The New Vanguard
Interior designer Michelle Jaime looks back to look ahead.
WANDER INTO THE LOBBY OF WAIKIKI'S SURFJACK HOTEL, AND THE DIN OF LEWERS STREET fades quickly in the distance. You're home now. You sink into one of the banquettes and gaze at the pool. Your room's upstairs, but you're hanging here a while. It's okay ; you've fallen under the spell of interior designer Michelle Jaime (and her grandmother). Jaime grew up retreating to her grandma's living room in Wahiawa's Whitmore Village. As one of eight siblings, that special place grounded her, gave her room to breathe. At Surfjack, she's sharing it with the rest of us. “I knew I wanted to bring her living room to that lobby,” Jaime says, talking about the collaborative project that allowed her to stretch her imagination and bring local place and culture to the hotel. “I wanted to create a space where local people come through and feel like they've been there before.” It worked. The staff calls it Tutu's Living Room. Jaime rocketed onto Hawai‘i's interior design scene when she and her business partner, Judy Andrade, launched The Vanguard Theory, a collaborative design studio, in 2010. But her musings and sense of place started percolating long before that. “I went off to school to be a psychologist,” she laughs, “But then had an epiphany that it just wasn't what I wanted to do.” Pretty soon, she dumped psych for interior architecture, and Philpotts invited her to work with them in the venerable Philpotts library. When she finished school, they hired her full time, where she stayed until the 2008 recession forced lay-offs.
When the American Cancer Society's Hope Lodge called, Jaime knew just what to do. She'd seen the power of interior design first-hand when her parents battled cancer. While her dad's chemo sessions were in an old, dark, depressing part of the hospital, her mother was at Kapi‘olani's chemo center, with big windows overlooking the city, comfortable treatment bays with personal TVs and room for a visitor. “There was so much more hope in the battle [at Kapi‘olani],” she says. “I saw the profound impact design can have on health care and well-being.”
“At Hope Lodge, we needed to create a space that's residential, not a hospital,” she says, “And we went to our vendors, asking for discounts and their support.” The community delivered, with vendors all chipping in, creating a home away from home where resident cancer patients lounge under the stars on garden chaises, nap in the library, or share a meal in the communal kitchen. “Everybody pitched in,” she says, “Because this disease has impacted everyone.”
While Tutu's Living Room still draws her in for a respite, she's now swimming in fabrics and textures and drawings for a boutique hostel—complete with a beer garden, fire-pits, and a front lawn for food trucks. On this project, like so many others, she's looking for new ideas, new collaborations. “There's so much talent in Hawai‘i— street art, fashion, food and designers,” she says, “And so many fresh ideas coming from these young designers and artists.”
As a little girl, Jaime watched TV shows, not for the plot but for the magic of place and setting. “I had no idea you could get paid to do a job like that!” she laughs. Thankfully for us, she discovered she could.
Jaime was responsible f or the interior décor of the swanky Surf jack Hotel & Swim Club ( lef t) and the new American Cancer Societ y Hope Lodge Hawai'i ( right) ( phot os by Mariko Reed, and Michelle Jaime, respe c tively; portrait by Rhema Jaime).