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Anywhere Aloha: Q&A with Honolulu Designer Michelle Jaime

From a new art-driven hotel to a restored historic theater, some of Hawaii’s most exciting design projects can be traced to one source: Michelle Jaime, cofounder and design director of The Vanguard Theory. 

Jaime, who grew up on Oahu, shares how the islands have influenced her sense of style, the Honolulu sites that design fans should be sure to explore—and the travel industry buzzword that makes her cringe.

This is the second of our three-part series of interviews with ambassadors of OluKai, whose Hawaiian-inspired footwear spreads the spirit of Aloha. Read about Hawaiian surfer, Kamu Davis, here.

How did growing up in Hawaii influence you as a designer?
I had a lot of family and friends that were ethnically blended. I myself have six ethnicities, and that’s pretty normal in Hawaii. So, as a local kid, I was immersed in various cultures—Hawaiian, Japanese, Mexican, Filipino, et al. That really influenced me as a designer. I draw upon these experiences when designing for hotels and residential clients.

 What other sources do you draw inspiration from?  
My business partner and I travel a lot. As much as we find the beautiful landscape and culture of Hawaii inspirational, we know it’s important to see the work of other designers abroad. 

 Currently, I’m obsessed Australian design. Their use of concrete, wood, and glass layered with natural textures and fabrics creates a beautiful juxtaposition of modern architecture with effortless beach style.

What motivated you to found the Vanguard Theory and what’s its mission?
The Vanguard Theory was founded in 2010. Coming out of the great recession, we had to create our own opportunities because there was no one offering any. We saw a gap in the market for a younger voice, so we went for it. 

Prior to starting our business, we worked in cubicles and despised it. It kept us from collaborating with co-workers and made work really intense. So when we thought about what it was that was going to set us apart, we knew that collaborating with other designers and artists was crucial.

Collaborating across disciplines became our work mantra. With any project we start, we try to figure out how and who we can collaborate with to create something we haven’t done before.

What are some projects that stand out to you?
One of the projects we are pretty proud of is the theater on Lana’i island. My business partner is from Lana’i, and it was pretty cool to go back to her hometown and design something that her family could use. We spent a lot of time hand selecting stone, designing custom elements, and finding a way to incorporate the history back into a modern facility. 

Another project we are working on now is the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge. Essentially, it’s a home away from home. When patients from neighbor islands have to travel all the way to Honolulu for cancer treatments, often their insurance doesn’t cover lodging. We are working with the ACS and Architects Hawaii to create a residential-type atmosphere for those patients. My family has been affected by cancer greatly, and it feels great to be apart of this project knowing that we can be a small positive part in someone’s journey to recovery. 

We hear you’ve been at work on a new Honolulu boutique hotel in the works. Can you give us the scoop?
The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club just opened in April 2016 in Waikiki. It’s a throwback to mid-century design—when the hotel was first built. We have so many cool mid-century buildings in Honolulu, and they are often demolished to make way for something more modern. We felt it was time to embrace the old and bring back swanky Waikiki. 

We’ve collaborated with artists and designers (majority of them local) to create an art-driven hotel that will feature restaurant Mahina & Sun’s, led by chef Ed Kenney, and a boutique owned by the husband-and-wife duo called Olive & Oliver.

What places would you recommend design buffs check out while in Hawaii?Besides checking out the Surfjack, design buffs should walk around the Kakaako neighborhood to see the murals that were installed during the annual Pow! Wow! art festival in February. Artists from all over the world fly in to paint on the sides of buildings throughout this neighborhood. 

Also have lunch up at the Honolulu Museum of Art in Maikiki Heights. Their exhibits are well curated and their museum garden is the perfect place to have a picnic. 

What are your likes/dislikes when it comes to current hotel trends? 
In my industry, the buzzword right now is “millennial”. Millennials are the new travelers, and they expect different amenities from hotels compared to prior generations. They seek out hotels that can reflect their individuality and then share them with their friends on social media to make them envious.   

I absolutely cringe when I hear that a hotel was "designed for the millennial.” It just sounds so formulaic—a recipe that they were given and they attempted to execute.  These hotels tend to be over designed and over programmed. 

However, there are hotels that absolutely nail it. These hotel public areas are activated, art driven, have a solid food and beverage program, their music is on point, and the WiFi signal is strong, plus it’s free. These are things to fall in love with—millennial or not.  

What do you like most about OluKai? 
I admire OluKai’s authenticity. They have been so genuinely supportive of Hawaii and spend the effort making sure they are representing Hawaii graciously. They invest the time to learn about our lives and our culture.