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Lexington's Winning Move: The Harmon Room

"The Harmon Room" located at the 21c Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky. Courtesy of 21c.

The 21c Hotel has transformed an average room into a Beth Harmon-worthy suite straight from the 60s. The new Harmon Room encompasses all the eye-catching decor from the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit while keeping its roots by incorporating props, furniture and other details from local Lexington businesses.

The Queen’s Gambit took Netflix by storm in late October, telling the story of fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon from our very own Lexington, Kentucky. A record-breaking 62 million viewers turned into the limited series in the first month. The show is now nominated for two Golden Globes: best television limited series and a nomination for Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Beth Harmon, for best performance by an actress in a limited series.

The show was inspired by the 1983 novel, The Queen’s Gambit, written by Walter Tevis, a University of Kentucky grad. The show features many Lexington staples, from Henry Clay High School to the Herald Leader newspaper.

“Because the show hits on several real and fictitious points throughout the city and because of its connection to Walter Tevis, we decided to create this ‘Queen’s Gambit Guide,’” said Gathan Borden, Vice President of Marking at VisitLex. “Our industry is in a boost right now because of COVID and limited travel, so we were looking for a way to inspire people to look at Lexington in a different light.”

VisitLex contacted the 21c Hotel with an idea to build a Queen’s Gambit-inspired room to give visitors the full Harmon experience.

“Because [21c] encompasses art and innovation in a lot of their experiences throughout the hotel, we thought this would be a prime example and partner to bring on to do something that’s quite definitely out of the box for a regular hotel to do,” said Borden.

The Harmon Room features a mid-century modern design to transport visitors into the 60s. Retro wallpaper with knight chess pieces printed on it lines the room to invite the guest to take a seat on the vintage furniture loaned by preservationist Lucy Jones. The green theme of the room is inspired by popular 60s color combinations and can remind fans of the show of the green pills Beth takes.

Guests are free to try out their chess skills on the handcrafted chess board from Iron Bridge Woodshop. The nightstand is complete with a vintage phone and antique Lexington phonebook, but no promises that the numbers are still in operation. Tucked in the drawers you can find vintage chess magazines and city directories purchased at Black Swan Books.

“I really focus on every detail. I love when there are lots of elements throughout the room that keep your eye moving. It’s not just walking into this room and just seeing the wallpaper and having your eye stop there,” said Isabel Ladd of Isabel Ladd Interiors, who worked as the interior designer of The Harmon Room.

Ladd worked closely with Alex Mason of Ferrick Mason to design the custom wallpaper that quickly transformed the room from bare walls to a chess lover's dream.

“I received a phone call out of the blue from Isabel Ladd, who told me about the project and the tight turnaround,” said Mason. “Not only do I love a challenge, but I loved The Queen’s Gambit and had already watched it twice on Netflix. Once she told me about everyone involved in the project and that it was at 21c, I was eager to join the dream team.”

From left to right: Alex Mason, Isabel Ladd and Lucy Jones, who worked on the Harmon room. Courtesy of 21c.

Within days the design went from a vision board to the printer thanks to the great collaboration of both women.

“By Monday, I had started the project sources, all the props, and getting the list of what we will need for the room. Tuesday, we designed the wallpaper. It was custom designed from Alex Mason of Ferrick Mason. Wednesday, we talked about the color waves. Thursday, it was all approved and went to the printer. Picked it up on Friday, and [the wallpaper] was installed on Saturday. Sunday, all the furniture was installed, and Monday was the photoshoot. So it was crazy fast,” said Ladd.

Although this project was created rather quickly, the attention to detail within the room is phenomenal.

“[Isabel Ladd] texted me a photo of her inspiration and allowed me to play with it to make it unique to Kentucky and The Queen’s Gambit. I thought since the setting is in Lexington and we are the Horse Capital of the World, that I needed to include that theme in the paper. To me, it was a no-brainer to put a knight in the design, which would tie in the horse industry and chess.”

As expected with any project, especially one with the time crunch of this, there were challenges in making the room.

“We struggled a little more with the coloring of the design,” said Mason. “It was between an orange version and the green version. We thought the green would be more soothing for guests and would go better with the carpeting. I am really pleased that we went with the green.”

