Seija Ojanpera is a traveler at heart, so it’s not surprise that her lifelong dream would be to do something that would aide her fellow traveler. In 2016, she watched that dream become a reality when the doors of The Dwell Hotel opened for those passing through her adopted hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. She’s the owner and the designer, a combination that has had its fair share of challenges in a region whose history is as varied as its landscape. “Being young, female, and in the South, there are many obstacles in business. There have been many times where I am at a table full of male contractors, architects, lawyers, and bankers, and I am at the head of the table trying to convince everyone that I’d like them all to complete tasks in a certain way…my way. There are head shakes, and ‘honey, that won’t work’ comments, and ‘when is your male business partner back in town?’ questions. I’ve had to have extremely high resolve and confidence [throughout this process]. I had to believe in myself and my capabilities,” she says.
The design, however, was the easy part, as Ojanpera has been thinking about its interiors since she was a kid, traveling with her family staying in hotels and B&Bs around the U.S. It’s a funky space, full of prints and hues and quirky mid-century furnishings and art, and believe it or not, tied to its host city. “When I think of Southern style, I imagine my mother’s South Alabama Colonial cottage on Mobile Bay—rich, antique woods, Queen Anne legs, and country florals. The hotel was along this same vein of dusty Victorian when I bought it. I was excited to usher the space a few decades into the future, though it remains a blast from the past. It feels modern due to the over-the-top popularity of mid-century modern furniture made today. The South clings to its history, and Chattanooga loves everything Chattanooga, so The Dwell really highlights another point in the city’s history—one with boomerang signs and milk glass globe lighting.”
We sat down with the rising hotelier to talk about where Southern style is today and her advice for businesswomen looking to follow in her footsteps.
Alyssa Rosenheck: What innovative trends are you seeing with Southern style across the country and how have you incorporated the trends in your hotel?
Seija Ojanpera: The lines are getting cleaner, which I really appreciate. The over-stuffed and heavy-looking block furniture seems to be getting a bit daintier. I love that wallpaper has made a comeback and I have certainly utilized that trend fully.
AR: How do you communicate Southern comfort and style to your guests?
SO: Due to our petite size, our lobby is compact. So, we like to get our customers seated into one of the front parlors as soon as possible with a cocktail. I have called them “parlors” for that lovely Southern sentiment of hospitality. Our customer service is geared toward welcoming you to your home away from home. Many boutique hotels with high design can make guests feel a bit out of place and uncomfortable. We want our guests to feel the opposite. When you walk through our doors, we are expecting you, and you absolutely belong there. Ask questions and take it all in.
AR: What advice do you have for female entrepreneurs?
SO: Do your research, stay organized, and then when everyone questions you, be confident and know you have the answer.
AR: What’s a nugget of design advice you’ve received that made all the difference?
SO: When designing a space that is made for the public, it is easy to get scared about being bold. You’re thinking, “what if I alienate all the people that hate pink? What if the South isn’t ready for this ‘California vibe?’” When I’d say, “can I...,” my friend who helped me gather all of these super fun vintage pieces always answered, “Yes. You. Can.” I’d say, “can I really put this chair with this wallpaper? Can I put this borderline creepy painting over the toilet?” And her answer was always, “yes you can.” I’m not sure I would have had the guts to pull many of my design triggers without this simple advice.
AR: Who are some of your favorite artists/makers?
SO: Adrian Pearsall is one of my favorite mid-century designers. I love mixing warm woods with cool stone like marble or travertine and then throwing in crazy fabric patterns. Pearsall has all of this. I have a floating sofa in walnut with travertine built-in end tables and the wildest orange and white print fabric. It just has everything.
AR: What’s your advice for mixing old with new?
SO: I think there’s definitely a special trick to doing this well. I was watching a TV show last night and the living room had an original mid-century Curtis Jere piece of metal art hanging too high above a crushed velvet, tufted, purple sofa and what looked to be Pottery Barn sconces on either side. It felt all wrong. I believe the trick is to commit to one general theme. Let the statement piece in the room define the flow. If it’s the sofa and it’s old, let the new throw pillows and lamps follow the lead of the lines and era even though they are made decades apart.
AR: What’s currently on your nightstand?
SO: One extremely fabulous vintage lamp with its original shade, and nothing else. Same for all the hotel rooms. No clocks, no notes, no chotchkes. I love sleeping quarters to feel open and free of clutter. Just simply beautiful.
AR: What’s your next dream business venture?
SO: I want to build the best luxury resort in the world from the ground up. I have the land with the view. I have endless inspiration and ideas for the design. Think concrete, moss, teak, white ceramic, shiny brass, and warm textiles from all over the globe. Imagine an infinity pool at the end of your bed that goes right over the edge of the mountain while you sip a mimosa at sunrise. Imagine a spa that feels like a jungle in a Georgia forest. I can almost taste it.