Since founding her own interior design studio in 1981, New York-based globetrotter Alexandra Champalimaud has garnered plenty of accolades for her work on iconic hotels. Here, she talks about the philosophy behind her creative process and her ongoing projects in Southeast Asia.
You were born and raised in Lisbon. Are there elements of Portuguese design that inform your work?
I’m nostalgic for Portugal because it is a beautiful country with an extraordinary aesthetic background. While I can’t say for certain that I use exact Portuguese design references in my work, I think the creativity and sensibility of Portuguese culture—honoring the craftsmen in particular—is something that stayed with me. In my projects you can see that influence in how I value craftsmanship and texture and the things that belong to that particular place.
How do you draw out a sense of place in your designs?
I call myself a cultural anthropologist, and I don’t think that’s presumptuous—it’s a well-earned reference to explain what I do. I observe the details of each of the buildings I work on, and learn about the history and culture of the surrounding locale. From there, I extract elements that are pertinent to the interiors we’re creating.
You prefer to layer interiors rather than coordinate them. Why is that?
I think people are at their best when they are honest and natural. That applies to buildings too. When they’re full of pretense, it doesn’t work for me. You need to build on what’s real. Then you have to create a place with a big soul, a lot of magic.
In Jakarta, how does the upcoming St. Regis differ from the city’s Four Seasons hotel, which you also designed?
The scale and proportion of the rooms are very different, as is the actual building. The location, the look, the way it was constructed, this all affects the design. And of course we’re dealing with different brands—we can’t apply the same form of classicism as we did at the Four Seasons.
What kind of sensory experience can we expect from the St. Regis?
Music is an integral part of the whole design. We’ve taken the Indonesian sense of music and put it on steroids, by introducing it into each space and interpreting it in a different and modern way. Even the floor patterns are inspired by the making of those musical instruments. We’re going to have a monumental chandelier connected to a harp in a space called the Great Hall—it’s a huge swath of lights that undulates and moves according to the music. The St. Regis brand is known for its entertainment qualities, so that really fits in with the design.
You’re also handling the revamp of the Raffles hotel in Singapore. How do you balance the old and new?
The Raffles has to be preserved, but it has to be innovated. We attempt to do that in a subliminal way, and make it more current, more clean, more functional, all those sorts of things, and make it much more socially interactive so the public areas are much more energized. We’ve retained its historic presence and a lot of the original details will remain. There’s a lot of creativity, but it’s subtle—it’s not as advanced as I would be doing on the St. Regis Jakarta.
Do you have a favorite Asian country or destination?
I wouldn’t dream of answering that question! [Laughs] I’ve done projects all over Asia and everywhere I go, I’ve been so well-received. It’s an absolute joy to come to this part of the world, because people are so courteous, charming, and respectful. So I have a soft spot for whoever treats me the best. How’s that for an answer?
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Making Room”).