From Hedge Funder to Hotel Designer: How Saar Zafrir Keeps Making His Big Interior-Design Ideas Happen
First he quit his job in finance and focused on renovating an apartment into a money-making short-term rental. Then he cashed out to buy a stake in a building he thought would make a great hotel. When Saar Zafrir stumbled upon an unexpected passion for interior design, he didn’t waste any time turning that into a career. With a diverse portfolio that now includes more than 50 hotels across Europe, he recently opened up to Ivy Magazine about his unique career path, even more unique design concepts, and his top three priorities for making any space feel five-star.
To start, could you share the backstory of how you transitioned from working in finance to being an interior designer—and then into designing hotels all over Europe?
Saar Zafrir: After 12 years of working in the capital market, I wanted to take a break and a year off to travel, surf and relax a bit. I had some money saved and I decided to buy an apartment in Tel Aviv, the city I lived in. The idea was to renovate it and rent it out. Because I had quit my work (a hedge fund I was a partner in), I thought that it would be nice to renovate the apartment by myself and not hire an interior designer. The moment I started to research, I felt like I was falling in love. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the computer and I started to explore the world of design. I learned Autocad/SketchUp from YouTube and bought all the design magazines and interior design books I could find.
After I finished my first project, I rented out the apartment as a short-term rental and the success was unreal. The apartment was rented at 90-percent occupancy at an average nightly rate of $160 USD (back then, that was a lot). I kept researching design on the internet and started to design for friends and family, for free and just for fun. In 2011, I found a beautiful building for sale in the center of Tel Aviv (today it is the Poli House Hotel). I called Liran Wizman (a good friend of mine) and I told him about this building that I thought we could convert into a hotel. He liked the idea and we arranged two more partners and bought the building. Liran Wizman today is one of the best hoteliers in Europe, an owner of W Hotel Amsterdam, Sir Hotels, Max Brown Hotels and more. I had to sell my apartment to have enough money to buy my part of the property. We bought the building and I was in charge of development, and we hired Karim Rashid to design the interior design of the hotel. During that development, I got even more into design and worked with a local interior designer on three projects in Germany that were owned by Liran Wizman. After a couple of months something went wrong between them and Liran asked me to finish the design by myself. For me, it was very scary, but I understood that this was the opportunity of my life. I took it and since then I have designed more than 50 hotels across Europe for the Wizman Group and many more.
Is there anything that helped you make that big leap into interior design—or maybe some advice you’d give designers who are just starting out in the field?
SA: I think the fact that I started with a private development helped a lot, and then the door that Liran opened for me—I was lucky. I would tell designers starting off in the field to study, explore and experience. The best way for me to study hospitality design was to visit the places I saw in magazines. It’s not enough to look at a picture, you need to feel a space in order to understand it. The most important thing for me in design is the flow, how all the elements come together and complete each other. You can’t see that in a frame.
How would you define your style and your point of view as a designer?
SA: It’s very difficult to say because each hotel has a different story and style, but I can definitely say that I like warm spaces. I am not a big fan of minimalism.
What is it that helps make the properties you design so memorable and unique? Are there certain colors, materials, etc. that you find yourself revisiting often?
SA: I am really trying to bring something different for each project. For example, in the Provocateur Hotel in Berlin, I created “Provocateur Mode”—a switch in each room that you can flick that dims the lights and plays video art along the walls, with beautiful music. We shot the video art during the construction work in the hotel. In Sir Savigny Berlin, the ground-floor concept was based on The Butcher, a very successful burger bar from Amsterdam—in each room, I installed a vintage intercom system that guests can use to order a burger direct to their room. In the Max Brown Hotel, also in Berlin, I installed a mini basketball hoop and monogrammed stuffed basketball in each room, and a record player to add another layer in the room, something playful.
When you’re initially coming up with a design concept, what are some of your very first steps in the brainstorming process? Do you have any favorite ways for keeping your ideas organized?
SA: For me, the design process starts and ends with layers. Each layer follows the layer before it. For example, when I start a project I fill in a kind of survey, starting from the macro to the micro. Location is the first and most important—country, city, neighborhood, street. The style of the building is second—I’ve never had the chance to build from the ground-up, I am really looking forward to that. Then, understanding who the guests are and the requirements of the client, whether it be a business hotel, a young or luxury vibe, etc. Then we start with the sense of arrival. For me, the first thing that the guest will see in the entrance of the hotel will influence their entire stay. That arrival moment is very important.
You manage projects on such a large scale—is there anything you think interior designers who primarily work on residential homes could learn from what you do?
SA: Yes, a great deal. Function should come before design, and there are three elements that need to be perfect:
Lighting: You need to have enough light in the space and when you want to relax, you need to be able to adjust it properly.
Bed: The average person spends 8 to 10 hours in bed per day, therefore the bed should be perfectly designed and comfortable.
Bathroom: The shower should have sufficient water pressure and the lighting should be warm and abundant (especially for doing your makeup and grooming).
In residential projects, these elements are even more important, since people are living there full-time, not as guests for two or three nights. It’s also very important that the layout of the space is designed well. Function before design.
If you had an unlimited budget for a project, what is one thing you know you’d include?
SA: Wow, good question. I think I would put a swimming pool on each balcony. I love swimming pools!
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