Design is the Destination: Hotel Emma, Texas, USA

Huge hotels really aren’t my thing. I prefer teeny tiny, with fewer rooms than I can count on two hands, but just enough quirky rooms (no cookie-cutter interiors, please) that means each time I visit it feels like a different destination.

Hotel Emma might be about to change all that. This larger-than-life hotel, in newly hip San Antonio, has 146 rooms, a library, pool, brewery, and, delightfully, a history as many years long as its square footage.


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The northern river banks of quirky and cool San Antonio, Texas, USA


Interior design: Roman & Williams




My love affair with encaustic tiles is a new one, but I feel could become a lifelong obsession. It started, as so many love affairs do, on Instagram (the interior love affairs, that is), when Bert & May started popping up every fifth image, and led to a rather expensive upgrade of my bathroom at home, which in a few weeks’ time will be covered floor to ceiling in Bert & May ‘tapas blue’ tiles. I’ll presume Hotel Emma didn’t source their somewhat more expansive use of encaustics from a small, canal-side showroom in East London. Wherever they did come from, however, they’ve taken the theme and run with it. The tiles pop up on balconies, walls, bathrooms and even staircases.


Ah, the bathrooms. I’d happily move my entire world into one of these. Blue and white tiles (more of them!), alongside gold fittings and blue searsucker robes are a San An version of retro Miami interiors. The styling here, as everywhere, is confident but never brash.


The story behind Hotel Emma is almost as wonderful as the décor. Its namesake, the ballsy Emma Koehler, ran the Pearl brewery – Hotel Emma’s previous incarnation – after her husband, Pearl president Otto Koehler, died in 1914, keeping it going through Prohibition (she turned it into a dry-cleaning and car-repair business) and keeping an eye on proceedings right through to her death in 1947.

But there were another two Emmas who also caught Otto’s eye. Nurse Emma, known as Emmi, hired to look after Emma Koehler when she was hurt in a car accident, and very soon Otto’s mistress, and her good friend, Emma – also a nurse. A tall, blonde, beautiful nurse. Otto ended up having affairs with them both, which were cut short when tall, blonde Emma shot him dead.


A hotel with history is a double-edged sword: go too retro and it feels gimmicky. Ignore it completely and you’ll be accused of messing with the past. Hotel Emma gets it just right. Old fermentation tanks are repurposed as banquette seating. A suite ceiling crafted from the bottom of a cast-iron hopper.

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And all those mis-matched light fittings, in fact solid bronze industrial devices. Take a second look at the twinkling chandelier in the ballroom and realise its composed of old beer-bottle labelling equipment. (Actually, you’d be forgiven for not realising that’s what it’s made from. It is.)

Unfinished Sympathy

How do you match the perfect with the unpolished? Like this. A wooden four-poster bed pushed up against an unpainted wall.

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A replica of the 1883 cement tile brewery floor, not quite covered with carpets and rugs. Pressed tin ceilings criss-crossed with original wood beams.


In the library, reading lights more usually seen in films set at Harvard top the tables, while straight-backed leather chairs adorn the wooden floors.


The brick and steel entrance lobby should be imposing, but manages to be the opposite with exposed bulbs hung overhead and low-slung chairs in front of a roaring open fire. I have an aversion to leather sofas – too many DFS adverts, I guess – but here the well-worn versions fit in with the slouchy, old-fashioned feel. Old-fashioned, but not old.

Picture credit: Nicole Franzen

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