Apr 19, 2023

Episode 107

Clint Nagata

BLINK Design Group founder and creative director Clint Nagata sits on steps


Hawaiian-born, Bangkok-based Clint Nagata cut his teeth at architecture firm WATG for 13 years before setting out on his own in 2006 to found BLINK Design Group. (BLINK currently operates studios in Singapore, Bangkok, Shanghai, and Dubai.) Together, he and his team are reshaping the modern hospitality landscape by crafting luxurious oases like Vietnam’s Regent Phu Quoc, Raffles Maldives Meradhoo Resort, and the Six Senses Uluwatu in Bali. No matter where in the world his projects are, Nagata’s work is guided by the pursuit of balance—resulting in thoughtfully layered spaces that are simple and timeless.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Clint. Clint, thanks so much for joining us today. How are you?

Clint Nagata: It’s great to be here. I’m looking forward to this.

SSR: Yes, it should be fun. Okay, so we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

CN: I grew up in Hawaii, I think, as most people know by now. So I grew up in the North Shore of Hawaii, of Oahu. So I grew up on a beach, not literally, but close to the beach. I went to school there at University of Hawaii. And I just, for the most part of my childhood, going all of through college, did travel, but I didn’t travel as much as when I started to work at WATG. So that’s where things springboarded. I think I started to see things differently in hindsight.

SSR: Right. Were you creative as a kid though?

CN: I think like most architects, I had Legos and I used to love to draw. I went to school and at one point I wasn’t sure because I ended up not being so good at math, but I think in the end was okay. That’s why we have engineers to make us look good. That disaster adverted, I stuck to it. But I think for the most part I’ve been creative.

SSR: Okay. Were your parents, did you have any early influences, like any architects in the family or anyone who might have influenced your career from an earlier age?

CN: Probably not. My parents, my father is an administrator for the schools, and my mother was an accountant. So definitely I didn’t get the creative genes from either of them. So I’m not sure. I think my grandmother told me once that her brother was an architect, but I never met him.

SSR: Got it, got it. Okay. So you went to school in Hawaii. Did you go for architecture?

CN: Yeah, I went to architecture school. I actually got my bachelor’s there, at University of Hawaii.

SSR: Okay. And then what was your first job out of school?

CN: I had one job prior to starting Blink, which was at WATG. And I was telling the story the other day where I applied to this ad in the paper that said “Creative individuals wanted.” Or “Wanted create individuals.” And I applied, I got the job. I think at the time they were looking for much more experienced people. I was just out of school and I keep saying how I for me, I really feel like timing is everything. And when I graduated shortly after I joined the firm, the firm slowed down because of the economy.

I sooner than later found myself, there was a huge gap between myself and the partner. So when it came time to give assignments out, I was there. I was in the right spot at the right time. So I credit that moment in time and myself being very fortunate to have that opportunity. So I was fortunate to work under Don Goo, the G of WATG. So really taught me a lot about the business of architecture, but also how to think out of the box and to push limits.

SSR: Yeah. You were there for 13 years. I mean, you spent a good chunk of your career there.

CN: Yeah, I grew up, I definitely cut my teeth as they say. It was great. People now ask, why did I leave? You had such a future ahead of me at that firm. I think I was about 34 at the time when I left. Yeah, I guess at that point I felt like I was ready to do something different.

SSR: Right. But taking the jump to go out on your own is a big… It takes, I don’t know the word, but it takes confidence, I guess, or will. So what was it that pushed you to leave?

CN: I guess for me it was a really big leap of faith because at that point I was spending quite a bit of time in Asia. I was going back and forth from Honolulu to Asia. And I realized that in Asia there was so much going on at that point. And I really like the fact that as an Asian American, I started to get more exposure to Asia. I don’t normally consider myself to be quite Asian, which is quite, I guess, interesting.

So having traveled to Asia and start to do work in Asia it really I think helped me to see things through different eyes that I perhaps weren’t able to see if I’d stayed back in Honolulu. It’s odd because Hawaii’s the most isolated islands in the world, and I ended up in Bangkok, which is in the center of all this wonderful countries that surround Thailand. It’s a very huge shift going from Honolulu to Thailand.

The Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel Hong Kong

The Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel Hong Kong

SSR: For sure. And what brought you to Bangkok specifically?

