By design, Viejas’ new hotel offers a calming escape from the busy casino floor


For Stephanie Lee, good hospitality design comes down to two key factors: respecting the wishes of the client and ensuring the design can withstand the test of time.

As lead designer for the expansion of Viejas Casino and Resort, Lee kept those two thoughts in mind during the entire process of helping turn one of the San Diego area’s premiere casinos from merely a gambling destination to what’s now an R&R oasis in eastern San Diego County. Since it first opened on Sept. 13, 1991, Viejas has expanded its offerings from gambling to include restaurants, a hotel, spa and concerts.

In January, it opened its third hotel tower — Willows Hotel & Spa — with a very specific clientele in mind: Its 159 suites will only be open to guests aged 21 and older. This phase of the expansion added a new saltwater pool, two restaurants, a day spa, a salon and outdoor dining space.

Lee, design director of San Diego-based iGroup Design, has been working with Viejas since the casino first announced the construction if its first hotel tower. It’s a relationship that has grown through time.

“I have been on this project for eight years,” said Lee, who has a background in interior and landscape design. “Earlier on, it was about earning their trust and answering this question: How do we meet the needs of all the generations who come to this facility and the needs and wants of the client?”

The answer came down to this: It’s all about the experience.

Casinos, by nature, can be a beehive of activity — lots of things to do, hear and see. It can be sensory overload. More and more, casinos are creating areas where customers can find quiet, perhaps to catch their breath and re-energize. Was it hard to find a way to seamlessly create a transition from the hubbub of the casino to the tranquility of the hotel?

“No, and what made it really easy was thinking of the areas along the perimeter as a way to escape,” Lee said. “We used all of the perimeter walls to define spaces where you could find refuge — a food venue, sitting areas … . Really for me and for the team, it was about maintaining the casino experience within but offering something to those who didn’t want to get involved with the casino floor.

“At the end of the day, we could design and design and design, but it has to serve a purpose — of making the Viejas experience something memorable,” Lee said. “How do we make the design improve the experience of everyone who comes — old and young? We refined and refined over all the last eight years, and the design has definitely evolved.”

Two and a half years ago, when the Willow Hotel & Spa’s construction began, the goal was to build upon the sleek aesthetic established in earlier phases.

“We had to elevate the design,” Lee said, “so you ask yourself: How do we make it grander? How do we make it sleeker? How do we make it more pure?”

“Even though architecturally speaking, we already had elements of that from the first two phases, now we were dealing with a tower that is adults-only,” she added. “They wanted something a little bit different, something more upscale.”

It began, simply enough, with a particular piece of rock: Vegas stone. Its lush color is reminiscent of nature — canyons, deserts and the outdoors.

Getting started, Lee said, meant “sitting down in a room and pulling the materials that we already had and we knew that we were going to continue to use. There’s a stone that we used called Vegas stone in past phases. … I sat down with that stone and started to put materials around it. What worked, what didn’t work. Does it work with brighter colors? What textures work with it? It’s not about coming up with the palette but rather feeling the palette. Once you feel the palette, you can begin the work.”

In the case of the latest hotel tower, the result is something highly modern and elegant, marked by nice touches that can withstand the finicky demands of design trends. A muted color palette of grays and whites dominate the lobby with punches of gold. There are plenty of patterns — on the floor, on the walls and on the ceilings. But think playful geometric shapes and clean lines, not froufrou embellishments. No paisley here.

Everywhere — from new dining establishments like Ginger Noodle Bar and Locale to the spa, the bar and guestrooms — there is an abundance of materials that create an atmosphere that’s at once sleek and cozy. There’s an air of luxury in the ultra-lavish space that has the feel of a boutique hotel. Sumptuous leather soften shiny metallic surfaces. Deep-hued woods pop next to ash-gray walls. Strategic lighting accentuate surfaces and create dramatic or playful shadows. It’s all a game of playful mix and match, and Lee and her staff worked hard to make sure it’s always a winning combination.

“With a projects like these, what we’ve always done is look at your base materials, your tiles, the hard goods like countertops and columns, and pick a palette that is somewhat neutral,” Lee said, “because once you do that, you can easily change the look and feel a few years from now by just stripping wall covering or changing fabrics. Even the light fixtures, we had to look at them and make sure they would still be OK if the design around it changed.”

Overcoming challenges like that comes with the territory, especially for a firm like iGroup Design, which for this project served as the lead architect and handled interior design, master planning and procurement.

Another challenge?

“Staying on budget,” she said with a laugh. “As an interior designer, we have all these grandiose ideas, and it’s always challenging to get away from that. But we always have been super successful in finding ways to maintain the look without going over budget. We find ways to take incredibly expensive material and use it in such effective ways so that it’s still super impactful. You always have to find a balance, and thankfully, we’ve been successful in doing that.”

Major projects like these bring their share of challenges, for sure, but the rewards far outweigh them.

“The most rewarding thing for me … is watching people walk through the space and watching them interact with it — how they flow through it and how effective the whole place is,” she said. “It might be odd about how super excited I get about the space, but I love seeing how it functions to make the experience better.

“After all, it’s all about the experience.”