On January 21, the next AFAR Conversations, to be held in New York, will address the evolution of the luxury consumer. There are few people able to speak on the topic with more authority than one of the panelists, designer Adam D. Tihany. He is responsible for designing or updating many of the world’s most iconic hotels, including Belmond Hotel Cipriani, the Beverly Hills Hotel, Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas, and One&Only Cape Town. He has also collaborated with leading celebrity chefs—Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jean Georges Vongerichten among them—to create their signature restaurants. His work extends even to the high seas, creating design concepts for the next wave of Holland America Line and Seabourn cruise ships.

In preparation for AFAR Conversations, we sat down with Tihany and asked him for his insights on luxury.

AFAR: How would you define luxury? 

Tihany: I’m a provocateur by nature and my definition of luxury is somewhat unconventional.

Luxury is, in the end, what comes after necessity. Once you have satisfied your needs, anything beyond them is a luxury.

11415tihanycipriani2The first time I can remember experiencing luxury I was 18, and living in Jerusalem in the 1960s. I went to a Chinese restaurant. It was a modest place but for me it was like traveling out of the country without a passport. I tasted flavors I had never dreamt of. They had a menu. I had a choice of options and someone in the kitchen would then cook what I had ordered and someone else would serve it. It is possible it was a pretty lousy restaurant—I didn’t have any capacity to judge. But it is an experience I often remember. Working with top chefs, it is good to remember that while eating out at a restaurant may be a normal occurrence in many people’s lives, for others it’s a rare event and for some it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

AFAR: What are the secrets to designing a luxury hotel? 

Tihany: Start by understanding that your consumer is educated, well traveled, sophisticated, and rich. You have to assume that they have a beautiful home, furnished with the best antiques and art. They have 400-thread count sheets, custom suits by Brioni, the most expensive products they want. When they visit a five-star hotel, it’s not the first time they are seeing luxury; they live it every day. You need to consider the fact that you cannot reproduce what they have at home or how they live at home—they live the luxury lifestyle and you can never match their life at home.

With this database of information, which can be quite humbling, you need to invent a product that can live up to their expectations. Besides the bricks and mortar—or gold leaf and cashmere—the most important ingredient is service, and it’s also the most difficult to control. Service is the magic formula.

AFAR: What can a designer do to encourage good service? 

Tihany: You have to think about what the person providing the service needs to do his job well. It’s necessary to focus on the service quarters, the stations, and even the lockers. All of them must be designed properly and can’t be mere afterthoughts.

You have to look at all the little details that can alleviate the stress of a job. There’s a lot of work involved in encouraging the so-called software of service to perform at its best.

AFAR: How has your personal definition of luxury evolved over time? 

Tihany: For everyone, as you can afford more, your aspirations become higher. If once you thought spending $15 on a meal was a luxury, you may now spend $50 without thinking about it. Your aspirations often simply become larger, and the point at which something becomes exclusive and beyond your reach changes over time too.

If expensive things become more attainable over time for many people, what often becomes more elusive is time. Many successful people work long days looking forward to the few times each year when they can stop working and spend time with their families in, say, Bali, while other people may not be afford to go to Bali but have plenty of time. Perhaps the ultimate luxury would be the right balance of time and money and being able to do what you want, when you want to do it.

Continue the discussion by joining us for the next AFAR Conversations on January 21 at the Chatwal Hotel. Photos of the Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice by Eric Laignel.