura) had great potential as wall graphics; one artist’s tattoo-style illustrations inspired a fun way to number the guestroom doors; and the design team pinpointed some exquisite frames that could be paired with another artist’s work.

Hospitality interior designer Anna Kreyling was drawn to the custom lamps submitted by a talented ceramicist and the wide variety of beautiful furniture submitted by local woodworkers. “I had heard of some of these people, but getting to see the breadth of their work and the amazing things they’re creating has been really cool,” Anna says.

Ultimately, the team’s goal is to showcase as many artists and makers as possible. “The idea is that the rooms will be unique, with a lot of customization and variation. In fact, the entire lobby and first floor will be a gesture to the artwork,” Matthew says.

Of course, not every submission was a perfect fit for the project, but Matthew picked up on a funny trend. “More than once, someone submitted an image of a specific piece, but I spotted something in the background that struck a chord with me. For instance, one craftsman submitted a chair, but I saw a handcrafted flute rack behind it that was absolutely amazing, so I went back to him to ask about that.”

Currently, the design team is finalizing the group of artists and artisans involved, but one maker who is officially on board? Marta Powers, Baskervill project accountant by day and seamstress extraordinaire by night. We pulled her from her colorful workroom (pictured below), which she calls her “crazy space,” to ask her a few questions about what inspires her as a maker and why she’s excited to be a part of this project.

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Tell us a little bit about your background as a seamstress. How did you get started?
After a long, winding path in college through engineering and fashion design, I’ve used those skill sets to make just about anything: theatrical costumes, car seat covers, wedding dresses, tailored suits, purses and totes, even four-foot-long upholstered foam toothbrushes for the Children’s Museum. Now, my focus is on soft furnishings like slipcovers, pillows, and cushions. I’ll take on almost any challenge, though; I hate being bored!

Have you been a part of any Baskervill projects before?
Yes; in fact, right now my living room is filled with large boxes literally bursting at the seams with pillow forms destined for a hospitality project. It’s a little like “snakes in a can”—if all of the boxes were opened at once, I’d be pushed against the walls!

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What inspires your work?
The challenge! I love the problem-solving involved in creating a three-dimensional object out of two-dimensional materials.

Is there anything unusual or unique about the way you work?
I map out the entire creation process before I cut into any material (measure twice, cut once!) If I can’t visualize a solution to a particularly sticky challenge, I’ll often go to sleep thinking about it and dream my answer; I’ll see my hands doing what I need to do to make it work.

What excites you about being a part of this project?
Working with the project’s lead designer, Matthew Marsili. I love the collaborative nature of taking a plan and turning it into something we can lay our hands on. His vision and direction create a great professional partnership.

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Marta’s main contribution to the project—large upholstered headboards tall enough to reach the ceiling—will be part of the first phase of the redesign. The guestrooms will get a refresh this winter, with artwork arriving in the spring and the renovation of the first floor, including the restaurant, bar, and lobby, wrapping up in fall 2016.

But the effect of the project is sure to last long after the hotel’s renovation is complete: Matthew is creating a database of local artisans and craftspeople for Baskervill’s internal design library, so designers can access unused pieces for other projects.

“It’s a real shift in thinking, to be sourcing design locally in order to create enjoyable experiences and spaces,” Matthew says. “I love that our designers are being inspired by local artists.”

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