Ariane Steinbeck

One of the questions I’m asked most often is how we choose the women we feature. To this day, it’s the most difficult things for me to explain. When we know, we know. Over the past two years we’ve spoken to creative directors and marketers to designers and editors, some of them you know, many you may not. The commonality amongst everyone we talk to though is a willingness to share the steps that have paved the ways to their successes, but also a refreshingly candid approach to sharing the instances they’ve failed and the lessons they’ve learned.

That’s what made speaking to RPW Design Managing Director, Ariane Steinbeck so interesting. She’s without doubt one of the most respect names in hotel design (Google her, and you’ll see), but behind that façade, she’s also incredibly honest and unfiltered in sharing her story. Hers is a journey that stands as the perfect example of the sacrifice (both personal and professional) that goes on behind the scenes to build the kinds of careers we all aspire to.

Here she shares how she started her business straight out of design school, the downside of moving her family half way across the world for work and why, after leaving the business she helped created, achieving a work life balance means more to her than ever before.

Ariane Steinbeck

EARLY DAYS: I was born in Hamburg, Germany but we moved to Sotogrande, in southern Spain when I was 12 years old.  After attending an English school for a short time, I completed my schooling at the German School in Marbella/Malaga.  My parents thought that their tri-lingual daughter, who was interested in cooking and entertaining, should certainly be in the hotel business. I gained acceptance to Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, NY which continues to be a leading institution in that field.

HOW SHE GOT STARTED IN DESIGN: I was not particularly inspired working in hotel operations. Completing an apprenticeship in a Hamburg Hotel prior to being accepted at Cornell made that abundantly clear.  My passions lay in art and design, but my parents did not think that was a worthwhile career direction and they insisted I follow through with studies of hotel management.  When I first took the course Hotel Planning and Design at Cornell, I knew I had found my calling. I got to pursue my more artistic inclinations, combined with the hospitality field.  Once I had exhausted the design-related options in the Hotel School, I took further courses in Art, Interior Design and completed my own independent study tracks, focusing on design in the hospitality space. It was just at the time when computers started changing the way we draw –heady times.  In either case, rather than working in the on-campus hotel to earn spending money, I became a teaching assistant for the Hotel Design and Planning course. In my junior year, one lecturer ventured to Chicago to start his own hotel interiors firm, and I joined for the summer to help get it off the ground.

BECOMING AN ENTREPRENEUR BY ACCIDENT: It was through necessity more than choice. I became an entrepreneur by accident and necessity, not by choice.  After graduation from Cornell, I could not find a job that paid enough to sustain me, and I could not expect further support from home.

Ariane Steinbeck
Ariane Steinbeck

ON LAUNCHING HER DESIGN FIRM WITH TWO PARTNERS: I’m not sure you can start a business like that by yourself. I certainly don’t believe that I could. Delivering any project of a certain size and complexity needs a team, not only for the logistics of getting through a day but also because who wants to work in a vacuum?  Plus, you need to exert focus on two very different areas to run a successful practice: the business side and the creative side.  It’s rare that one person is good at both. Working with partners means patience, trust and constant communication is a must.

WHAT IT WAS LIKE FOUNDING A BUSINESS WITH TWO MEN: In hindsight, I did it all wrong initially, trying to pretend I was not a female with needs that are very different from a man’s. That led me to do crazy things like leaving my 5-month-old son behind in Chicago while I was still nursing and trying to continue to keep my milk supply going during a 10 day business trip to Japan, chasing a job we ultimately did not even get. Breast-pumping in the toilet of a 320 km/h Shinkansen is not a lot of fun.  It certainly did not earn me a medal and I really think it was a bad example for all the other mothers in my company who followed.

HOW THEY GOT THEIR BUSINESS OFF THE GROUND: Thanks to the generosity and support of one of my partner’s parents, we were able to get through the first really tough years.  Our first project was a design for a pizza restaurant, the family business of one of our Cornell classmates.  We networked our family and hotel industry connections for anything we could get our hands on… We started our business during the savings and loan crisis in the late 1980’s, where banks and insurance companies frequently found themselves the reluctant owners of hotel assets.  We essentially offered them a solution that was low in budget expenditure, but high in design decisions that would protect asset value. Working on such projects meant that we were not working in the luxury space, as we were known to be mostly doing projects that were inexpensive and not necessarily out to create “impactful” design that would be featured in the key design magazines. We were hoping that this overly pragmatic approach would earn us the loyalty of our investor clients, which it did, to an extent and the luxury aspect came later.

