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Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient: Kenneth Villamil

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Photo courtesy of AAU Publications.

For all the titles Kenneth Villamil has held throughout his career—stylist, painter, art director, interior architect, vice president—his Seton Hall University painting teacher Ira Greenberg gave him a more proper designation when Villamil was 19 years old: creative problem solver. 

In Greenberg and Villamil’s eyes, that essentially meant becoming a designer. With his teacher’s guidance, Villamil scraped together a portfolio that would land him a full-time design position at a Chelsea firm in New York City.

From there, he continuously developed his wheelhouse through equal parts formal education (including degrees and certifications from Fashion Institute of Technology, Harvard School of Business, Stanford School of Business and the Academy of Art University School of Interior Architecture & Design) and on-the-job experience from companies such as Gensler Architecture, Starwood Hotels and currently, Hyatt Hotels.

Villamil owes a lot of his opportunities to not just hard work, but also to the amount of passion he put into his work. He said for anyone that wants to be successful in any art field, you really have to shine. The last three positions he held all came from personal recommendations from people who noticed his relentless effort and passion in his craft. 

“People love when they see others that are passionate, positive and really willing to push hard,” Villamil said. “For me, it’s not just about working long hours and nose to the grind. You need to be noticed too. You have to shine, you have to let people recognize that you’re talented.”

As the Global Vice President for Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Villamil has his hands in authoring several brand strategies and design approaches. In a Hospitality Design Magazine profile that honors him for winning its 2014 Wave of the Future Award, Villamil describes hotels as “an all-encompassing experience that touches on all our senses.” 

His name is scribed on some of the world’s most coveted hotel spaces: Kabuki Hotel for Joie de Vivre in San Francisco; W hotels in Bogota, Colombia, Paris and Lakeshore Chicago; Fairmont Pittsburgh in Philadelphia, to name of few. He draws upon the building’s location for inspiration, incorporating a taste of the surrounding culture into the hotel’s interior architecture.

Tracing Villamil’s penchant for creating dimensional objects trails to his childhood. He remembers coming across a book on Frank Lloyd Wright on accident, when he meant to pull one on the Wright brothers (as a child he originally dreamed of being a pilot). He lists the arts section in children’s magazine Highlights as one of his very first inspiration materials, and a visit to the Hotel El Convento during a family trip in Puerto Rico as his first vivid memory of hospitality.

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Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Kenneth Villamil and Dr. Elisa Stephens. Photo by Bob Toy.

Fast forward years later, Villamil’s goal is to recreate that same feeling with more meaningful experiences in his hotels. By drawing inspiration from everyone occupying those spaces—whether those working in the executive offices to the hotel staff and guests—he aims to be empathetic to different global perspectives and cultures.

“The more I work in this industry, the more I realize how important people are,” he said. 

His emphasis on people goes back to his Academy education days. He owes much of his art and design philosophy to drawing instructor Stephan Hoffpauir, who took him under his wing from his first semester throughout graduation. The road to an art career can be rocky, but in Villamil’s case, the Academy provided him invaluable friendships and relationships that he still holds dear to this day. 

“My friends I made at the Academy have supported me through every low point and milestone in my career,” he explained. “It’s rare to find people like that. I am honored to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award, but I wish I could share it with them because I couldn’t have done it without them.”