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An American in Panama

Friday, June 27th, 2014

By Kayla Unnerstall
Images courtesy of American Trade Hotel, by Spencer Lowell for Atelier Ace

Before undergoing a Cinderella-like transformation, the landmark building in Casco Viejo, Panama that’s now home to American Trade Hotel was in complete disarray. With graffiti-lined walls and a trash-filled elevator chute, the space had been occupied for years by local gangs. Looking past the mess and instead deciding to preserve the building’s inherent architectural elements, Los Angeles design firm Commune teamed up with architect Hildegard Vasquez to bring the next Ace Hotel to life.

What details in this design do you feel best represent the hotel’s aesthetic?

RA: All the furniture is made of local hardwood and handcrafted in Nicaragua, and no veneers were used on any of it. The eclectic collection of artisan-made furniture and objects (wall hangings by Tanya Aguiñiga, ceramics by Kevin Willis, furniture by James Garza and Michael Boyd, custom lighting by Atelier de Troupe, upholstered furniture by George Smith) as well as colonial antiques provide a highly personal and collected experience.

What was the inspiration for this project?

HV: We looked at old photographs and postcards of Panama, during the construction of the canal. Tropical plants and wood were always a part of the images, and that’s something that we undertook as the unifying materials for the project.

What were the challenges when working on the American Trade Hotel?

RA: For us, working in Panama was a new experience. Handcrafted elements were sourced from the US, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Mexico, and even the UK—getting everything there in time and safely was a bit of a challenge.

Are there are any fun facts or untold stories about this project?

HV: The main staircase is now covered in wallpaper, designed using the photographs we took of the gang graffiti that we found in the building, and the gang story became a design element for much of the artwork. All the pieces in the library are gang-related and tell a story that we felt also was part of the transition that the building had experienced.

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