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WEB EXCLUSIVE: At Vancouver’s Skwachàys Lodge, Aboriginal Art Is in Focus

VANCOUVER—Skwachàys Lodge, based here, is more than a boutique hotel. It’s a social enterprise that houses an onsite gallery and 24 artists with the aim of creating an enveloping experience in Aboriginal arts and culture for guests, while serving its community of creatives, locals and tourists alike. 

Owned by not-for-profit Vancouver Native Housing Society, the hotel underwent a major renovation of its 18 suites in a joint effort between interior designers and artists to bring forth the story of the area’s First Nations people through inventive design elements that puts the main focus on the art. “We knew it would be a very collaborative process and that it would be fairly high profile because it was so unique. We were in. It turned out to be a rewarding and satisfying process,” said Adele Rankin, principal, CHIL Interior Design who, along with her team, designed three of the suites.

Jon Zwickel, a third-generation hotelier and president of InnVentures Hospitality Corp., was the mastermind behind the coordinated effort. He actively reached out to several designers with his idea after learning about the business model of the hotel and gallery—100% of the proceeds go directly to the nonprofit, which enables Vancouver Native Housing Society to provide housing to Vancouver’s Aboriginal population.

“He wandered into the Urban Aboriginal Fair Trade Gallery and was so inspired, he came up with the idea of a boutique hotel with a First Nation story. He said to me, ‘What do you think? Would you like to donate your time for this?’” said Rankin. “We are always looking for ideas that are bigger than ourselves. It’s easy to be concerned with the everyday grind, but this project took us away from all that and took us into hotel design.”

To start, there was a kickoff meeting among designers to better understand the big picture and the logistics involved in executing a project where much of the work was provided pro bono and furnishings would come via donations. “We took three rooms with no parameters and selected the Aboriginal artists to work with. The end result is strikingly different from room to room, which was the intent,” said Rankin.

Rankin and her team’s next step was to meet with artist Clifton Fred to get to know him; learn more about the message behind his art; and how it could inspire them to translate that meaning into a design aesthetic. “Each design firm had three rooms and each firm partnered with an artist. They all saw the process very differently and played with the strength of each artist. Clifton had a few styles of art and that helped us a bit,” she said.

“He had all these incredible charcoal and pencil drawings, so that was the first thing, and they covered a range of subjects—animals, First Nations people and very real stories related to that; then he had this West Coast imagery with very strong lines that were graphic and quite painterly, featuring a raven and eagle and images of more native folk telling. He accompanies most of his art with poems that shares the thinking behind the art.”

It was Clifton’s beautiful, longhand cursive writing that served as the impetus for the design. “The handwriting is artistic in its own right. For the first room concept, we came up with the Poem Suite, which featured a collage of his black-and-white sketches. We did every wall surface in the sketches on a very large scale, so when you walk into the room and it feels like you’re inside his head. Above the headboard, we featured an image of a snowy owl and added his poem with these great featured words,” Rankin said.

In another guestroom, it was all about the mix of stylized and portraiture in his West Coast imagery. The goal was to make the room deeply engaging and to highlight the art. “We were always mindful that the art should be first, that was the driving force. We relied on custom wallcoverings to support some of our ideas, such as the idea of drums,” she said.

A Canadian-style suite was the final component in Rankin’s design trifecta, featuring a rustic look and fairly traditional interiors such as plaids and creating a feature wall to showcase Clifton’s artwork. “Overall, the goal was fairly clear, to showcase Vancouver First Nation artists and create a unique product in the city to allow people to experience exactly what these artists and First Nation cultures have to offer, as well as have some freedom to do something really unique,” she said. “Boutique hotels tend to be the holy grail sometimes. You do have this sense of freedom working with owners and can push the boundaries more.”

The project’s execution wasn’t without its challenges, shared Rankin, who sometimes had to rely on the kindness of strangers to make the design come to fruition. “We had to support our other clients, and the sourcing of furniture and accessories had to either be in the budget or donated,” she said.

For Rankin, Skwachàys Lodge has a story to tell that should be uplifted and celebrated. “It’s about drawing attention to the area’s people. We have a lot of tourists who come to Vancouver to explore First Nation art through galleries and museums in swish neighborhoods. This hotel is in a transitional neighborhood with an opportunity to give guests who want to be enveloped completely, from first entrance into the neighborhood, the gallery and in the rooms. It’s a very honest interpretation of the uniqueness of the Skwachàys ethos,” she said.

Corris Little