In the lobby of the 130-room Alila Marea Beach Resort in Encinitas, California, by Markzeff, custom leather-upholstered white-oak benches and mahogany lounge chairs with seagrass seats overlooked by native Torrey pines evoke a subtle oceanside vibe.
In the lobby of the 130-room Alila Marea Beach Resort in Encinitas, California, by Markzeff, custom leather-upholstered white-oak benches and mahogany lounge chairs with seagrass seats overlooked by native Torrey pines evoke a subtle oceanside vibe.

Markzeff Captures California’s Coastal Beauty at Alila Marea Beach Resort in Encinitas

As a boy growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, Mark Zeff slipped out of the house one morning and took a train to the ocean. “My mother woke up and couldn’t find me,” the Interior Design Hall of Fame member and Markzeff principal recalls. “A friend and I had gone on a mission to collect sea creatures.” Armed with jam jars and formalin, they spent the day gathering specimens like anemones and brought them back home. “I was punished heavily, but my mother also encouraged me to do it again,” Zeff says. He’s gravitated to the sea ever since, scavenging, surfing, and scuba diving around the world.

In 2018, Zeff evoked this history in a pitch to design the Alila Marea Beach Resort in Encinitas, a beach city in San Diego County. The dramatic site sits atop sandy bluffs facing the Pacific Ocean to the north and west, and the developers originally envisioned hiring a local who knew the coast. Though based in New York, Zeff proved that his firm belonged on the project. “We won the contract because I put together a visual essay of how I’ve been personally connected to the ocean all my life,” the designer says. As outsiders, he and Stacie Meador—Markzeff director of hospitality design and an avid diver herself—brought a fresh take on SoCal style, creating warm, pared-down interiors that channel the power of the sea.

Cast-in-place concrete treads and risers and painted-steel rods form the property’s central staircase.
Cast-in-place concrete treads and risers and painted-steel rods form the property’s central staircase.

The 250,000-square-foot building, by Joseph Wong Design Associates, occupies a long 4-acre lot that slopes on both sides “like the back of an animal,” Zeff observes. The location necessitated an unusual layout. Most of the 20-plus hospitality properties the firm has completed, including Hotel Van Zandt in Austin, Texas, and Virgin Hotels Nashville, are towers with a vertical orientation; the three-story Alila Marea, however, has a horizontal plan similar to a cruise ship. Amenities are spread out to maximize views. The lobby, coffee bar, and spa are on the ground level; a central staircase leads to a ballroom and conference area, plus a gym, pool, and sun deck; and the 117-seat Vaga restaurant is on the third floor.

With 21 luxury hotels across Asia and the U.S., the Hyatt-owned Alila brand aims to celebrate its locations with a natural, authentic aesthetic. For Zeff and Meador, that meant concrete floors, driftwood sculptures, custom oak furniture, and a palette of earthy neutrals—without a seashell in sight. “We weren’t literal with every thread,” Meador explains. “The way the ocean hits the coast there is so powerful that we really wanted that strength in the concept. But it’s also restrained because the ocean can be very quiet.” As divers, Zeff says, they experience a different side of the sea and know there’s only “a muffled and beautiful noise” beneath the crashing waves.
That submarine perspective informed the stillness of the dimly lit spa—with beige textured-vinyl wall coverings and a hemlock-wrapped sauna—and the illumination of the central staircase. “One of the most amazing things about diving is when the sun shines down through the volume of water—the staircase feels like that,” Zeff notes. There’s no skylight at the top, but LEDs shining up and down on each level form a glowing yellow cylinder; white painted-steel rods rise through the center of the stairwell like sun rays. Zeff, who hasn’t lost his boyhood fascination with marine life, says the rods also remind him of an urchin’s tendrils.

Canadian hemlock wraps the sauna.
Canadian hemlock wraps the sauna.

Other aquatic references are similarly subtle. The 130 guest rooms echo the colors of the coast with driftwood-finished oak headboards and rope and rattan details. In the ballroom, chandeliers reminiscent of fishing nets hang above a custom Axminster carpet, its swirling lines alluding to kelp forests, the treelike algae found in waters nearby. The lobby’s patterned concrete floor riffs on scientific drawings of marine animals by Ernst Haeckel, a 19th-century German artist whose work Zeff collects. “He studied the symmetry and mathematics of sea creatures, and his work looks at their molecular structure,” Zeff explains. The designers created a giant stencil loosely based on Haeckel’s illustrations, laid it over the concrete, and applied a whitewash stain. “It looks integral to the concrete and has a nice depth to it,” Meador adds.

Paneling of surfboard-inspired fiberglass and sapele mahogany surrounds the poolside bar, furnished with custom sofas, Masaya & Co. woven-leather chairs, and Nanimarquina ottomans.
Paneling of surfboard-inspired fiberglass and sapele mahogany surrounds the poolside bar, furnished with custom sofas, Masaya & Co. woven-leather chairs, and Nanimarquina ottomans.

The beach theme is most evident at the Pocket, the poolside bar. Encinitas is the birthplace of the iconic Bing Surfboards and a mecca for the sport overall, so Markzeff teamed up with surfboard designer Brian Szymanski to craft fiberglass-and-walnut paneling for the space. “Brian went into his archive and found surfboard colors and patterns from Bing’s heyday, which was the early ’60’s,” Zeff says. Streaks of red, teal, and cream alternate with sapele mahogany, the wood giving the rounded room a mid-century air. Kilim ottomans pick up the striped look. With the mighty Pacific steps away, the setting is enough to make guests want to hit the waves—or just kick back with a Pocket Margarita and enjoy the view.

project team
Markzeff: francesca mcculloch; liang lin
joseph wong design associates: joseph wong; rick round; michael tria
neri landscape architecture: landscape consultant
ohm light: lighting consultant
dci engineers: structural engineer
emerald city engineers: mep
wb powell: woodwork
california sheet metal; m.a.s. iron company: metalwork
thunder jones contracting group: concretework
afm contract; biscayne hospitality: custom furniture workshops
suffolk: general contractor
product sources from front
edelman leather: bench upholstery (lobby)
CB2: tables
international treescapes: trees
restoration hardware: chairs (lobby), club chair (suite)
composition hospitality: custom chairs (reception)
david allen: custom desk
resysta: composite panels (facade)
10deka outdoor furniture: chaise longues (pool)
nanimarquina: ottomans (bar)
masaya & co.: chairs
Blu Dot: round table
atelier vierkant: planters
stark carpet: custom carpet (conference area)
gommaire: outdoor chairs
lulu & georgia: outdoor side table
rich brilliant willing: cabana pendant fixture (pool)
helo: wood supplier (sauna)
elitas: cushion upholstery (firepit)
american leather: custom sectional (suite)
noir trading: coffee table
j.a. casillas: custom bed
lostine: lamps
throughout
surfacing solutions: custom concrete floor
domingue architectural finishes: limewash paint.

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