Discussing the Ace Hotel Kyoto’s Design + Inspiration with Roman Alonso of Commune

The 213-room property is an ode to craftsmanship, with a focus on harmony in design and atmosphere

In any other year, we would have joyfully visited Kyoto’s new Ace Hotel close to its opening (which occurred in June), but as such a trip isn’t possible yet in 2020, we opted for a virtual tour. What’s immediately clear is this lovely hotel balances the Ace’s familiar laidback, minimal style and ethos with craftsmanship and materials utilized in traditional Japanese architecture—an appealing, subtle amalgamation of Eastern and Western influences. The resulting spaces are airy and bright, but rich, textured and welcoming.

Courtesy of Yoshihiro Makino

The brand’s first property in Asia, the Ace Hotel Kyoto—formerly the Kyoto Central Telephone Company building, built in 1926—was developed and designed with aplomb by the team at Atelier Ace, globally revered Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, and longtime Ace collaborators Commune. “When we approach any new Ace project, we always begin by searching for an intimacy with the place itself: its history, its community—the essential soul of each location. In that way, Ace Kyoto is both the same and also totally unique to any other Ace Hotel,” Atelier Ace partner and chief brand officer  Kelly Sawdon tells us. “Since the beginning, we’ve been fascinated by the interplay that’s always taken place between designers in the East and West, and with our first property in Asia, it was exciting to finally be able to fully engage that—drawing so much inspiration from Kyoto’s history of elegant craft, and finding our own dialogue with the city and the natural world around it.”

Courtesy of Yoshihiro Makino

When first approaching the 213-room hotel’s combination of renovation and new build, Commune principal Roman Alonso says the brief was loose, but it was clear that an international blend of inspiration would be key. “Working with Kengo Kuma we immediately realized the design had to be based on a conversation between East and West,” Alonso tells us. “Kyoto is the cultural capital of Japan and it has a long tradition in the arts and crafts. Ace, Kengo Kuma and Commune all share a love of the handcrafted. We decided that conversation would happen through craft.” From contemporary takes on elements used within traditional machiya townhouses to bright screen-printed artworks, this focus on craft and tradition proves discernible without becoming twee, cliche or gimmicky.

Courtesy of Yoshihiro Makino

Every material, texture and hue was chosen with atmosphere front of mind. As Alonso explains, “We wanted the spaces to be vibrant in color and texture, but to feel peaceful and relaxing. We wanted to honor fine Japanese workmanship and for details to be refined but for the interiors to feel casual and democratic.” Materials including tamo and cedar wood, washi, stucco, ceramic tiles and copper—all traditionally used in Japanese architecture—have been incorporated with, as Alonso says, “a Western eye, in unexpected ways. The use of organic materials that patina is a love we share with Kengo Kuma—this is another element we were well aligned on from the beginning. The materials add a great deal of texture to the spaces and we are certain they will age beautifully.”

Courtesy of Kawasumi Kobayashi Kenji Photograph Office

Located within walking distance of the popular Nishiki Market and one of our favorite smaller shopping streets, Teramachi-dori, the hotel offers more to the area than just a place for tourists to sleep. In true Ace form, there are venues within the hotel intended to foster a community for guests and locals alike. These take form as three restaurants and a cafe: Mr Maurice’s (with a menu by Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri) for Italian-American, Piopiko (a partnership with chef Wes Avila) for tacos and cocktails, Portland chef Naomi Pomeroy’s yet-to-open and still-unnamed eatery, as well as a Stumptown Coffee Roasters cafe. “We aimed to create a hospitality experience that is unique and unexpected in Kyoto. It’s important that guests know they are in Japan but for the design to feel cosmopolitan,” Alonso says.

Courtesy of Yoshihiro Makino

As for the 213 guest rooms, the options are aplenty: Standard King, Standard Twin, Deluxe King, Terrace Twin, Historic King, Historic Twin, Tatami Suite, Ace Suite and Loft Suite. While differing in size and amenities, every room boasts a Japanese soaking tub and original artworks made by local artists. “We worked with our friends Shin Nakahara and Aya Shimizu from Landscape Products on an art program that reflected the narrative,” Alonso says. “They are old friends of Commune and through the years they have shown me my favorite side of Japan. We traveled together all over the country for about four years, meeting and working with approximately 50 different artists and craftspeople. The program is completely democratic, following the Japanese tradition of elevating craft to the level of art and including many generations. Our oldest artist is in his 90s, our youngest are students still in school in Kyoto.”

Courtesy of Yoshihiro Makino

The project’s most powerful influence is 97-year-old artist Samiro Yunoki, who Alonso describes as “the graphic soul of the project.” Alonso was introduced to the Japanese mingei (meaning art of the people) artist “early in the process and his work was inspiring for so many reasons. It has such a strong graphic quality and such humor and innocence. It felt so right for Ace and so right for the moment we are living in, I was determined to include it in some way. After much convincing, he agreed to create the hotel logo and font as well as several original textile pieces and works on paper.”

Courtesy of Yoshihiro Makino

From the abstract gridded façade to screens filtering the breeze from courtyard gardens and textiles by Shobu Gakuen, the treasures in the hotel cover the spectrum from bold to hidden in plain sight. “For me there are a number of jewels,” Alonso says. “The hammered copper doughnut-shaped reception desk is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. The bar die on the mezzanine, created with a chainsaw by Ido Yoshimoto in JB Blunk’s studio in California out of salvaged old growth redwood, is something so incredibly unique and special. The tile used throughout comes from a factory in Shiga prefecture—it was all discontinued, and we convinced the factory to put these glazes from the ’60s and ’70s into production just for the project. I can go on and on…”

Courtesy of Kawasumi Kobayashi Kenji Photograph Office

The harmony within the design and atmosphere of the hotel echos that of the very large teams of talented individuals working together. Alonso says, “No exaggeration, sometimes there’d be 60 people discussing a construction detail. I’m proud that from the beginning we were able to get everyone on board (ownership, architects, clients, countless consultants, makers and builders) and truly understand the design intent. I can think of a million design conversations between East and West, how was ours [going to be] any different? It’s an idea that can be pretty trite and I’ve seen it fail. But I believe we pulled it off, mostly because of the immediate emotional connection everyone had to the idea. It happened completely organically—everyone simply believed in it without question.”

The Ace Hotel Kyoto is open now with plenty of health and safety precautions in place. Rooms right now start at ¥31,000 or $293 USD.