Homes Living Here

Designing dreams: an expat’s story

Fairmont Peace Shanghai, Siam Kempinski Bangkok, The Westin Jakarta, Waldorf Astoria Shanghai, Four Seasons Singapore. The names read like a bucket list of places to visit on your next vacation. So, what do these luxury resorts have in common? The woman behind their design. Not many people have their dream job, but PAULA O’CALLAGHAN really does. She’s a senior associate at Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), the top firm in the world for designing hotels and resorts.

A lightbulb moment

“I remember one night, I was on a commuter train in Tokyo. I’d started reading interior design magazines on the train and I saw a huge spread on HBA – it was a big article about one of the hotels they’d done. I was so impressed, I decided right then and there that I wanted to work for that company; this was the type of design I wanted to do.”

Paula O’Callaghan - interior designer, designing hotels and luxury resorts
Paula O’Callaghan

From fashion to interiors

Paula didn’t always want to be an interior designer. In fact, she thought she was going to be a fashion designer, but one summer at the Parsons School of Design in New York convinced her otherwise. She instead got a degree in Studio Art from the University of California (Santa Barbara), but she really didn’t know what to do with it. With an Irish-American father and a Japanese mother, Paula grew up as a third-culture kid, living all over the world: Okinawa, California, Brazil, Scotland, and a boarding school (TASIS) in England.

“My high school advisor had been a curator at The Met. She asked me if I’d ever thought about interior design, but I dismissed it. I thought all interior design was Laura Ashley.” Who could blame her? It was the late 80s and Laura Ashley was everywhere.

But when she saw the spread in the magazine years later, her advisor’s words came back to her, so she signed up for a correspondence course at the New York School of Design. It was 1990 – the days before the internet – and she took the classes while teaching English in Japan. She told the man she’d eventually marry, Mike, that she wanted to be an interior designer and work for HBA. Paula had a goal.

Paula O’Callaghan 1992
Teaching English to Japanese businessmen, 1991


So, they moved to Savannah, Georgia. Why Savannah? Because she liked the look of the city and the lifestyle it offered, and it was cheaper than going to school on the East Coast. She ran an art gallery while taking classes at Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). When she graduated, she went after her dream job.

By this time, Mike had moved back to Japan, and Paula wanted to be closer to him so she cold-called the HBA office in San Francisco. She told them she had a bunch of interviews lined up and blustered her way into an interview. Truth? She only had one other interview, but there was no way she was going to San Francisco and not getting the interview with the company of her dreams.

The interviewer later told her that her third-culture background and unusual accent made her the oddball he had to meet. Once she got in the door, she put on the full-court press. “I told my interviewer he should just take me on as an intern. ‘You don’t even have to pay me; just give me a desk. After six months, if you think I’m useless, that’s okay. At least I can use HBA on my resume, but I guarantee you you’ll hire me. It’s a win-win for us both.’”

The job was hers in four months. She’s now been there 22 years.

Traveller not tourist

Paula’s job now involves overseeing 10 to 15 major projects at once – everything from reviewing the initial concept to flying to a factory to review lighting and furniture. Each project usually takes four to five years, but she’s been working on the Four Seasons Singapore for 15 years.

She’s on the road a lot. You’d think with the list of places Paula has helped design, she’d get to stay in fabulous resorts all over the world, but that’s not really the case. She’s also stayed in her fair share of ratty places – envisioning a glamorous resort while visiting dusty job sites or resorts in the early development stage. And she gets to be the guinea pig for hotels that are soon to be opened.

“The Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai had been renovated and the owner asked me to stay in the heritage block. I wasn’t thrilled as I was the only one on the whole floor. It kind of creeped me out so I slept with all the lights on. Then, in the middle of the night, the TV turned on full blast and I heard something being dragged on the floor above me. I was sure it was the construction crews only to find out the next morning that nobody was working above me that night. It still spooks me even now.”

Even so, Paula does like working on older buildings, bringing them back to life. Another hotel in Shanghai, the Fairmont Peace Hotel, had originally been The Cathay Hotel, with an incredible atrium that had been covered up over the decades. “It was just amazing to find the original atrium still there underneath the gypsum and acoustic tile. Then we had to convince the owner to bring it back to the original hotel footprint.”

Achievement and family

When Paula finishes her job, she has something to show for it: a beautiful hospitality destination. “You feel a sense of true achievement when you see the finished product. What’s really strange is when I go into a hotel I worked on 20 years ago and never got to see open. It’s an odd déjà vu moment, because I recognise part of it and yet so much time has gone by.”

Paula never really planned on having children, but two things in 2003 changed her mind: her mother’s slow death from bone cancer and the bombing of the JW Marriott in Jakarta. Paula was in the adjacent building when the bomb exploded, killing 12 people and injuring 150. “Those two events really affected me because they got me thinking: ‘Who is going to be by my deathbed? It certainly won’t be my business associates.’ The morning after the bombing, I woke up and thought, ‘If I’d died the day before, what would I have achieved? What’s left of me? Is there any legacy? Would anybody actually miss me?’ I came back that day and told my husband we were having a baby.” Within a year, Paula had her first daughter, Vivian, at age 36; a second daughter, Violet, followed when she was 40.

Paula took two years off, living in London, being a stay-at-home mum. Eventually, she yearned to work again, so she rejoined HBA. “I’d taken two years off and felt like I needed to play catch-up in a highly competitive field. I’d get up at four in the morning and start working right away, work until late at night and work weekends. Eventually, it caught up with me. I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in 2015 at the same time my helper was battling terminal breast cancer. I was lucky and caught it early.”

Paula O’Callaghan 2008
Paula’s family, 2008

Life lessons

Paula has obviously had to push very hard to get where she is in a male-dominated field, but she now has a slightly different view of life. “Work is important, but I take great pains to build in a work-life balance. I run, I exercise, I have breakfast with the kids. It’s life first, then work. I now start work when I head into the office; when I leave the office, I leave the work behind.”

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This article first appeared in the Home Décor issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.