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Designed to disrupt: in conversation with Eric Jafari

Edyn’s chief development officer and creative director, Eric Jafari, discusses the birth and growth of Locke, the ground-breaking aparthotel brand he co-founded.

07/09/2022 7 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 221

Words: Dominic Lutyens
Images: Nicholas Worley and Ed Dabney


Eric Jafari might be the co-founder of aparthotel brand Locke, which places a huge premium on interior design hinging on individuality, flair and subtlety. But as he tells us, his background is in real estate not design or hospitality.

Locke is part of hospitality group Edyn, which also operates bespoke serviced apartment brands, Cove and Saco. Jafari, who previously founded Bridgepoint Ventures, a boutique real-estate firm, is now Edyn’s chief development officer and creative director. This sees him lead a team managing acquisitions, asset management, construction, design, investment finance and planning.

Locke is a fast-expanding venture. Since it was founded in 2016, it has opened 12 stylish outposts in the UK and Europe, the latest being WunderLocke in Munich, opened this summer. The brand collaborates with high- profile interior design studios, including Fettle, Sella Concept and Grzywinski+Pons to date.

Yet design was a central part of Jafari’s childhood, he reveals with pride: “I was raised by a family obsessed with design. My father was a lead architect for Disney, designing Euro Disney in France and Tokyo Disney. When we were little, we were dragged around the world for design inspiration. On a subconscious level, my father instilled in me that you can create a place that brings joy to people who go out of their way to go there. But it’s a rite of passage to take a different path to my parents, so I got into real estate.”

Even so, Jafari developed a passion for visiting what he describes as “forerunners of the design hotel movement”, namely the Delano in Miami (renovated in the 1990s by Philippe Starck) and Borgo Egnazia in Puglia, Italy.

At one point, his interest was piqued by a hotel that modelled itself on a monastery – a silent retreat – that charged $1,000 a night.

When visiting a city where a new hotel had opened, he was equally keen to gain an intimate knowledge of the city’s culture: “I wanted to immerse myself in its underbelly, to go where the locals went. With respect to the hotels, I was interested in those whose design wasn’t derivative of something I’d seen elsewhere.”

In time, this would become a business credo for Jafari. A commitment to originality and a desire for his hotels to reflect the character of their locality – in all its richness – were key drivers behind his business. His first hotel was Urban Villa in Brentford, West London, which Jafari co-founded while heading up the real-estate investment and hotel development firm Union Hanover Securities (UHS). Urban Villa was created in response to its neighbourhood, offered extended stays and can be seen as the precursor to Locke, whose main goal was to embody unique qualities of the immediate vicinity.

Jafari had often encountered highly clichéd, crude attempts by hotels to reference a locality’s culture. “I’ve seen Union Jack or London Bridge motifs used in interiors to reference London or the UK,” he says, giving one example. He aimed instead to represent it in a more nuanced, multi-layered way. “I wanted to do something more subtle, to showcase something about the locality that guests wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.”

When planning his earliest hotels, Jafari was partly guided by his analysis of what was lacking in many existing hotels. “One thing I realised, when trying to shape hotels for people staying for seven to 10 days, is that what a lot of hotels offered was irrelevant,” he says. “They often made the mistake of thinking they are places for sleeping in only.”

He points out that they have traditionally offered generic, one-size-fits all catering in the form of, say, chicken sandwiches. Many hotel interiors, he says, are unimaginative, synonymous with “sterile design environments”. They rarely swerved from the dull, default convention of “the reception desk placed front and centre – the first thing you see on entering a hotel. When you walk into the rooms,” he continues, “all you see is a bed – the room’s main focus.

I spent a lot of time thinking what do people – such as urbanites from Paris, London or New York – really want when spending a lot of time away from home. I realised that for consumers, hotels aren’t just somewhere to sleep. You eat, work and play there, and you’re a part of the local community.”

 

Jafari’s mission to discard tired conventions of hotel design and basic amenities in favour of more imaginative interiors and activities has earned him a reputation as a disrupter of the hospitality sector. His first Locke establishment, the 170-room Leman Locke in Aldgate, East London, opened in 2016 and offered a refreshing alternative to the anonymous style of many hotels. Its rooms were spacious – equipped with facilities more associated with apartments – and their décor nodded to the architectural style and culture of the neighbourhood. “The rooms were very minimalist in style,” he recalls. “We were trying to embrace the austerity of East London.”

