Studio Visit

Everything Is An Adventure for Alexandra Champalimaud

The globetrotting interior designer, whose work can be seen inside iconic hotels like The Carylye, The Waldorf Astoria, and Hotel Bel-Air, welcomes us into her new office near Wall Street.

Alexandra Champalimaud at work.

What are some key components of your practice?

The reason why I come to work every day is because I love creating beautiful spaces and things. When I say beautiful, I mean moving. True beauty is moving. When something is beautiful, it creates an incredibly positive environment.

How much time do you spend in the office?

I’m here about three or four days each week. When I’m not traveling, of course. People say they travel for inspiration. I don’t. Traveling is about connecting with other people. That’s what matters to me: connecting. You should come away with a different expression of what you’re going to do next. I go to Africa a lot. I adore it.

Your travels seem to be about embracing adventure. Is it the same with your interiors?

They’re all an adventure. They’re each about how I’m going to move people in that space. I believe that when they move into a space I’ve done, they will be happier.

Have you studied psychology?

No, but I understand it. The first time I was pulled out of my comfort zone I was in my early twenties. The world is very different now. The connection everyone has today is so quick and so fast, and frankly very flat. Whereas back then we had to move out of our comfort zones to explore the world. Before the internet, you had to transport yourself to weird or different or extraordinary places. It formed you. It wasn’t superficial.

When you were pushed out of your comfort zone, was that in the wake of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974? You fled to Montréal, correct?

Yes, I was 21 or 22, and had a son. I grew up in Portugal and had studied at boarding schools in Switzerland and England. I had an amazing family and married into another great family. I thought I was going to live in Lisbon forever. But then everything changed. I went to Canada after the revolution, and the immersion there was something amazing for me. I had no understanding of the currency. Or the cold—I had a little leather jacket, and that was it.

Why Canada?

Family connections through my husband. He had a job there at his family’s bank. But when we were there, the bank got nationalized overnight, and he was fired. Here I was in Canada, and it was cold, dammit. Happily, I spoke French. I got some interviews. Then I got three offers, and took one. I started at minimum wage, kept quiet, and learned what people wanted. I eventually began to design offices and hotels, and ultimately had a wonderful time in Canada. But it was hard.

A view of Champlimaud's new office.

You started your studio there in 1981.

It was barely a studio. It was me and an assistant working from my house. I was a single mom at the time. It wasn’t a piece of cake. But it was really great in the end.

And you moved your studio to New York in 1993.

Yeah, and that’s because my children were out of the house by then, and the economy had gone down in Québec. I’d entered an international competition with the Swissôtel in Boston and the Drake in New York City, and I won. I was ecstatic. Then I won the Algonquin. I learned to understand the objectives of making a hotel: What do people want? What do they want to feel like? I wasn’t trying to create trendy spaces. After the Drake, I started getting calls. I eventually left Montréal for New York. The studio here started with two or three employees, and we’ve since grown to 40.

Inside Champlimaud's studio, Frank Stella's "The Musket" (1990).

How would you define your firm’s aesthetic? I noticed the art here really varies. You’ve got works by Frank Stella, Nabil Nahas, and Paulo Laport.

They’re different moods, each in different places in the office. My favorite one is the Nahas painting in the conference room. It takes up the entire wall. I don’t want mood boards all over the place. I refuse to do that. People protested, “We need pinup space!” I said, “We don’t do pinups anymore.” I wanted a huge painting instead.

The mood board’s dead! 

[Laughs] Yeah, the mood board’s dead! This painting hasn’t changed anything about how we operate. People go there and feel energized, yet it’s calming, too. I think the work is free-spirited, and has wonderful composition and color. I like the fact that it doesn’t take itself so seriously.

Various materials at the office.

So there’s no strict aesthetic in your firm’s work.

No. The reason is, as soon as you draw very straight lines around yourself, I think you’re doomed. When you put yourself in a box, you go downhill. I put a lot of grace into the things I do. I wouldn’t say it’s “charm.” There’s subtlety and sophistication.

Various materials at the office.
All Stories