One of the most interesting details of the room is the giant white chess pieces hanging from the ceiling above the bed. The chess pieces are positioned to look exactly like the winning move Beth used at the end of the show and were inspired by her drug-induced hallucinations. Glossy checkers mark the ceiling to give the subtle hint of a chessboard.

“We went back and forth on how to do the checkerboard,” said Ladd. “Black and white would’ve jumped out at you. It's something that’s more cheeky that you have to like to look at it from a different angle to be like ‘Oh, I get it.’”

The Harmon Room features contributions from many Lexingtonians and quickly became a community project.

“Everything that’s actually in that room was all donated to us or given to us through work through all local businesses and local residents,” said Gathan Borden. “We started making phone calls and we’d tell each of these people what we were working on and they all jumped to help us put the room together.”

The rare chess books and city directories in the Harmon Room were found at Black Swan Books. This local bookstore on East Maxwell, owned by Mike Courtney, specializes in used and rare books, with occasional new arrivals.

Chess magazines and books from Black Swan Books in Lexington, Kentucky used as props in the room. Courtesy of 21c.

“A friend and customer was working on supplying stuff for the room and came to me looking for older chess books. She asked if I had any, and I usually have a whole row of them, so she came in and she picked out three - the oldest being 1935 - and she asked, ‘do you mind if I take these?’ A couple days later she came in and asked if I had any city directories that had the author Walter Tevis in them. I did, so I gave her three of those,” said Courtney.

You can find a book on almost any subject at Black Swan Books, besides romance.

“I sell pretty much everything, except books you can easily find at a yard sale,” said Courtney.

The books were accompanied by handmade chess boards from a local Lexington store, Iron Bridge Woodshop, owned by Robert Littrell. Products made at the woodshop are made by volunteers and men dealing with homelessness who are working towards a better future.

“We usually make cutting boards, and the city actually sells them at the VisitLex gift shop. We started selling our boards through Etsy this year too. That’s actually where we started getting all kinds of requests for chess boards from all over the world. There were a lot of them. When the city got the idea to make the room and saw we were making chess boards now, they asked to use one for the Harmon Room,” said Littrell.

You can find these handmade boards on the Iron Bridge Woodshop’s Etsy page, the VisitLex website or the Decorator Warehouse online.

“All of our boards, chess or cutting, have a blue horse logo with Lexington underneath. They’re made of native Kentucky maple and cherry wood that we get locally,” said Littrell.

The Harmon Room is receiving an overwhelming amount of well-deserved publicity amongst all parties.

“We’ve seen an influx of people visiting the [VisitLex] website reading about the Queen’s Gambit room that we have there. It's probably our number one page on the site,” said Borden.

For such a small space and local project, The Harmon Room has brought attention to the city of Lexington.

“I loved how the room turned out, and it was very surprising how much press this all got, which means a lot of people enjoyed it too,” said Ladd.

All contributors on this project are being put in the spotlight due to their thoughtful designs in every detail.

“The press that we have received has been incredible. We gained a lot of new Instagram followers very fast. People are excited when they see the national and local press. I think it really solidifies awareness of Ferrick Mason as a boutique luxury wallpaper manufacturer,” said Mason.

White chess pieces attached to the ceiling in the Harmon room to resemble the television series. Courtesy of 21c.

This project isn’t just receiving publicity but changing lives too.

“This has really helped not just our business, but the guys too. To have their work in a place like 21c Hotel, when most of them come from the complete opposite end of the spectrum gives them a sense of purpose. It’s like they're doing something they're proud of; it’s encouraging to them,” said Littrel.

The Harmon Room design isn’t the only chess experience people are having nowadays. There has been a rise in the chess community within Lexington, and the entire nation.

“We’re selling more chess books than we ever have. People are coming in wanting to learn how to play chess, or wanting to start playing again, so it has really promoted a revival that was needed of chess and the chess community. It’s all ages of people too. Usually, I have an oversupply of chess books, but all I’ve got left is a half of a row,” said Courtney.

The popularity of the room has created excitement as fans of The Queen’s Gambit look forward to their chance to feel like Beth Harmon.

“In the first 24 hours, [21c] filled in over 120 phone calls about the room itself, so we’ve been able to help generate significant room nights and significant hotel room revenue for their space,” said Borden.

The Harmon Room can now be booked by guests through the 21c Hotel website. Fans can also see the monumental places from the show by following “The Queen’s Gambit Guide” self-guided tour throughout Lexington found on VisitLex’s website.


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