Hotel design team rooted in Maryland

The jeans are too gray, Toby Schermerhorn is on the phone saying. They need to be bluer, she tells the person handling the jeans.

Prints of this collage — dozens of overlapping blue jean-clad bottoms — are going to grace guest room bathrooms in a new Renaissance hotel in Alberta, Canada. The rendering is an homage to the Levi's manufacturing that used to take place nearby.

Hundreds of details like this, the precise color of jean butts, get honed to perfection in Frederick County by Schermerhorn and her husband, Rob Laschever, who run a four-person company that dictates the look and feel of hotel interiors.

Since 1997, the couple has been envisioning the insides of hotels that are as close to home as Hunt Valley. But their company, Cauhaus Design, has a strong connection to another Maryland-based business, Marriott International Inc., and its influence can be seen across North America.

They're sticklers for the fine points, said Schermerhorn, 54. But she and Laschever, 53, don't get bogged down by the small stuff and clearly have a synergy that allows them to create hotels that their clients, and guests, appreciate.

Regionally, they have designed hotels including the Wyndham Gettysburg, the Washington Marriott in Georgetown, the Fairview Park Marriott in Falls Church, Va., and what is now the Hunt Valley Inn.

Their aesthetic sensibilities are similar, though Laschever acknowledges that he tends "to be a little more of a modernist."

Laschever, a graduate of the architecture school at Syracuse University, moved to Baltimore about 30 years ago with a college friend, Doug McCoach, who later became the city's planning director. The only thing Laschever (who grew up in Connecticut) knew about the city, he said jokingly, was from the short-lived television sitcom "Hot L Baltimore."

But it turned out to be a dream city for the two young building designers, he said. Laschever went on to work at several Baltimore architecture firms and served on projects that included the parking garage for Baltimore's downtown arena and renovations at Memorial Stadium, he said.

"In the mid-'80s Baltimore was going through a massive boom, and they couldn't hire people fast enough" at the local design firms, he said. "It was just a free-for-all here."

Not long after he arrived in Baltimore, a group of students in the masters program in interior design at the University of Massachusetts dropped into town on a visit. Schermerhorn, whose childhood was spent in Aruba and Western Massachusetts, was among them.

They kept in touch, eventually marrying and moving into a house on East Fort Avenue in South Baltimore.

After years of working for architecture firms, Laschever struck out on his own, mainly designing residences, including the Canton loft that swimmer Michael Phelps purchased last year. (Of that project, Laschever said: "I just absolutely fell in love; the building was amazing.")

It was Schermerhorn who first ventured into hotel design. She became a senior designer with Marriott and then started her own design firm, which Laschever joined.

"People seem to get a real kick out of this husband-wife thing. You do begin to read each other's minds," Laschever said. The couple has one daughter, Nicole, who attends Smith College, Schermerhorn's alma mater.

A little more than a decade ago, the family moved to Frederick, and converted a cow barn — hence the name of their firm, Cauhaus Design — into a 3,400-square-foot home and office.

"This thing was trash. That's not what we see. We see potential," Laschever said of the barn, which they have turned into a labyrinth of rooms that flow from living space to office space and back to living space. "This whole house is kind of just this big experiment, this big playroom."

Although they and their two employees have designated work areas, it seems that the whole house serves as inspiration for their designs.

It is filled with doodads, artifacts and hundreds of chairs, a weakness for Laschever, who has long collected places to sit. He's a self-described "chair maniac."

"The way I collect chairs, she collects fabric," Laschever said. The attic, another 3,400-square-foot area with a cow-barn cathedral ceiling, is stacked with design samples and more objects, including furniture and books — all awaiting their moment to be incorporated onto a "mood board" as they start one of their hotel projects.

When they're hired for a new hotel, they travel to the locale and get a feel for the area, gathering thoughts about the textures, finishes and art that they want to integrate into the design.

Last year, the Cauhaus team finished renovating the public spaces of the Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel. They worked rusted steel, inspired by ferries in the Mississippi River, into architectural elements of the design. They used reclaimed wood to give guests a sense of history.

"We rent a car, we drive around, we take photographs," Laschever said of their creative process. "We did reach out a little bit and really picked up on the St. Louis warehouse district, industrial feel."

The design for the Renaissance Edmonton Airport Hotel in Alberta, in addition to inspiration from blue jeans, includes fabrics that are reminiscent of bulky sweaters. The bed pillows are going to be covered in these woven fabrics, Schermerhorn said.

"They've done a phenomenal job," said Myron Keehn, the vice president of commercial development at Edmonton International Airport. He's been impressed, he said, with how they've worked local flavor and comments from the clients into the designs.

That hotel is scheduled to open this summer, and Cauhaus is lining up more projects, including the renovations of two Renaissance Hotels in New Orleans.

"We compete against some very big firms," said Laschever, explaining that their size is a benefit. "Our formula seems to be received very well. As a small firm, we have low overhead."

There are not layers of corporate bureaucracy to go through when making design decisions, which allows them to move quickly, he said. And hotel executives are pleased when the principals of the firm, not underlings, come to design meetings, Laschever added.

"They continue to look for new and innovative ways to bring our brand to life through design," said Toni Stoeckl, Marriott's vice president for the Renaissance Hotels brand.

"We thoroughly enjoy working with the Cauhaus team on these projects," he said. "They have a deep understanding of how to appeal to our lifestyle-oriented business traveler by engaging all senses to create an environment that is filled with touches of luxury and richly layered details — all in a way that embraces the locale into the hotel's design point of view."

Laschever and Schermerhorn know that they have hit their mark if they see a guest taking out a camera in a hotel lobby or restaurant, Laschever said.

"At the end of the day, we want it to be fun," he said. "We want a memorable experience."

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