By: JEAN NAYAR
A Quartet of Top Tastemakers Share Their Take on Designing in the Subtropics
Born and raised in Venice, Italy, designer Sophia Passerini brings a deep-rooted sense of tradition and an emphasis on craftsmanship to the interiors and bespoke cabinetry and furniture she designs for private clients primarily in Palm Beach and its nearby environs, where her offices and showroom are based.
HOW DOES SUSTAINABILITY FACTOR INTO YOUR APPROACH TO DESIGN? I aim for timelessness. Materials and furnishings that are durable— both in terms of style and function—are also more sustainable.
WHICH ARE YOUR FAVORITE MATERIALS? I love fabrics, I play with them like a painter plays with color. Their textures add warmth and elegance. Marble is a treasure of nature that adds substance. I work with amazing artisans in Italy who can transform marble into beautiful sculptural elements, such as fireplace mantels.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE YOUR POINT OF VIEW ON DESIGN? I approach interior design with two central pillars—the architecture of the home and the client’s needs. I also like to mix styles a bit, but the architecture of the house already tells you what it’s looking for. A home I’m working on at the Bear’s Club in Jupiter reflects my approach well since it’s a Tuscan traditional style and I’m Italian and was raised around this kind of architecture. I’m obsessed with research and want to be sure that any new interventions actually align local interpretations with authentic historic style.
WHAT IS THE KEY TO SUCCESSFUL INTERIORS IN A SUBTROPICAL SETTING? It’s a beautiful environment to work in—and vegetation here is king and must be addressed in the interiors as well. Nothing indoors can be disconnected from the outdoors and the greenery must be seen as a backdrop and brought inside as well. A sense of indoor-outdoor living needs to reinforce our relationship with nature.
WHICH RECENT TREND DO YOU WISH WOULD GO AWAY? I wish there were less emphasis on open spaces. We need to cozy up with our own little nests, create distinct spaces with their own character and spirit as destinations.
HOW DO YOU THINK AI WILL IMPACT DESIGN OVER THE NEXT FIVE YEARS? It’s a powerful tool that can take away some of the heavy lifting, but I don’t know that it can replace creativity.
WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENTS IN COMFORTABLE LIVABLE SPACES? It’s important to think about how to store things so that clutter doesn’t take away from the beauty of a space. Light—both artificial and natural—accounts for at least 40 percent of the comfort of a room. And materials—especially if you have kids or pets—should be appropriate for your lifestyle.
PRINCIPAL, MICHAEL WOLK DESIGN
Based in Miami for more than three decades, Michael Wolk Design produces furniture, public art, and residential and commercial interior designs throughout South Florida, including at the St. Regis Resort, the Diplomat, and Porsche Design Tower, where soccer superstar Lionel Messi now resides.
HOW DOES SUSTAINABILITY FACTOR INTO YOUR APPROACH TO DESIGN? Luckily for Earth many of the biggest manufacturers are doing the heavy lifting to produce sustainable and energy-efficient products. We are conscientious about specifying those products and avoiding non-sustainable or over-exploited products like ivory or rosewood.
HOW DO YOU THINK AI WILL IMPACT DESIGN OVER THE NEXT FIVE YEARS? We are already using AI as a source of inspiration assisting us in generating new ideas. We will be introducing a new collection at the Highpoint market in October when we’ll showcase this new collaboration. We are very excited but as ChatGPT recently reminded me, “It’s important to note that while AI can enhance and support the design process, human creativity, intuition, and expertise remain vital. Designers will continue to play a crucial role in shaping and guiding the application of AI to ensure meaningful and ethical design outcomes.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
WHICH RECENT TREND DO YOU WISH WOULD GO AWAY? All of them.
WHAT ARE THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENTS IN COMFORTABLE, LIVABLE SPACES? Lighting—as much natural light as possible and thoroughly considered artificial light. Volume—all available length, width, and height of each and every space should be maximized. And appropriate finishes and furniture—fashion is noticed, but style is remembered. Classic pieces don’t have to be replaced every four years.