CN: I like the vibe of the city. Back then, I was exposed to some of the talent that’s here. So I like the creativeness of the Thai culture, but also like the proximity. So as a business location, I could easily get to Hong Kong in two hours, to Singapore in another two hours. So very centrically located, which I thought would be a good plus for a young firm.

SSR: And what did you want to create? What was your vision, or was it more organic?

CN: It was organic. And then I left and I just knew I wanted to do something on my own. Back then I felt at times that I was trying to push what I was doing at WATG maybe too far for the firm to find comfortable. So I really felt that if I were on my own, I didn’t have to abide by any rules, if you will. That I would be able to set the rules myself. And so I think being on my own, I started to get projects and I didn’t really have a goal actually back then. I was just happy to be on my own and I guess I left a lot to faith.

I got lucky again, picked up a few clients quite early. And things sort of snowballed from there. But I guess I’ve never been one to have very planned out plans for the future. I just always try to work hard, use my work ethic and the drive to never be outdone or to always outdo what you did before. I think that has always propelled me to keep getting better and getting better and wanting to get better.

SSR: Yeah, for sure. Was there an early project that really set you in the right path?

CN: Yeah, I mean, I think one of our first projects with Blink, we did a Conrad that was in Hainan in Sanya in China. We won an award for that when that came out. So that was one of our early projects on the architecture side. Up on the ID side, we’ve done sort of the Raffles in Maldives, which has been well received. So more resort book at the moment, but we picked up a little bit more urban work as well recently.

SSR: Okay. And tell us about those early days. Was it just basically you? How have you grown the firm? I mean, it’s been how many years now?

CN: 17, I think.

SSR: Oh wow. Almost two decades. So early on it was just you. How did you start bringing on people and what have you grown to today?

CN: Yeah, so I guess one thing I knew when I started the company Blink, and I learned this from my internship with Walt Disney Imagineering in California. I spent the summer there and I was taught this lesson through Marty Sklar how at WDI it was always about we, not about I. And it’s something that I also carried on at WATG where my boss Don Goo was always trying to make a point that it was a team effort. And it wasn’t just one partner or one individual that became the star, but the star was really about the brand, WATG. So I learned that early on in my career and I felt it really resonated with me. I wanted to do something, create a company that was more about a brand rather than an individual. So I never really had the idea to name the firm after myself. I really wanted to create something that was about a brand that had longevity. And about a brand that passed or survived the first generation of leadership. And that’s really has been my goal for the last 16, 17 years.

So back then we started with Bangkok, the Bangkok studio. Fast-forward to today we have four studios. We just opened our fourth studio in Dubai, which it goes back to the idea of succession planning and the idea that Blink is more about a brand rather than an individual. So we’ve carefully rolled out and started to bring on and groom new directors within the firm. So we’re about 75, I think, growing closely to 80 now people total, across the four studios. Most of it still sits within Bangkok and Singapore, but Dubai’s growing. We’re still hiring for Dubai. And we have one design director based in Melbourne, I’m sorry, in Lisbon. She’s based in Lisbon. And that came up happenstance. She moved during COVID and decided to stay there with her family. So we’ve kept her there.

And now we’re just really exploring the idea of these remote studios, and still with the premise that we will invest in our directors. So whether they stay with us in Asia, one of the main offices or they want to relocate back to, we’ve got one director from France, maybe he wants to go back to France or Paris. So it’s a very organic growth that the firm has undertaken, but at the same time understand that we need to think about the future and plan for it.

SSR: Yeah. Amazing. And what was the idea behind the name Blink, since you didn’t name it after yourself?

CN: Yeah, I was reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell, his book called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. And it resonated with me because it’s how I’ve always approached design. It’s the power of the first impressions. When you look at a site as a designer or you’ve got a problem, a space to design, it’s really that first idea that comes to you that scientifically has been proven that sort of sticks. So that’s where the name came from.

SSR: Got it. Love it. Has there been one project that you really think sums up or you’re really proud? I know it’s hard to pick a favorite child, but one recent project that you think really shows what Blink does well?

