Interview with Michelle Jaime, the Founding Principal and Creative Director of The Vanguard Theory. 

“It’s never really about the interior, it is always about the experience and how hotels should reflect the culture and its surroundings, connecting guests to the place they visit.”

– Michelle Jaime

Before The Vanguard Theory: Michelle’s Inspiration 

Michelle Jaime’s journey into the world of design begins with her humble upbringing, where inspiration was born. Her father’s artistic touch turned their lived-in van into a charming and distinctive space thoughtfully detailed with paint, crafted baskets, and other creative elements. As a family, they’d go on road trips to visit her grandmother and make pit stops in areas along the way with many model homes for them to explore. She used to run through the rooms and envision how the spaces could be transformed into her own, acting as playgrounds for her imagination. These formative years sparked her passion for creativity and her desire to bring designs to life. 

Michelle has many years of experience in the hospitality industry, not only as a designer but also as a sales representative during the recession. In this position, she learned about the intricacies of manufacturing, sales, and the nature of communication amongst different stakeholders, ultimately providing her with a more well-rounded understanding of the multifaceted nature of design. It was a great opportunity to work closely with different design companies, on the mainland and in Hawaii, gaining her valuable insight on preferences and practices. From designing to sales, these experiences provided Michelle with the tools and knowledge necessary in steering her own successful design company.

Designing Narratives: Inception of The Vanguard Theory

In 2010, Michelle co-founded The Vanguard Theory with the objective of breaking away from the familiarity found within Hawaii’s design industry and offering a new voice. Recognizing Hawaii’s close-knit design community where everyone is acquainted, she created this studio to serve as a new guard in the design industry. This venture inspired the name, The Vanguard Theory, and acts as a testament to the studio’s innovative design practices. 

Michelle is now the sole owner of The Vanguard Theory and has successfully scaled the studio from two to eight employees, marking a pivotal milestone in the studio’s growth and expansion. The studio’s evolution has elevated their storytelling abilities, weaving cultural and historical narratives seamlessly into their eco-friendly designs. This has paved the way for a diverse range of project opportunities under their portfolio. Extending its reach beyond Hawaii, the studio has taken on projects in Nashville and Denver, with a desire to further pursue this trajectory of growth. 

Michelle reveals that her team uses a special design formula for their projects, centered around the concept of storytelling. This design technique aims to establish a profound connection between guests and the temporary space they inhabit, achieved through practices of character creation – drawing inspiration from envisioning the individuals who once occupied the space. With the incorporation of historical and cultural elements, it is equally important to balance this with contemporary trends and ideas to achieve a harmonious fusion of modernity and cultural sensitivity in each project. This approach has earned The Vanguard Theory recognition for their work, notably the Guestroom Midscale Gold Key Award in 2023 for the Wayfinder Waikiki project.

Aligning Creativity with Culture: Wayfinder Waikiki 

Given the Wayfinder’s original construction in 1970, during a period of prominent Buddhist culture and lingering influences from the Plantation Era, Michelle and her team prioritized the integration of multicultural elements to authentically represent the residents of that time. Waikiki’s inclusive community, composed of individuals from various cultural backgrounds, particularly Asian and European, played a significant role in the design process.

This intertwined thread of cultures within Waikiki’s local community, in addition to the melding of contemporary influences, is what created the basis for the studio’s vision for Wayfinder Waikiki. They established a multicultural narrative by integrating diverse cultural influences into their designs using fabric, prints, and materials. For example, a few of their designs included aloha print made with Japanese fabric, palaka – a Portuguese plaid, and some of the pieces were crafted with koa wood – a sustainable Native Hawaiian material – with batten detailing. 

The guestrooms in Wayfinder Waikiki bring a nuance to multiculturalism through the materials and designs. Michelle expressed her pride in creating an atmosphere for guests that seamlessly combines the sharing of Hawaiian heritage with the comfortability of visiting family at their home, rather than the typical experience of checking into a hotel. 

Protecting Paradise: Hospitality & Tourism in Hawaii

Navigating Hawaii’s dual identity as a popular tourist destination and a haven for preservation of fragile ecosystems and rich history presents unique challenges. With Michelle’s previous hospitality experience and journey with The Vanguard Theory, her design process reflects her commitment to storytelling and eco-friendly practices. Her work on one of her first projects, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 2007, emphasizes thoughtful renovation over reconstruction, respecting its historical significance and community ties.

Beyond historical and cultural conservation, Michelle’s design approach also includes sustainability and protection of her surrounding environments. Her team was hired by Hotel Renew in 2018, located in Waikiki, to help with brand development when conscious consumerism started to trend. With the surge in yearly visitors due to tourism and its negative impact on surrounding ecosystems, rebranding the hotel and altering the guest experience became a necessity. They rebranded it as a conscious hotel, where they repaired and added material to the furniture rather than gutting the entire thing for sustainability and historic preservation purposes. Guest experiences have been altered to inspire responsible engagement with the environment through partnerships with platforms like “Travel2Change.” This initiative encourages guests to learn about the local culture and actively participate in activities like invasive species removal and rebuilding programs.

Michelle takes pride in conducting sustainable redevelopment and promoting ecotourism, urging designers and hoteliers to consider the residual impact of their decisions. Beyond the physical design of the establishment, Michelle explains the significance behind educating guests on their responsibilities as a visitor. Through ecotourism, guests are encouraged to engage with the environment and culture around them, allowing them to enjoy their experience without exploitation. 

Breaking Barriers: Michelle’s Mission

Michelle finds immense fulfillment in observing people enjoy the spaces she has worked on, where the impact of her designs extends above aesthetics to leave a lasting impression on guests. Her genuine care and commitment to support her community is evident in her collaborations with local artists and young designers, celebrating their creativity and achievements.

The co-hosting of the 2018 HGTV show “Aloha Build” with her brother David stands as a testament to Michelle’s influence, while The Vanguard Theory’s features in renowned publications and its collection of distinguished awards reflect the studio’s excellence. Michelle explains that these accolades are great for building team confidence, however, the driving force for success stems from individual inspiration rather than recognition for their work. Michelle fosters a collaborative work environment by organizing brainstorming sessions with her team that encourage the sharing of individual inspiration, aiding in their innovative design discovery. 

Reflecting on her own career, Michelle acknowledges the ongoing challenge of embracing fearlessness, particularly as a woman in entrepreneurship and the hospitality industry. Through these types of conversations, she has created a space that empowers her team to push boundaries in this highly competitive industry. In Michelle’s wise words, “it is important to take risks. If you’re comfortable, you’re not doing it right”. Michelle continues to raise the standard of excellence in Hawaii’s hospitality and tourism industry through commitment to innovation, storytelling, and conscious design. 

Interested in learning more about Michelle and her philosophy for design? Check out the Defining Hospitality podcast episode A Duty To Be Hospitable with Michelle Jaime.