The Hotel Interiors of Dale and Patricia Keller, 1961 – 1981: Oral History in the Digital Age

Presented by: Dr. Mark Hinchman

BACKGROUND: The Kellers are American interior designers who graduated from the Univ. of Washington. Dale (1929-2016) credits UW with setting them on the path that led to Asia. While hardly unknown, they lack the prominence they deserve, for their 100s of projects lie outside of the US. At their height, they ran offices in Athens, Hong Kong, London, and New York. From the 60s - 80s, they led the world’s leading design firm that specialized in hospitality (Fragrant Hill Hotel, Beijing; Kuala Lumpur Hilton). Prof. Hope Foote (1897-1983) suggested that Dale read Okakura’s The Book of Tea. Entranced, he studied Japanese, and started a furniture export business in Tokyo. Patricia (b. 1926) had worked for Boeing and Raymond Loewy. Meeting in Tokyo, they became personal and professional partners. A commission for the Marunouchi Hotel, Tokyo, 1961 led to the Hong Kong Hilton, 1963 and cemented the firm’s direction. The proposed presentation has two foci: the Kellers’ means of relating international style hotel interiors to place, an examination which leads to the conclusion that modern interiors were not an extension of architectural modernism, but were conceptually different; and an unanticipated component of the information gathering which stems from an email conversation with Dale. QUESTION & THEORIES: 1) modern era interiors are often presented as though they are consistent with modernist architectural principles – that interior designers worked similarly, albeit at a different scale. This research questions that supposition, and posits that modern interiors operated differently than their architectural cohort. 2) It is a sine qua non that design should relate to place. This research adds to the place-making literature from the lens of the Kellers’ work. METHODS: The mixed-methods analytical arm of the project starts with a) a review of their work in the press, professional (Arch. Digest) and popular (The Singapore Straits Times). b) It includes on-site documentation of projects in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand; c) research conducted with the Foote archives at UW; d) and finally, a 21st cent. oral history. In undertaking this project, a surprising situation befell me. After months of attempting to initiate contact with the Kellers, I eventually located them in their grand assisted living facility outside of Seattle. As I prepared a proper oral history project, with release form, recordings, etc. Dale happily embarked on near daily email exchanges in which I peppered him with questions: oral history in the digital age. DISCUSSION & CONCLUSIONS: The research concludes that interiors, especially hotel interiors, have a unique place in 20th century modernism. The hotels of the Kellers avoided the criticism of much global architecture. Critics decried the international style that they felt made Manila resemble Manhattan, yet often praised modern interiors. The research argues for the field of historical interiors as not an extension of architecture, but as its own discipline albeit with links to architecture. As an adjunct, the study argues that the formal procedures of oral history need to recognize digital forms of communication. Social media and email are useful for their immediacy, but present their own pitfalls for historical research. The completed project presents the Keller’s method of connecting their designs to the Asian countries in which they worked. The global topic of place-making often presents it as an intractable impossibility, but in interviews, the duo outlined their methods, chiefly work with local artisans in country after country. And finally, the research argues that Dale and Patricia Keller belong in the pantheon of the most influential interior designs of the second half of the 20th century. They headed the most important interior design firm specializing in hotel interiors. Also to their credit: the most expensive residence of the 20th century, the palace for the Sultan of Brunei.

References:

  • Chang, Jiat-Hwee. Non-West Modernist Past: On Architecture and Modernities. Singapore: World Scientific Publishers, 2012.
  • Handa, Rumiko. “Sen no Rikyu and the Japanese Way of Tea: Ethics and Aesthetics of the Everyday”. Interiors: Design, Architecture, Culture 4 (2013): 229-247.
  • Keller, Dale. “From the Bali Hyatt to the Damascus Sheraton”. Interiors 135 (1975); 88-91.
  • Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of Tea. New York: Dover, 1906.
  • Wharton, Annabel. Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.