Q&A with Benjamin Frowein, Schumacher

Schumacher has been designing and manufacturing products for the interior design industry since the late 1800s. But for a company that has stood the test of time, it’s never experienced anything quite like COVID-19. No company or business, in fact, has seen the likes of this pandemic, but all are working through the destruction it has left in its path.

With a long and rich history, the company was founded by Paris-born Frederic Schumacher in New York around the turn of the 20th century. Schumacher opened a design house in 1898 on Park Ave., importing European fabrics while pioneering the production of luxury textiles in America. In 1902, when renowned architect Stanford White was chosen by President Theodore Roosevelt to redesign the interior of the White House, White, in turn, commissioned Schumacher to design a shimmering satin lampas, which adorned the residence for decades to come. And, in 1924, heiress and industry tycoon Marjorie Merriweather Post sourced Schumacher fabrics for her Palm Beach, FL, estate Mar-A-Lago. Moreover, Schumacher hit the big screen in 1939 when Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara descends the stairs in a famous scene in Gone With the Wind, and we catch a glimpse of Hydrangea Drape adorning the walls; this Schumacher pattern is still in production today.

But it wasn’t all glamorous for the company: During World War II, it produced textiles for parachutes, life preservers and other wartime products under contract with the U.S. Navy and Air Force, doing its part to support American troops and the war effort.

In the 1950s, Schumacher also partnered with now iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright to develop a home textiles collection. The Taliesin line remains today popular with private collectors and museums alike. Schumacher even entered the rock world with its still popular Queen of Spain design in Mick Jagger’s London flat.

With a history that spans so many markers and includes so many famous celebrities and dignitaries, the company is poised to continue making history well into the future. And, at present, as family-business Schumacher navigates the current crisis, its president, Benjamin (Benni) Frowein, and the rest of the Schumacher team have put together a report on the state and future of hospitality design. Hotel Business caught up with Frowein about the report—which comes from market research and interviews with hospitality industry leaders—and about his own connection to design. He shared what’s new for Schumacher, his design predictions and some of his best advice for designers: “Where there is change there is opportunity.”

Why hospitality design? What about this industry inspires and motivates you? Only a few people know that Schumacher has had a huge presence in hospitality design since the 1890s. Our first wallpaper ever was produced for the grand opening of the Waldorf Astoria in NYC. When I joined Schumacher in early 2016, we said, “Let’s bring our legacy back and become a leader in hospitality again.”

My personal love for hospitality started as a kid. Part of my extended family owns beautiful hotels across Europe, and staying at them has always been a highlight. Today, I truly believe that hospitality design brings a very innovative perspective to the interior design world. Since design investments are made to last for five-10 years, the hotel industry creates today what is relevant tomorrow. I absolutely love that. 

What or who got you involved in design? Any early mentors or role models you can credit? My family. I grew up in Germany and we constantly moved furniture around. I vividly remember how my mother, kneeling on the floor, cut the shape of our new valances. I was fascinated. I took a long break from design, studied business administration in Germany and Spain and ventured after that into strategy consulting. Since joining Schumacher, I wake up (almost) every day with a smile on my face, happy about being part of the interior design world again.

Schumacher has been assembling a report on the state and future of hospitality design. Can you detail some key findings? My team, led by Isabel Elliman and me, interviewed 40 decision makers across the hospitality industry from hotels to commercial design firms to purchasing agents in order to understand how we can all succeed over the next decade. I don’t want to distract from encouraging industry peers to pursue reading the full report, but I am happy to say that the key findings are very positive: Travel and hotel occupancy is very likely to continue to grow after a full rebound in 2022. A lot of hospitality players still remain motivated and are looking for opportunities to expand over the next two to three years. We also heard that the role of design—especially when it comes to the influence of design in creating a one-of-a-kind experience—will play an even more important role.

Did any of the findings surprise you? How so? Yes. The optimism of our interview partners across the board. I admit I was still in shock about this unprecedented drop in occupancy rates across the globe. Neither 9/11 nor the financial crises impacted the hospitality industry nearly as severely as COVID-19 has. But the interviews clearly showed that the future of hospitality is bright—presenting opportunity and adventure for both businesses and hopeful travelers. On the leisure side, we believe that people will still want to see the world and use travel as a personal growth experience. Business travel will rebound too: Our world is simply too globalized; companies (Schumacher being one of them) are already realizing how important human connection is and that international business relationships are built on trust, something very difficult to gain through just video conference calls.

In your opinion, what does the future of hospitality design look like? Creating a meaningful connection between the guest and the destination will be the strategic focus of the next decade. The hotel industry will be largely defined by travelers’ demand for something that is more than a beautiful property, but also offers unique experiences and unforgettable stories to share with friends and family. We predict that in this new era of travel, guests will be seeking out meaningful connections in every phase of their interaction with a property, from initial research and booking, straight through to post-stay follow-up. When it comes to design for example, we believe that “global design promises” will be replaced by highly individualized concepts that correspond to and enhance the cultural and environmental context of each property. This will all driven by the client’s wish to connect with their destination and feel good about their choice.

How should designers stay motivated, especially during a time when we’re all supposed to stay away from others? From a business perspective, we have a very exciting time ahead of us. Where there is change, there is opportunity. Hospitality designers and procurement firms could become experts in helping hotels create meaningful connections beyond the design itself. They could advise their clients on how to increase an authentic experience, foster localization and allow for local sourcing. Sharing an anecdote with a guest that reveals some of the diligent thoughtfulness behind a design decision is not just a pleasantry—it will be a vital part of the hospitality property’s story. These are just some ideas that I find incredibly motivating.

What’s new for Schumacher? Do you have anything in the works for the coming months? We have so much happening, it’s crazy. As we speak, we are launching Freddie, which is a brand-new platform that exposes interior designers of all levels and practices to a large audience of homeowners and design enthusiasts. We also decided that we will continue launching our monthly collections (yes, monthly) in 2021—including even more developments in off-the-shelf commercial-grade solutions suited for hospitality projects. And don’t take your eyes off of us, we have a couple of other exciting surprises up our sleeves, too.

What’s your five-year plan? What are some goals you’re working toward? It might sound surprising but I never give myself goals. Life itself is so much better at it than I could ever be. HB

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