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Designing grand hotels with a 'sense of occasion'

Great hotels are really great stage sets, says Sarah Tomerlin Lee, a New Yorker who is herself responsible for some of the more magical interiors in 17 Manhattan hotels as well as numerous others around the country.

Fine hotels, she believes, must be rather special places. They must offer an ambiance distinctly different from home - a difference that must include a sense of glamour, luxury, drama, romance, and beauty.

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It may sometimes involve nostalgia, or wit, or breathtakingly extravagant scale. It may express serenity and nobility. But above all it must always be memorable and convey what Mrs. Lee calls a ''sense of occasion.''

Mrs. Lee and the firm Tom Lee Ltd., which she has headed since her husband's death 10 years ago, have captured the essence of these expectations in New York hotels like the new Helmsley Palace, Parker Meridien, and Harley hotels, as well as the New York Hilton, the Drake, and areas of the Waldorf-Astoria. She has helped revamp Sheraton hotels in New York, Boston, and Chicago and the Dorals in New York, Miami, and Chicago.

At the recently opened Warwick at Post Oak in Houston, she blended modern and traditional French furnishings in a stunning new structure designed by I. M. Pei. Her current excitement is the work she is doing at the new Westin Hotel in Washington, D.C. and another Meridien hotel in New Orleans.

''I think managements see hotels in a new and changing role,'' Mrs. Lee says. ''I find them striving these days for a particular kind of excellence, not only in overall design and service, but in the quality of food and the way it is presented in the restaurants. There is a new sense of both eloquence and elegance.''

Mrs. Lee supervises a staff of more than a dozen designers and architectural draftsmen at her firm's headquarters in Manhattan. ''I very carefully analyze each new job as to its location, the people who will use it, its historical setting, general character, and what kind of statement the owner wishes it to make to the world,'' she explains, ''before I turn my imagination loose. Then I lay out a broad design approach and describe it in writing. Once the plan is accepted, I work with all the staff as we collaborate to bring the project to completion. As for what makes for success, I think it is our personal mix - the way we put things together - that counts most.''

Sarah Lee never had any intention of becoming a hotel designer. She was absorbed for years with writing, editing, advertising, and merchandising. This included being copy editor at Vogue, cosmetics editor at Harper's Bazaar, and editor in chief of House Beautiful, from 1961 to 1969. She was vice-president of Lord & Taylor in charge of advertising, display, and publicity and a senior copywriter at two top New York advertising agencies.

Yet, in looking back, she says no portion of her experience has been wasted. Every past experience is now grist to her hotel-designing mill. ''Being an editor taught me to look hard at things and put them together in my mind; being a designer is, after all, just being a good editor. Being in advertising taught me to study the competition very carefully and get smart enough to analyze the situation and come up with original ideas. Being in fashion gave me a familiarity with fabrics and textures and color.''

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It is also an advantage, she finds, to be an older woman.''You know so much more and have so much more background to draw on. My experience has been that clients are very happy to have a more mature point of view, as long as the fresh ideas and individuality are there.''

Some of her most effective design tools, she claims, are a well-developed sense of observation, a little introspection, a lot of intuition, an ability to visualize, and a genuine feeling for the people who will be ''experiencing'' the hotels.

The most exciting part of the job, she says, is constant exposure to the riches of the furnishings marketplace - the fine carpets and wallcoverings, beautiful light fixtures, the furniture and fabrics. ''The level of design is very high right now, and this makes my job easier and more satisfying,'' she said.

She is particularly proud of the restaurant called Apley's in the Boston Sheraton, explaining, ''It was named for the late George Apley, after the title of the book by John P. Marquand, and is a monument to the city of Boston.'' In each restaurant, she designs the menus, matchbooks, table settings, and uniforms of those who serve, as well as the decor.

She considers her total decoration of the Parker Meridien in New York one of her major triumphs, because, in a short time, she had to come up with an approach, a look, that was ''immediately arresting.'' This hotel, she says, had to represent a romantic experience in the city. The monumental scale of its lobby and long, high arcade with its marble floor, two levels of arches, Doric columns, and mirrored walls had to ''lift everybody up,'' she says. To gain the effects she most desired, she collaborated with her favorite architect, her son, Todd Lee of Cambridge, Mass.

This year has been award time for her. The American Society of Interior Designers gave Sarah Tomerlin Lee, a member of the society, its Interior Design Project Award ''for outstanding and elegant treatment of the Parker Meridien Hotel in New York City.'' The Decorators Club of New York presented its Medal of Honor to her in recognition of her distinguished contribution to the profession of interior design and to landmarks preservation in New York. Mrs. Lee is a founder of New York's Landmarks Conservancy, and was appointed by the New York Fine Arts Commission to restore and furnish three major reception rooms at New York's historic City Hall.

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