WHAT’S YOUR PRIMARY MISSION WITH DESIGN? All of my projects are expressions of my underlying philosophy fused with the client’s reality. I look at each project as an opportunity to transform the space, not just fill it with objects. I tend to eschew trends believing nothing gets old as fast as the “new” and fleeting fad.
PRINCIPAL CHRISTOPHER CAWLEY LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE
Miami-based landscape architect Christopher Cawley has been providing high-end landscape consulting services for new and historic renovation projects—including private gardens and estates, boutique hotels, and oceanfront resort projects throughout South Florida—since 2005.
HOW DO YOU THINK AI WILL IMPACT DESIGN OVER THE NEXT FIVE YEARS? There’s such a large human component to each site that I see AI playing mostly a supporting role in landscape design.
WHICH ARE A COUPLE OF YOUR FAVORITE PLANTS OR HARDSCAPE MATERIALS? Wood, wood, and Natural stone— we especially love keystone, which is really dense and incorporates lots of fossils. We also like large-leaf tropical plants, such as Monstera, which has billowy leaves with holes in them like Swiss cheese.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE A RECENT PROJECT THAT REFLECTS YOUR DESIGN PHILOSOPHY? We’re just finishing a project in the historic neighborhood of Morningside—where we collaborated with brilliant architects who designed a contemporary home based on historic precedent by crafting a series of volumes connected by bridges. The massing and architecture of the home allowed us to preserve most of the site’s specimen trees and vegetation, including some very large live oaks and flash pine trees, large swaths of which used to cover much of Florida and are now almost all gone.
WHAT IS THE KEY TO A SUSTAINABLE LANDSCAPE IN A SUBTROPICAL SETTING? Less is more. It’s better to be sparing with plants because they never stop growing here. We stay away from plants that constantly need to be sheared into hedges with loud trimmers. Imagine if you had a sofa that you had to reshape every week. So many properties are compact in South Florida and too many plants are like visual clutter resulting in a pastiche of styles. If you can minimize large lawns by incorporating low-maintenance ground over or gravel in shady areas, you’ll need less irrigation.
PRINCIPAL SDH STUDIO ARCHITECTURE + DESIGN
Stephanie Halfen, founder of SDH Studio Architecture + Design in Miami, has developed a stellar reputation for fine modern design in the Caribbean and South Florida, where she’s designed private residences from Belle Meade to Golden Beach to Bay Harbor Islands.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR ATTITUDE TOWARD DESIGN? A current project in Surfside really represents my current view on design. It shows how architecture can be connected to nature to really, really enhance everyday life. Nature makes you feel more calm and allows you to appreciate the simple things in life. At the same time, it’s really stunning—when you can see and feel its beauty all of your senses get ignited with its colors, textures, and even smells inside the house. I like blurring the lines between the interior and the exterior so a person enjoys architecture in a way that is really immersive.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON AI? The human touch is super important in order to understand a client—what they want, how they live, how they envision their new home. A person needs to understand these things in order to give the instructions to AI to help in the design. So I see it as a tool, not a replacement for people.
WHAT ARE THE KEYS TO LIVABLE SPACES? Correct lighting is number one—both natural and artificial. Second is the furniture layout—it should allow people to gather, relax, and serve multiple functions. Finally, materials are crucial—they really set the tone in terms of warmth and texture that influence the feel and touch of the space.
WHICH MATERIALS ARE YOUR FAVORITES? I love marble—in all its thousands of variations. Natural stones are just wonderful. I also love steel—it’s a material that represents strength. At the same time, it’s young and cool, and yet it reminds us of all the history in its development in the 17th century in England and Germany. Wood is also important to me.
HOW DO YOU TAKE THE ENVIRONMENT INTO ACCOUNT IN YOUR WORK? One way is through the use of overhangs that protect the interiors of the home from the sun. We also incorporate as many solar panels as possible and, when possible, we capture rainwater to use it for irrigation. We also try to use local materials.