CN: Yeah, I think that would be Regent Phu Quoc. Regent Phu Quoc we opened during the pandemic. We did architecture and interiors, so it’s a good project. I just stayed there late last year, so it was really good to experience your resort for the first time through the eyes of the guest, as a guest staying there. So it’s wonderful to stay there this past November.

SSR: And what is it about it that you think defines it? And what did you want to create?

CN: It really goes back to creating spaces that are moment enablers, evoke experiences and memories. So we tried to create very distinctive pools. I think there’s a total of 230 pools, four main swimming pools. All the villas have pools. So quite an experience from a guest perspective. But the idea was to create this Vietnamese, modern Vietnamese resort that embodied the new Regent branding, which is about boldness, about being over the top. So it’s a good view into the eyes of the firm from a design point of view.

Roku Kyoto

Roku Kyoto; photo by Ben Richards

SSR: Yeah, for sure. Is there one part of the process that you love the most?

CN: Yeah, I like the beginnings. I always like the starts. It’s when you meet a client for the first time, you see a site, you go to a country for the first time. It’s really, it’s impossible to create a first impression the second time you do something and more so after that. So to first step on a site or to meet a client to understand what their vision is. And most of our clients have ideas, they’re very passionate about their projects.

I remember on the Regent Phu Quoc, the owner/chairman, on a little piece of paper, he sketched out his idea of having these two lakes, these two bodies of water, and to have all the rooms of the villas face the body of waters or the sea. I wish I’d saved the sketch, but that’s how we start the projects. Which for me becomes a very memorable experience because you meet owners and as part of the process you’ve got to interview them to understand more about what they’re thinking, anything that really makes them passionate about the project.

SSR: Right. How are you as a leader, especially after everything we’ve come through in the last couple of years?

CN: Yeah, I always believe, and again, I guess it’s from learning from my first mentor Don Goo, but for me it’s always been about hiring the best and empowering the best. And to always surround yourself with the best talent. So we try to do that a lot here at Blink. So I guess for me it’s really about a leadership that really allows its people to excel and to drive excellence that way. Rather than being a leader that has a top-down approach. I really believe in empowering the entire studio to get the best out of themselves, really.

SSR: Right. You’ve traveled a lot. Has there been one memorable hospitality experience, something that you saw or you did that changed or has inspired you along the way?

CN: Yeah, I’ve thought about that. And of course as much as I travel, I think there’s still one experience that stands out. Many years ago I was making plans to go to Bali and a good friend of mine at WATG was giving me suggestions on where to stay. And I remember asking him, should I stay at the Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay, or this resort called Amandari? And I’d never heard of Amandari back then. And so I trusted my friend, I ended up staying at Amandari. And it definitely changed my view on luxury travel. And this is easily 25 years ago, so still when Aman was still in its infancy state. So it really helped me to see what was beyond, at least for me at that time, possible, in terms of design at the luxury level. I really thought back then that Four Seasons was the pinnacle of luxury resorts. But to learn about Aman and their vision through Adrian Zecha was really fortuitous in helping me see design the way I see design now.

SSR: Right. And you do a lot of luxury projects. How do you think that’s changed over the last, call it three to five years? What are you trying to create now with these beautiful projects that you’re working on?

CN: I think even more so than ever, we’ve been really trying to create a stronger dialogue between the guests and the hotel. And stronger dialogue, I mean, something that’s a lot more intimate and personal. I think the days of these big hotels are gone. I was just doing something in the Philippines where the key count is not, it’s under 100, but we realized that we wanted to break the scale of a hotel down even further so it didn’t feel like a big concrete box. And I think for me that really feels right for most luxury properties where you really have to create a very intimate experience that in many ways resonates with guests on different level.

SSR: Sure, for sure. Are there any other influences you’re paying attention to in the industry right now? Anything else that, I hate to use the word trends, but we’re all paying attention to what’s happening. Is there anything else that you see really that could be interesting moving forward?

CN: Yeah, we’ve always tried to resource locally, to think international resource local. I mean that’s something that the firm has always tried to do. And with many regards, it always helps to deal with issues when it comes to sustainability. So that’s one trend I think to keep things economical as well as sustainable, but we’ve always embodied in our body of work.

SSR: For sure. And are owners asking more for that or are you the one pushing it from your end?

