Champalimaud at HD Boutique: The importance of education, luxury, and the facts of a design life

At HD Boutique this afternoon in Miami, Alexandra Champalimaud sat down with Michael Adams, editor in chief of Hospitality Design magazine. The founder of her own eponymous firm has designed offices for the prime minister of France, which led to her first hotel in Canada,–a former brothel–up to her latest renovation at the Waldorf=Astoria in New York. She has transcended far above the glass ceiling: Hospitality designers and admirers of her work should watch out for the crystalline shards that lay in her wake.

Following are her comments to Adams during the discussion.

On valuing education: I have been very fortunate to start my business twice, both in Montreal and New York, and I have noticed that a [design] education needs to be well grounded in not only learning tools like CAD or maneuvering construction sites. What’s missing is an informed background on the history of art, furniture, and periods of design. It is essential because [as designers] you make references today all along the way, blending global influences. As the world grows smaller, education is a form of respect and as designers we are international ambassadors. There should be a well rounded classical element to the design education in this country. I would like to get involved with a school or university over the next decade.

On her biggest challenge: Putting myself in other peoples shoes. But I have been told I have a great memory.

On her current renovation of the Waldorf=Astoria in Manhattan: The Waldorf=Astoria is an honor to be doing. The lobby has just been finished, and should be opened in the next two weeks: It is really exciting! It’s an extremely large-scale project and it means a lot to a lot of people. To have earned [the renovation], as part of a competition, I created a story over three-and-a-half weeks for presentation. The tag line was “modern again.”

I really love doing contemporary, modern spaces for older interiors. We blew out the ceiling in the entry for a truly grand entrance. We kept flooring mosaics, which are historic. All the old paintings were kept. The old chandelier, the Mamie Eisenhower as I called it because you could really identify it with that era, is gone and has been replaced with something more modern.

On the changing definition of luxury: Guests are thrifty when paying but still want an incredible room. We have budgets getting tighter and tighter and creating luxury that way is difficult. We use color and textures effectively, and create drama with lighting. I can create drama like the theater. Budgets are miserable but we all have to deal with them. It’s worth it.

Luxury has to do with lifestyle. Lifestyle is healthy living and a clean conscience, which is a big luxury these days. Great proportion; great scale; attention to details; restrained elegance; rooms that are kind and inviting. Usually it’s the feel, the tone, the sensibility of materials. It all creates luxury. Just don’t ever set out to create a space to impress someone.

On tough clients: I’ve cried. I’ve been beaten up. I’ve been insulted. But in the end we become friends. Your clients are your best critics because they want you to succeed. They’ve made a huge difference to me.

On designing internationally: Doing jobs all over the world is exciting but you need to be able to fit in and get along with everyone.

On her dream commission: I want to do a hotel in Paris.

On the small number of female-run and -owned firms: [after much begging to pass on the question] It starts with the fact it’s still a man’s world. Still a lot of women out there are doing amazing things. We need unbelievable courage and tenacity. People knock me down and I stand up again. Apart from talent and education there has to be tenacity.

On the role of today’s technology in design: Technology should be simple, streamlined, no more than five buttons, and seamlessly integrated.

On advice for young designers: You have to keep trying. Keep your spirit up and just do it. It is the only way to succeed. You have to prove yourself every day and you need good friends to do it with.

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