Ariane Steinbeck

Ariane Steinbeck

ON MOVING HER FAMILY FROM AMERICA TO ASIA FOR WORK: It was really, really tough on my husband, as he gave up his day job, his teaching position and the band he’d been playing in for 20 years so it wasn’t an easy decision for myself or my family. I wish upon any woman who’s in a similar position a very patient, understanding and supportive husband willing to take a chance on the career of their wife. The only way you can strike a balance between work and home in Hong Kong is the amount of household help that you can afford.  We were incredibly lucky to find a wonderful helper, on the second try, who is with us to this day. Then you delegate almost everything kids and household related, enabling you to concentrate on work and social life. I always wonder how much more productive Western society may be if we could adopt a similar lifestyle approach. If you don’t let go of some aspects of your life and learn to be happy with the outcome, whatever that may be, you will drive yourself mad. I mean that, quite literally.

HOW SHE BUILT HER NETWORK AFTER MOVING: The great thing about a place like Hong Kong is the simple fact that it is not just you that is taking a chance at a new life; literally thousands of others from around the world are in the same boat as you are. Despite initial trepidations of building a new circle of friends in your 40’s (and 50’s for my husband), we both found it incredibly easy to meet people and form new and meaningful friendships.  You just have to be open to it. There’s a saying “beware of the people you meet in your first two weeks. You may never get rid of them.”

Ariane SteinbeckWHAT HER ROLE AND AN AVERAGE DAY LOOKED LIKE: I did a lot of travelling; some years I was away working outside Hong Kong for 157 days a year.  If I wasn’t travelling, I would drop the kids at school at 7:30 am, then go into the office early and catch up with emails. During lunch, I would try and ‘go local’ and grab a bowl of noodles at a dai pai dong near our Hollywood Road office.  Everything changes so quickly; restaurants come and go but the old favourites somehow manage to remain.  I’d meet with the team and hopefully contribute to resolve any problems or aid in design direction. Then, I’d usually spend some time chasing outstanding payments. On Fridays, hopefully there’d be time to grab a drink or two with the team for Happy Hour and “talk shop” not in an office setting, before going home at 7:30 to eat dinner with the family.  I was very fortunate to have built a fantastic team in Hong Kong over the years and I’m in touch with at least one of them on a weekly basis. Now that a lot of them have left for new jobs, it has been great to continue to support them, through networking, referrals and moral support whenever needed.

HOW THE NUMBERS DRIVES EVERY CREATIVE DECISION: I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that actual design decisions took up only about 10 per cent of my day if that. It does not matter if a business is creative or not, it is still that: a business.  No clients, no pay checks; it’s really quite simple. Naturally there must be a lot of focus on finding, getting, executing the jobs properly, and then of course, collecting payment.  Unfortunately, in some regions of this world, withholding or delaying payment is par for the course. It makes running a business extremely difficult and you have to assume that you will have a lot more “bad debts” than you might be used to. This can be beyond frustrating when you have done your job, but so many things are outside of your immediate control.

WHY SHE LEFT THE COMPANY SHE STARTED: It was a confluence of many factors, really.  Living and doing business on a different continent from your business partners for almost a decade makes working life more complicated Even a casual visit to each other’s universe is just that: a casual visit, during which you simply cannot grasp the differences and realities of daily life on another continent, in a different culture. Differences in opinion arose with regards to what type of business to pursue or not. My mother became very ill and it was increasingly hard to be a 12-hour plane ride away from Europe.  And then, the opportunity to take over RPW was simply too exciting to not at least give it a try.

RPW DESIGN 101: We specialise in the field of interior design for the hospitality industry, which includes hotels, restaurants, conference centres, spas and the like.  What makes us different?  Well, along with the proliferation of hotel brands who seek to differentiate, I have the same trepidation finding the words to describe what makes us so “different”.  When you walk into a hotel, you either like the design, the feel, the service, or you don’t. Ultimately, RPW Design is very much focused on the top end of the market and that does not necessarily mean the luxury tier only. Ideally, we like to work with clients who respect and appreciate what we do and the value our dedicated team adds to their projects.

Ariane Steinbeck

Ariane Steinbeck

WHAT ATTRACTED HER TO THE MANAGING DIRECTOR ROLE: The ability to continue a design legacy that is very much aesthetically aligned to mine, with a staff that is experienced and trained in what we do in the hospitality arena, systems and document control that is working. Combine all that with a proven track record, a beautiful office and being in a world class city like London. Now, I don’t feel like I have to make excuses for having a life outside of the office and I am accepting of that very fact with my new team. I want to run a business where everyone can thrive and remain faithful to their family obligations and their interests outside of work.

MONEY TALK: When it came to salary, I am embarrassed to say, I never pushed, I just accepted what was given.  That may have been a huge mistake, who knows? It is a bitter lesson to eventually learn that nobody, absolutely nobody will take care of you, but you.  You cannot blindly entrust your financial welfare to others. You must always be fully in charge and control of your destiny! Perhaps pushing against a glass ceiling is the only way to even find out that one exists?  You need someone along the way, male or female, to have confidence in you and guide you along, if only for a short amount of time.  Nothing builds confidence as much as encouragement does.

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