CN: It’s ours because it’s been a real challenge post-COVID to create design that resonate through time. Particularly when most projects nowadays go through the word I hate, which is [inaudible 00:21:43].

SSR: Yep, doesn’t everyone?

CN: Yeah. Yeah. So I think if you try to think differently or have a different approach to resourcing to design as well that attacks or looks at sustainable issues in a different light, I think you come up with different solutions.

SSR: So what’s your approach to design and how would you describe your style if there is one? But I feel like you guys seamlessly just transcend into the spaces, into the areas that you’re in.

CN: Yeah, that’s a great question because for many years or maybe up until recently I could not really verbally describe our design style. It was really hard for me to put words to it. But I think the more I was asked the question, the more it forced me to answer it. And I’ve been saying it’s really what we do is a very refined view into specific culture or into a specific aesthetic. If you look at our work in the Middle East, you can see glimpses of the firm through the way design managed to capture the local culture or design touches, but in a very almost understated way through the reduction of patterns or finishes. To create something that really embodies the sense of place, but yet in a very familiar, yet unfamiliar way. That’s I think for me has been the way I’ve described the firm’s work.

Regent Phu Quoc

Regent Phu Quoc in Vietnam; photo by Owen Raggett

SSR: Right. What’s your process? Do you guys really dig in? Do you like to find that little unknown fact to bring into the design?

CN: Yeah, we try our best to tell stories that are very specific to a location, not just a general idea. If we’re doing a project in Saudi Arabia, just a general idea of Saudi Arabia, but more about that exact particular location. And we keep forcing ourselves to dig deeper in terms of doing research and really define the genesis of an idea that really makes that project with that brand and with that owner something quite different and special.

SSR: Right. Right. I mean it must be fun to dig into all these different areas. I mean, is that also a part of the process that you love doing?

CN: It is. And we’ve been also working hard to understand what we do and why we do it. And we realize that one thing that resonates throughout the firm is that we are nomads. That’s one of our taglines. And I think it really says that we really are these designers that really feed off the idea of travel or traveling to different places, meeting different people, getting to know different cultures. That ability to go to different parts of the world to work is really exciting and it drives the direction of the firm.

SSR: Yeah, for sure. Where do you see the hospitality industry headed in the next five to 10 years?

CN: I think it’ll continue to get more, the niches we operate in or design, and will get smaller and smaller. Things seem to be going to much, much, much more personal level or smaller acceptance of happiness in terms of what is good design or what resonates with clients or hotel guests. And I think that micro nature of design and the design world getting smaller and smaller, more specific, I guess is what I’m trying to say. Rather than design being on a big global scale and it’s too broad and it doesn’t reach. It’s designed to reach too many people as opposed to having a design that’s intended for a smaller audience, more intimate. I guess intimacy I think is the more, part of hotels going forward in terms of approach to the guests.

SSR: For sure. And how do you constantly stay inspired and finding the new ideas? Is it brainstorming with your team? Is it just through your travel? Are you an avid reader?

CN: Reader, no, not so much. But definitely through travel. Obviously traveling to new places bring some new ideas. But also for me, I’ve always tried to take a step back and to refocus. And I feel like there are quite a few times recently where that has helped me to see things in a different light and come up with different ideas. If not as a designer, you really end up just doing something that is marginally better than the last thing you did. So we always make it a point to really take a step back or look at things through a different lens to get a different result.

SSR: For sure. What advice would you give your younger self, now looking back at all that you’ve done and starting your own firm, making a mark on WATG, what do you wish you had known back then? Or sometimes ignorance is bliss.

CN: I think you’ve said it there, when I left WATG, I didn’t really have a goal except that I wanted to start on my own. I wanted to do work at Asia. But I didn’t really have clients as to, I wanted to work with certain brands or become a company of excise and do work in these countries. So I think if I had a much more concrete plan, maybe things would’ve been differently. So definitely that’s one thing I would’ve told my younger self.

SSR: Yeah, for sure. And what is one thing that people might not know about you?

CN: I guess from a design perspective, I have a few pet peeves, which if you ask my staff I think they could tell you. But if you ask our clients maybe if you could guess, but definitely not widely known. But the two things, design pet peeves that I have as a designer, the first is cove lighting. I really don’t like cove lighting. It really forces, from my view, forces you to look up towards the ceiling when you want to look out at the space, enjoy the space more. So I’ve never been so fond of cove lighting. And our team knows that. So that’s a good funny thing.

