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Andrea Sheehan tells us about the female empowering Hotel Zena

Hotel Zena is being described as “the first hospitality establishment solely dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of women.” Here at Singulart, we are dedicating March to the empowerment of women, so it made perfect sense to sit down with the CEO of Dawson Design Associates, Andrea Sheehan, who had been commissioned to best portray this celebration of women within the hotel. Sheehan sat down with us to talk about female empowerment, the selection process of artists, and her admiration for Singulart’s Ania Hobson.

What does female empowerment mean to you?

It all comes down to power – we want our fair share. Women have the right to be treated with the same respect and given the same opportunities as our male peers and colleagues. It is hard to believe that this is even a topic as we are 50% of the world’s population.  We have a responsibility to fight for ourselves and for our daughters to make sure that we are treated fairly and not held back in any way simply because we are female. We, as a collective, have the power and knowledge to fight to make this change. Supporting each other in solidarity is immensely powerful and creating safe podiums for women to share their stories is empowering. Just providing a safe podium for women to share their stories can have the power to impact others in powerful ways.

Andrea Sheehan
Andrea Sheehan

How do you approach a design project like this? How involved were you in the brief, and what was the first step after defining it?

There was no brief.  My team rarely works with someone else’s brief unless it is really compelling. We see hotels as a medium and every new project as a blank canvas.

I pitched the idea to my client by building a very compelling storyboard of images, which started in the Garden of Eden with the Serpent tempting Eve with the Apple of Knowledge. We followed with the ‘Ancient Mythical Female Warriors’,  like Kali, Diana, Artemis, then onto the powerful political figures in history such as Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Harriet Tubman and Susan B Antony. We then went on to the average women conspiring for change around the ‘Sewing Circles’.  What we ended up with was the current female warriors of women marching on Washington and around the world with a raised fist and a pink hat.

Our story book was 60 pages long and very compelling. Women have always had to work around the fringes to make change.  I just thought it was time we made a big statement. It was right after the last election when we won so many seats in Congress when the idea popped into my head – I want to be an active participant. Why not tackle Women’s rights straight on?

At first, the idea was that we start in San Francisco, but when they saw my presentation they insisted that we start in Washington DC. They actually stopped me about 5 minutes into the presentation and brought in other executives to listen. They were 100% on board and we are now working on San Francisco.

Hotel Zena Lobby
Hotel Zena Lobby

How else have you sought to incorporate the idea of female strength and freedom into the hotel’s design?

I came up with the idea for this piece, as well as the hotel narrative, while on a road trip with my daughter in Australia while listening to an audio tape of Gloria Steinem’s “On the Road”. Needless to say, an inspiring trip!  We were brainstorming the entire time on how important it was for the art to be in a female hotel. Defining what a female space should look like was also challenging. We have very few models in our society or media that are not in some way sexualized. When I asked other women what they thought was a female space, they looked dumbfounded as they realized that they could not describe one. They almost always immediately went to their own homes and their personal taste – I found this to be very interesting.

We researched to find artists from all corners of the world to share their voice on gender equality.  Being in Washington, we also included several artists working in the Northeast and DC. Our portrait gallery is a collection of portraits of powerful women who have shaped our lives as women, painted by artists with their own powerful stories. Each artist was free to use their own style and medium, expressing themselves through the portrait they were painting.  This was helped greatly by the hotel, who commissioned everything.  

The elevator foyers on each floor feature work from what we called our “Sewing Circle”. A group of global textile artists made an empowering statement using classical female materials and techniques, including embroidery, stitchery, weaving.

How did you choose the 50 or so women who will be the hotel’s artistic subjects? What do they have in common? Are they themselves aware of being featured?

We researched every continent for women who have forced change in their own countries, both historically and currently. We looked for women who have made great sacrifices in their fight for equal rights. After creating the list of 300 women, thanks to the help of Pebblebrook Hotels and Viceroy Hotels, We then created a list of 30 of these women and their photos. This was a tough process because there were so many compelling women who have made a difference, often giving their lives. We included at least two women from every continent and faith so that we represented the world equally. Once the selection process was finished, we let the artists choose who they wanted to paint.

You’re also set to feature a portrait by Singulart’s own Ania Hobson. What was it about her art that caught your eye?

I really liked Ania Hobson’s style. Anna Dunne, the designer who coordinated the collection out of our London office, found her work and brought it forward for consideration.  There is a rawness about how she layers paint that I feel really captures the emotions and complexities of the subject’s face in her works. She selected Wajeha Al-Huwade as her point of focus – a brave Saudi activist fighting for the most basic rights in her country. Ania’s own compelling story, and her celebration of women breaking through, made her the right fit for this project.

Ania Hobson artwork
You Are A Bad Girl (2019), Ania Hobson

What advice would you give to aspiring interior designers and creative directors?

Take risks. Don’t be afraid to step forward and express your own point of view. Be original and ignore people who want to put you into some kind of box.  Also, find the right fit in projects and clients who will be supportive, allowing you to express yourself. Deliver what you promise and they will support you.  

Your passion will open doors and determination will push you through, as opposed to playing it safe, which will bring you a life of mediocrity. It is the hardest route, for sure, but the journey will be so much more interesting and fulfilling no matter where you end up. It is the fight that makes us strong. 

Click here to view our Women by Women collection.