Yet, in line with Locke’s desire to surprise its customers, their style wasn’t a predictable take on the industrial-chic aesthetic either: “We added a soft, pastel feel to the rooms, too, as we wanted to create spaces that felt like a sanctuary.”

Each apartment at Leman Locke has a kitchen – allowing guests to cook their own food like they can at home – plus a washing machine and a dishwasher. But they also have the option of eating at its vegan eaterie, Alter.

On the face of it, Leman Locke was offering guests something they might not expect in hotels – self- sufficiency. But Jafari doesn’t see it like that. “We offer the best of both worlds: it’s like Soho House and Airbnb had a baby. You have the autonomy of being in your own apartment, yet your room is cleaned, you can go to the gym, eat at a restaurant.”

With Leman Locke, Jafari practised what he preached, providing guests with a wide range of activities, such as yoga and running classes. This idea was also sparked by his observation of another common failing in hotels: “When people stay at hotels for a long time, they’re often encouraged to indulge their worst habits – working on their bed or not going to the gym.”

According to Jafari, Leman Locke proved such a success that it led to the creation, some years later, of another Locke property adjacent to it, Buckle Street Studios, which has 107 rooms. “We looked at things that were missing from Leman Locke and put them into Buckle Street Studios, such as including smaller rooms too, for those who don’t necessarily need so much space.”

Jafari even added a co-working space at Buckle Street Studios, having received requests for these, mainly from corporate clients. “Many of them didn’t have an office space and needed one. Another reason why people hankered after them was because on long stays people experience loneliness, an issue rarely talked about.”

As the Locke empire has expanded, so its repertoire of activities has grown to include all sorts of unexpected, specialist pursuits, some based on acquiring traditional skills, others geared towards pure creative fun. Jafari cites the popularity of collage-making at Bermonds Locke in Bermondsey London and gin-making and gin-tasting at London’s Kingsland Locke (it has a gin distillery on site). WunderLocke also epitomises the brand’s desire to capture the multi-layered and sometimes seemingly contradictory character of the local area – in this case, up-and-coming Munich quarter, Sendling.

Containing 360 spacious, serviced apartments, its interiors have been created by London-based design studio Holloway Li, also responsible for the interiors of Bermonds Locke. Artist Wassily Kandinsky, who lived for some time in Munich, was the key inspiration behind the interior, specifically his idea that abstraction was a way to become closer to nature. This led Holloway Li to strip back the interior to reveal its raw concrete fabric (in a nod, perhaps, to pared- down abstraction), then introduce furniture and fabrics in natural colours and materials and an abundance of plants. Meanwhile, the apartments feature furniture and wall colours in subtle variations of blues and greens.

To research key interests among Sendling’s population, Locke commissioned a study. “We discovered there’s a very large wellness movement in the area that cares about food, too,” says Jafari. In light of this, WunderLocke has partnered with local, Michelin- starred restaurant Mural to open its own restaurant Mural Farmhouse, that prepares meals using vegetables and herbs grown on site. Yet there was an unexpected twist to the study’s findings, says Jafari: “There’s also a hedonistic undertone to Munich, which is surprising. This demographic wants wellness, but not at the expense of going out. The same person doing yoga classes in the morning might want to party at night.” So the hotel also boasts a cocktail bar that he describes as a “nod to the wild Italian disco days, epitomised by Munich-based producer Giorgio Moroder, whose Musicland Studios recorded hits by Queen, Donna Summer and others”.

While Jafari’s modus operandi is to create establishments with a nuanced, complex and unique character, he acknowledges that it’s a highly challenging, financially risky strategy.

“Trying to create something new is incredibly painful,” he stresses. “What often happens is that when hoteliers open their first two hotels, the disruption happens with the first hotel. Any evolution after that is nominal because the hoteliers will have taken the design, codified it and ultimately come up with a strict set of brand standards. But I don’t blame them, as it’s hard to create something new, and many of us are risk-averse.”

As our conversation draws to a close, he neatly sums up his philosophy: “I would rather people walked into two of my hotels and said, ‘I loved the first one, but hated the second one’ than ‘They are nice, they remind me of one another’. If the latter happens, I feel I’ve failed because our consumers don’t like cookie-cutter places. What they look for is an immersion into a unique, indigenous experience.”

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