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July 1, 1998

Designed to transport

  • AIA Project of the Month
    Journal A/E editor

    Ummelina Day Spa has prospered by offering guests a refuge from the stresses of the city. But when spa owner Nina Ummel set out with architect Bill Gaylord and interior designer Renee Roman of GGLO to find a larger home for Ummelina, the best they could do was a second-story retail space wrapped around an escalator atrium.

    Ummelina Spa
    Retail is an important part of Ummelina. GGLO Architecture and Interior design was recently awarded First Place for Service Retailer Design in the International Store Design Competition for the project.
    The space offered one important advantage over all the others. It was in a building that could deliver and accommodate the enormous volume of water that would circulate through the spa.

    "Water is the source," said Ummel. "We have a lot of water here."

    And they do. It starts with a sculptural fountain at the entrance. Herbal teas are custom mixed for their curative powers. Then there are the foot bowls, called "wells," that are set before guests in the waiting area for an herbal foot soak. A visit to Ummelina might then lead to the "Rainforest," a place of many mists; the "Monsoon," where driving rain comes from many directions; and "Oceana," a very large, well-jetted tub that floats the client in weightless bliss in a darkened room with the scents and sounds of her choice.

    AIA Project of the Month

    Project: Ummelina International Day Spa and Herbal Remedies
    Owner: Nina Ummel
    Architect: GGLO Architecture and Interior Design

    The GGLO design team for Ummelina includes Bill Gaylord, principal in charge; Renee Roman, project manager; and interior designer Julia Brunzell. Contributors to the interior design also include the owner, Nina Ummel, and her sister Trina Haines Prawat of Savvy, Inc. Mag Secretario of Mag:Design also assisted as retail design consultant.

    Project size: 5,000 square feet
    Project type: Retail/spa
    Completion date: May 1, 1997
    General contractor: Rafn Co.

    Side trips might include a massage in the sauna-like "Desert," or repose in the "Savannah."

    The spa offers its customers "global remedies" -- scents, teas, medicinal herbs and treatments inspired by the traditions of Africa and Asia. In an industry historically dominated by Europe, Ummelina is decided non-European.

    The palette of Ummelina is wood, glass, stone, concrete, metal, natural fibers and earth-tone colors. All of the watery environments are in private, tiled rooms accessed through massive teak doors carved in Thailand with nature themes.

    Rainforest room
    The tiled "Rainforest" room at the spa is below. Warm rain drifts down from rows of overhead nozzles.
    Architecturally, the most important rooms in the spa are the retail and reception spaces -- the intersection of the outside world with the soothing, international world of Ummelina. Properly transporting guests from one to the other also requires discrete support facilities.

    The challenges were daunting. The spa wraps around the atrium in a "U" pattern that made the circulation design difficult. Yet the design team and staff have made another world for the guests of Ummelina without closing off the one they left behind.

    In the entry and retail area, floor-to-ceiling fins of warm wood filter the natural light and screen a glass wall between the spa and the escalators. They also hold glass shelves on which custom-formulated herbal remedies, skin care and bath potions are arranged in bulk jars, bottles and packages. The products can be viewed from the escalator as well as by visitors to Ummelina.

    The spa experience really begins in the waiting area, where robed guests are seated before they enter one of the more specialized spaces.

    Roman, Ummel and Gaylord
    Project Manager Renee Roman, owner Nina Ummel and architect Bill Gaylord.
    Photo by Clair Enlow

    Guests pass between generous swags of gauzy hemp and silk which are draped behind a row of high-back wicker chairs. The effect is unmistakably equatorial, the mood peaceful -- even though the chairs in which they sit to unwind are only few feet from a screened second-story window facing east to Westlake Square.

    "You see the city, but you are not a part of it," said Ummel.

    Exposed terrazzo floors, with all their flaws and traces of previous interior construction, help to give this luxury spa a distinctly third-world feel. Uncovering and cleaning the floors was "almost like an archaeological dig," said project manager Renee Roman.

    From the resting area, visitors make the transition to the treatment areas. "That junction is very important," said principal-in-charge Bill Gaylord.

    "You have your bags packed. You are ready to go," said Ummel.

    "Petroglyphs" on salvaged teak doors symbolize the nature-inspired environment within each room. Even though the rooms are used for massage and other spa treatments, the mood is decidedly non-clinical. There are not wall-to-wall cabinets.

    "(The spa) takes you away for as long as you want," she said. Ummel and the guides at Ummelina encourage their clients to go on "village time."

    Lounge at Ummelina.
    Guests lounge at ummelina.
    Photo courtesy GGLO

    "We don't allow watches and we don't allow phones," she said. "there is no discussion of time."

    Ummel extends her vision for services to the management of Ummelina. As she addressed her goal of releasing guests from the stresses of the corporate world, she decided that she needed to include her own management practices in her strategy. She draws on family experiences in Africa, and calls her style "tribal" and her staff "the guide tribe."

    To make sure the staff made the transition to the new space with tribal spirit intact, they reserved a special opening day just for themselves, beginning with a ceremonial entrance in Westlake Square and ending with spa treatments.

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