Kelly Wearstler’s Vision for the Santa Monica Proper Hotel

Insight on the design process behind this sophisticated but home-like property

The spacious lobby of the Santa Monica Proper Hotel—with its earth tones, textured wood and natural stone set among a variety of deep, plush seating—feels like a private home overlooking the water. This was part of designer Kelly Wearstler’s vision for the renovation of a 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival office building into a 271-room hotel, situated blocks from the Pacific Ocean in downtown Santa Monica. From soundproofing guest rooms to deflect nighttime carousing at circular rooftop bar, Calabra; adding handles close to the entry of the deep step-in marble showers; including Apple TV and bedside-adjacent digital lighting panels; or hand-selecting all the books and art in the lobby’s “grotto” library, Wearstler’s aesthetic can be felt throughout the property.

Outside the rooms, guests can partake in a variety of experiences. These include sipping cocktails and watching the sunset over the ocean beside the westside’s only rooftop pool (where you might also participate in a tea ceremony or mezcal tasting) or dining at Onda, the collaborative restaurant from celebrated chefs Jessica Koslow (LA’s Sqirl) and Gabriela Camara (Mexico City’s Contramar). Then there’s yoga classes on the sprawling open-air second-floor terrace and plenty more. We spoke with Wearstler about her design inspiration, her favorite aspects of the property, and how she incorporated natural elements of the California coast into her overall design to learn more.

You have a fantastic track record for marrying your talent as a designer with the creation of hotel experiences. What motivated you to get into hospitality?

What’s so exciting about design is that it is such an influential aspect of people’s lives, at home and when traveling. A hotel is not just a place to sleep, it is an experience—a place to be inspired and feel connected to your surroundings. I love to design environments for people to expand their experiences within and add an element of adventure to their lives. I have an endless curiosity.

Tell us a bit about the origin of the Proper brand. What does the word “proper” mean to you?

The starting point with Proper is the service and how we want guests to feel, from the moment of arrival through the lasting memories after they leave. What will make for an authentic experience? How can we infuse a cool, local spirit and strong identity into every hotel? What defines a “proper” hotel stay? This has helped shape the design DNA of each Proper as we consider the specific location—the climate, the history and iconography of each city—and create an experiential guest experience unique to every project. The design process has been so exciting, with this distinctive fabric of influences leading to unexpected discoveries and beautiful, sensual layers of materiality, color, pattern, silhouettes, art and experiences. Each city is my muse.

What was the inspiration for the Santa Monica property and its various textures, patterns, fabrics and stone?

Santa Monica is a collection of smaller stories within the larger story of new and old coming together in a seaside city with a relaxed but sophisticated sensibility. The Santa Monica hotel has a landmark building and new contemporary architecture. The common areas are quite large in the contemporary building so we broke them down. There’s a moody, California maritime story for the reception with artful interpretations of iconic coastal elements. Everything was super-considered, minimal. There is a natural, pitted travertine table. A wooden canvas wall sculpture reminded me of a sail on a boat. A chair is a crustacean from the sea. The hand-carved desk is reminiscent of a shell with its line-work and the gesso on the canvas behind it has sand within it. The floor has an intricate pattern inspired by an umbrella shape as seen from the top. A classic Noguchi sofa, a pair of 1970s Uchiwa bamboo sconces by Ingo Maurer—there is a juxtaposition of vintage and contemporary in the interiors.

Everything is patinated; nothing feels really new. There is a hand to everything.

The palette is very nature-inspired, the materiality is earthy, textural, natural. Concrete and glass make up the contemporary building, so we added touch-points of Douglas fir, treated to look like driftwood, to give warmth and continuity from the landmark building. Sustainable timber was used to skin some of the major architectural details in the common areas. Plywood, travertine. Materiality and textures are selected to feel beautiful but also residential. Everything is patinated; nothing feels really new. There is a hand to everything.

Talk a bit about the library, the grotto, at the hotel and how literature inspires your design.

I am a diehard book-lover. Art, design, landscape, graphics, fashion, beauty—all types of books, contemporary and vintage. My vision for the grotto (the small library and art gallery at the hotel) was to create an intimate, personalized space that would replicate what you might find in someone’s long-lived-in beachside residence. A cozy living room where you could wrap yourself inside a favorite book while sipping on a leisurely cup of coffee and dream a little.

And where did you source all the books? Do you have any favorites?

We sourced books from all over, from favorite book stores such as The Strand, Hennessey + Ingalls, The Last Bookstore to 1stdibs and other online shops. I was seeking not only to include favorite titles, but also to have a thematic curation with a seaside, art and nature thread. Some of the books are from my own collection of out of print books that I have curated over the years, including: Femininities by Guy Bourdin, Goodbye Picasso, The Art of Arranging Flowers: A Complete Guide to Japanese Ikebana (1965 first edition) and David Hockney: Cameraworks from 1984.

The rooms, especially the bathrooms, have a lot of practical space and the design seems to be more thoughtful. What was your thinking behind designing the bathrooms in this regard—even having the shower handles closer to the entry of the shower?

Like all areas of the hotel, we look at every possible consideration for comfort and precision. What will make a guest feel most at ease and have a seamless experience? Every inch of the bedrooms and bathrooms are designed with this in mind: the thoughtful merger of form and function, the use of tactile and inviting materiality. It’s like designing a ship, everything needs to be in its right place, there is no luxury for error.

How do you describe your own personal style and how does that flow into your work?

My designs explore a clever use of materiality, juxtaposition of styles from a range of eras and risk-taking aesthetics. My aesthetic is always evolving and each project is uniquely based on what the client vision is, the specific location, architecture, history. It is all about alchemy and layering in my vision, my lens. That gives it a unique story.

What are your favorite aspects of the Santa Monica Proper? Where do you like to spend your time when you visit the property?

I love the airiness, the presence of history and a sense of soul. It is so rewarding to witness people’s reaction to the spaces. It really is so inviting. I love to sit in the grotto and have a glass of champagne.

Images courtesy of The Ingalls