But the other thing is that I was fortunate enough to work with Jaya Ibrahim. And if you had the opportunity to talk to Jaya today, he will tell you that for him, to maintain symmetry is important for Jaya. And my lesson or my time with Jaya, from my time with Jaya, I really looked at it differently. And I felt that things or spaces don’t have to be symmetrical, but they need to be balanced, well-balanced. Whether it’s the space or the quality of color or the light. So for me, I’ve always been, pet peeve has been symmetry is not as good as balance.

SSR: Got it. Interesting. You’ve had a lot of different or repeat clients I would say. What would you say is the secret to successful collaboration? How do you approach working with a client?

CN: We’ve always tried to make it a point with our clients to really listen to what they’re trying to say. It sounds simple, but in many instances it’s harder than it really turns out to be. By listen, I mean to understand they’re after, what their goals are for a particular project. It’s never been easily done for me. It’s something that I think you have to work at listening to your client and asking the right questions to get the right answers to in the end create something that satisfies the client on many different level.

SSR: Is there one project that you are working on that you’re looking forward to?

CN: Yeah, there’s quite a few projects in the Middle East. We worked on Trojena, which is in NEOM. That’s quite a different project based on the architecture. It’s sort of a spaceship looking hotel that sort of landed on top of a mountain.

W Dubai – Mina Seyahi guestroom

A guestroom at the W Dubai – Mina Seyahi; photo by Owen Raggett

SSR: Very cool. You must travel so much. Is there still a place to travel to that’s on your bucket list?

CN: Yeah, there are quite a few, but we are looking at something in the Serengeti, which would be our second attempt at a project in the Serengeti. But the whole complexity of designing a resort within a zoo practically, I mean, the wild animals everywhere I found quite fascinating.

SSR: I love it. Is there a project that’s also on your bucket list that you haven’t designed yet?

CN: No, I think we like clients that challenge our creativity. I don’t think that for me, I mean I love some of the more luxurious brands, but we like projects that challenge our creativity. So to have brands that are really top tier is one thing, but I think more so it’s more about the owner and the site and the country that really interests us the most. We’re looking at some things in the South Pacific. And even coming from Hawaii, I’m very keen to do something on these very small little islands where the waters are very crystal clear and the skies are as blue as the sea.

SSR: Yeah. Amazing. Is there something that you can’t live without?

CN: That’s a tough one. We had a management retreat this weekend, which is why I was in Wai Hen. And we realized that the one thing that we as designers never have enough of is time. And if somehow as a design firm you could buy more time, you could obviously do more things. So time, for me that would be time.

SSR: Yeah.

CN: So we’re trying to find ways to get more time.

SSR: If you figure that out, let me know. That would be amazing.

CN: We have some ideas. And this wasn’t possible I think, or the thought process wasn’t so possible just a few years ago. I think COVID really helped to change how we work.

SSR: Right. Yeah. And how has that changed you as a leader do you think?

CN: We’ve always tried to be a nimble firm. We’ve always tried to make strategic decisions that would drive the firm in the right direction. And COVID really taught us or forced us to move even quicker and to act on new ideas quicker. But also if you see a shift in that influence of the design industry hotel, it’s changed over the last three years. And that landscape is vastly different. So COVID has taught us to always, you always have to be on top of your game in terms of design. But also in terms of understanding the business of design and to keep up with the different factors that affect the business.

SSR: So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?

CN: There’s a lot, and I guess for me, the greatest thing I’ve always learned is never be afraid to fail and never be afraid to make mistakes. It’s what you do after that that sets you apart. And that’s something that we always tell our team that you can screw up. We can lose a good client, but we’ll get another one back that’s even better than the last. So this fear of never failing has really, for me been one of my biggest lessons. Just to keep trying. And if you fail, try again. If you fail, still try again because you don’t know what tomorrow holds.

SSR: Well, I definitely agree with that. So thank you so much for taking the last 30, 45 minutes to spend with me and share your story. Can’t wait to see what the next 17 years has for Blink. It’s been a pleasure.

CN: Thank you, Stacy. It’s been great being with you.