Outside the Lines, Inside the Grid: Behind the Design of AC Hotel National Harbor

When we joined the design team converting the existing Aloft Washington National Harbor into one of the nation’s first AC Hotels, our hospitality studio knew it had to think outside the traditional context of historical monuments and presidential style. So, they tackled the project from a new angle: above.

Aerial views of National Harbor reveal a grid-like layout created by the alignment of docks and sailboats in the water below. This perspective inspired the property’s clean, simple design, and those linear elements are repeated throughout the property, capturing the essence of the harbor.

Designers selected a muted color palette of white and tan paired with neutral, nautical materials to cast the spotlight on stunning harbor views and unique artwork like the 20-foot-high, two-story rope wall that guides guests from the first-floor entryway to the second-level lobby. In keeping with the spirit and style of the AC brand—the brand’s motto is “Feel the City”—all of the artwork reflects the character of the locale.


Echoing the warm, meditative qualities of art galleries around DC, the hotel’s common spaces display unique works like the 15-foot-wide, sculptural selection in the arrival area. The piece, a single print broken into Tetris-like blocks and rearranged to create a new image, pairs well with European-inspired furniture selections like the Fritz Hansen “Ro” chair, which encourages comfortable contemplation.

In the second-level lobby, a beautiful wooden library wall near the registration desk subtly draws upon the linear form of the grid. Both functional and aesthetic, the wall provides storage for practical day-to-day use while also displaying sculptural art pieces. Furnishings include a custom table designed and built by a local Virginia woodworker.

Custom laser-cut metal panels separate elevator lobby from the breakfast area. The panel pattern, an abstract rope texture, reinforces the motif of the statement rope wall while creating a warm, glowing effect on both sides of the divider.


During the morning hours, the staff rotates the evening bar setup, obscuring it from view to reveal acrylic panels with a textural print that evokes the reflection of the sun setting on the nearby Potomac River. Guests can enjoy a real sunset from one of the hotel’s 192 guest rooms, which are prototypical but for an alluring twist: the beds face out on the harbor.

As construction draws to a close and the hotel prepares for its March 2015 opening, each piece of furniture and custom work of art speaks to the research, craft, and intentionality that makes this hotel more than a series of beautiful renderings. It’s a gem of art all its own, a beautiful interpretation of what it means to live on the edge of the historic Potomac.


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