Tollman is president and founder of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection. // © The Red Carnation Hotel Collection
Hotel interior design has to be one of the trickiest endeavors out there. Styles can change almost overnight and what was considered cutting-edge one year can quickly become “what-were-they-thinking?” just a few years later.
Enter Bea Tollman, a hotelier for over fifty years, who manages to combine classic design with a quirky sense of humor. Her hotels never date themselves because they are not trendy and don’t try to be. Instead, her design reflects the architecture of the property and its location.
“I have been interested in interior design since I was a small child,” said Tollman. “Although I have no formal education in the field, I have years of experience in hotels and have learned so much from guests’ comments, both their likes and dislikes. And, most importantly, I know how the design works with the hotel operation.”
Tollman’s adventure in the hospitality industry began when she married Stanley Tollman, a second-generation hotelier in her native South Africa. Their first hotel was a small one in Johannesburg in 1954.
“My husband and I learned by experience from the start and we relied very much on each other,” Tollman said.
In 1975, the Tollmans moved to London and eventually founded the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, beginning with London’s Chesterfield Hotel.
Travelers who are used to corporate hotel design are in for a surprise if they look closely at the Red Carnation hotel they are staying in, because Tollman has infused her unique personality into each property to make it distinctive. For one thing, most of the artwork is original. In the flagship hotel in London, the Milestone, there are authentic prints of Edwardian gentlemen and ladies that fit beautifully into this 150-year-old hotel. In the Twelve Apostles in Cape Town, original paintings of proteas remind visitors of the country’s national flower, while the Montague Gardens features Scottish decor in the bar.
All of the hotels carry an echo of the Tollmans’ South African heritage, either through animal print fabrics or wild animal paintings. Because this remains a family-owned business, Bea Tollman’s personal touches are what set the properties apart. Every room showcases a different design theme, from Tudor to country French.
“The design of the hotels is made in the details, with special focus on the guest experience,” said Tollman. “It is seen through the quality and refinement of all the equipment, such as furniture, fabrics, drapery, savoir mattresses, upholstery and the linens. We also keep up-to-date on the latest technology. I like timeless design that is well-thought-out but always with the needs of the guests in mind. I have years of experience in knowing what makes guests happy.”
“She’s inspirational,” said Terry Gelfand, who has been part of Bea Tollman’s design team for 10 years. “We buy art through auction houses and store it until we find the perfect spot for it. She is so passionate about art and antiques that it makes everyone who works for her feel the same way. She likes the hotels to be classic in design, but still boutique and homey.”
Some of the artistic works found in the hotels include those by Miro, Chagall, Toulouse Lautrec and Matisse, among others.
All in all, Tollman travels about 300,000 miles a year to find fabrics, antiques, furniture and artwork for the 500 rooms and suites she designs. She remains involved in every aspect of the hotels, which now number 16 four- and five-star luxury boutique hotels on three continents. As president and founder of the Red Carnation Collection, she won the 2012 European Hotelier of the Year award. And that’s not even counting the achievements of the Red Carnation’s sister company, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. Always on the lookout for the next challenge, the company just bought a castle in Ireland to remodel.
“I love people,” said Tollman. “I love to talk to our guests, finding out what they like and don’t like. Many of them have great ideas.”
And it’s a sure bet that any great idea will find its way to one of the Tollmans’ properties.