HKS’ Mary Alice Palmer Creates Experiences and Tells Stories with Design
The reopening of Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe — with interiors designed by HKS Hospitality Interiors— represents a homecoming of sorts for Mary Alice Palmer.
A self-described “Westerner”, Palmer spent much of her upbringing traveling between her mother’s native Texas and her father’s native California, where she grew up. On those Southwestern road trips, Palmer’s family often stopped in Santa Fe and stayed at Bishop’s Lodge. The resort’s unique character and Santa Fe’s strong sense of place have stuck with her since those childhood visits.
Situated where the Rocky Mountains meet the Santa Fe National Forest, Bishop’s Lodge has a long history of providing respite and adventure to travelers. Tasked with re-imagining the resort, the design team looked to create a modern hospitality experience that respects the property’s original architecture and sense of place.
“It’s about preserving history as well as creating something that is going to be viable for the future and become desirable in a contemporary culture,” said Palmer, a Principal at HKS who oversaw the project in her role as Design Director and Global Practice Director of Hospitality Interiors.
Palmer and her team endeavored to understand the history of the resort, uncover layers of local culture and create a design that caters to guests, honoring New Mexico’s Native American tribes and Hispanic history as well as the lore of the American West. She says the goal was to push beyond typical expectations and create a design that “goes much deeper into the culture.”
The resort’s interior design complements the surrounding desert and mountain landscapes with natural materials and color palettes that harmonize with the shifting light. Navajo and Hopi textiles, art and furnishings offer an inviting atmosphere and opportunities to appreciate tribal traditions. With Auberge luxury hospitality in mind, the resort offers regional dining and craft cocktails at Star Fire, local café culture at Two Dogs, unique retail at Nathalie at Bishop’s Lodge, an artist in residence program, an equestrian experience, trout fishing, and a pool and destination spa as well as unparalleled guest accommodations. Bishop’s Lodge is designed to welcome people from down the road and around the world.
“It truly will be a one-of-a-kind destination, not only for travelers to Santa Fe, but for the community as well,” said HKS’ Natalie Smith, the project’s lead designer, noting that Palmer’s wealth of knowledge about the Santa Fe area was essential to the project’s development.
Throughout the project, Palmer has kept a vintage Bishop’s Lodge brochure and guest bill labeled with her father’s name on her desk — a reminder that in life, things often come full circle.
Crafting a Unique Path
When the design world called Palmer’s name, she moved across the country to attend Parson’s School of Design in New York, a decision she says “was incredibly critical” to her path. She credits the experience of living in the city as a student and earning a degree in environmental design as pivotal in teaching her how to think critically and develop her own creative approach.
“We had to become very fluent in our ability to describe our process, to speak to what a concept meant and then how that played out through the design,” she said.
While attending her inquisitive, exploratory classes downtown and simultaneously working with renowned interior designer John Saladino’s boutique upper east side firm, she gained perspective on the range of disciplines where she could apply her design sensibilities. From there, Palmer launched a career that would span film, fashion, and residential and hospitality design.
An opportunity to work on a film took Palmer from New York back to Texas and, hooked by the creativity involved in movie making, she next decided to return to California and pursue jobs in Hollywood. As a set designer and decorator on numerous films including James Cameron’s underwater sci-fi thriller The Abyss, Palmer put her design skills to use in an exciting, fast-paced industry, deeply rooted by her ability to propel a story through design.
Walking along the streets of Los Angeles, Palmer frequently encountered women who asked where she got the stunning handbags she carried with her — those that she designed herself. She capitalized on an emerging market and made a bold career move, founding a line of luxury leather handbags and accessories. For the next several years, Palmer traveled from South America to Mexico and throughout most major cities in the U.S. to grow her business, landing her accessories in major high-end boutique and department stores around the world.
When her insatiable curiosity and appetite for change, a new marriage and a move to Carmel instigated a return to interior design, Palmer worked on luxury coastal residences in California before finding herself with a boutique hospitality interior design firm. She soon built a reputation as a uniquely creative, savvy and thoughtful designer, culminating in an offer to found and lead HKS’ new Hospitality Interiors practice in 2011.
Over the last 10 years, Palmer has built a diverse and creative team of individuals representing many backgrounds, unique perspectives and skill sets. Her team includes Smith, whom she’s mentored for 15 years and HKS Senior Interior Design Project Manager, Olga Acosta.
Together, Palmer and Acosta develop strategies to maintain a high standard of quality and continually work to raise the bar to evolve the Hospitality Interiors practice.
“It’s exciting and rewarding to have a partner who is forward thinking and always challenging me and our studio to reach beyond our comfort zone,” Acosta said, adding that she admires Palmer for her “tireless passion for design.”
Echoing Acosta’s sentiments, Smith said, “She listens to other’s ideas and pushes us to think outside the box or beyond the norm. I think what makes her a great leader is that she shares this knowledge openly and explains her thought process.”
Diverse Experiences, A Cohesive Story
While Palmer’s career trajectory has taken many divergent paths, she believes every experience brought valuable lessons that contribute to her success today. The film industry taught her how to work with diverse design teams and produce results in a short time frame. Running her accessories line provided a crash course in business management. In her more recent professional pursuits, she’s become a valued mentor and grown even more passionate about designing for the guest experience.
Before all of that, though, Palmer says that her earliest memories from childhood are of riding from country to country in Europe in her family’s Volkswagen bus. She fell in love with the historic architecture and natural wonders she saw then, and those cultural experiences affect the work she does to this day.
“All those things go together in a way that have enhanced my ability to address hospitality in a unique and much more layered fashion,” she said.
Recently, Palmer has noticed the hospitality industry concentrate on the creation of unique and authentic experiences for travelers — a shift that dovetails with her lifelong passion for storytelling. Whether visitors come to a space she designs for business, vacation, or just for an evening out, she says she tries to “provide a dream-like, exciting experience.”
“Travelers are looking for that story and to insert themselves into it,” Palmer said.
Drawing on the past, present and future of a place, Palmer generates imaginative project narratives, which she says, “can act as a backbone or a framework to the overall design development” and build mutual understanding among designers, consultants and contractors — all of whom “can really benefit from understanding that sense of vision.”
Travelers are looking for that story and to insert themselves into it.
Acosta and Smith both believe that Palmer’s penchant for crafting stories is an asset to their team and to hospitality clients. “Mary Alice crafts a unique perspective and builds a story that is woven through every design decision and ultimately enhances our clients’ brand identity,” Acosta said.
Through her own travels — the childhood road trips across Europe and the American Southwest and visits to global destinations during her professional life — Palmer developed a deep appreciation for diverse stories and perspectives. In her work, she applies her compassion for others to elevate local communities through design and instill a sense of pride of place in people coming from near and far.
“I feel very fortunate that I have had so many opportunities to walk in other shoes,” she said. “In a way, I think that is the foundation of empathy.”