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From Raffles to Ritz-Carlton, Alexandra Champalimaud defines elegant hotel design

Legendary interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud, the talent behind iconic hotels such as Raffles Singapore, the Waldorf Astoria New York and the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, shares how her experiences have shaped her approach to luxury.

Hotels are an opportunity to escape the everyday, to step foot into a transformative world where we can immerse ourselves in luxury and delight in the smallest details. The best hotel interiors combine this thoughtful approach to opulence with a considerate nod to context, allowing us to understand the history and nuances of a place. This precise balancing act has been perfected by internationally renowned designer Alexandra Champalimaud, who is behind some of the world’s most celebrated hotel interiors, from the Waldorf Astoria New York and London’s Claridge’s Hotel, to Raffles Singapore.

Raffles Singapore by Champalimaud Design in Effect Magazine
Raffles Singapore has been reimagined by Champalimaud Design as part of an extensive refurbishment

Champalimaud grew up in the Portuguese coastal town of Cascais, just west of Lisbon, and the region’s strong architectural heritage and vibrant design scene have shaped the way she sees the world. “I lived in the most beautiful place in Portugal and being in such exquisite surroundings planted a seed,” she recalls. “In Portugal, beauty comes to you in a very gentle way, and I was inspired by the unpretentious beauty of everyday life. There is power in a humble approach to the essence of design.”

When she finished school, Champalimaud pursued her innate love of design at the Fundação Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva in Lisbon, learning about visual art, architecture, history, and a multitude of applied arts. She describes it as a “transformative experience” that set a strong foundation for her design career. 

Champalimaud quickly developed an appreciation for the beauty of tradition and heritage mixed with a touch of the unexpected – and she uses this understanding to create spaces that intrigue and surprise yet remain grounded in their context. “There is a depth of knowledge regarding a space’s history, culture, and sense of place with a worldly perspective,” says the designer of her approach.

There is power in a humble approach to the essence of design.

Alexandra Champalimaud

From Lisbon, she travelled to the UK to undertake industry training, and then set off for Montreal, Canada to begin a solo design career. In 1981, she launched her eponymous studio and in the ensuing four decades has grown the team to 50 designers – some of whom have been working together for more than 30 years – who have become sought after for their work in hotels, bars, restaurants, and spas. “I have a soft spot for big, old hotels,” reveals Champalimaud. “Eventually, our firm built a reputation for designing thoughtfully within these spaces.”

The Halekulani in Okinawa, Japan, with expansive ocean views, designed by Champalimaud in Effect Magazine
The Halekulani in Okinawa, Japan, celebrates the panoramic ocean views with expansive glazing and furnishings that exude relaxed coastal glamour and immersive luxury

This immersion in the world of hotel interiors began with a project in Algarve, Portugal. Since then, the studio has relocated to New York, and today, Champalimaud has been joined at the helm of the studio by partners Ed Bakos and Winston Kong. The award-winning studio is so in demand that they are often working on up to 30 projects at any one time, and has defined the interior identity of high-end hotels around the world, from The Drake Hotel in New York, to Raffles Singapore and Halekulani in Okinawa, Japan.

As a celebrated, award-winning interior designer, Alexandra Champalimaud has served on the board of the Commissions des Biens Culturels du Quebec and was an active member of Heritage Montreal. She is currently a member of the Network for Executive Women in Hospitality, The International Interior Design Association, and is a past vice president of the US-Portugal Chamber of Commerce.

Raffles Singapore, which began a three-phased restoration in 2017, is a particularly poignant expression and celebration of heritage. The palette, for example, takes the iconic hotel’s original black and white scheme and contrasts it with caramel, shades of lush green, and creamy neutrals to elevate and modernise the spaces without compromising the heritage; and the spaces are defined by ornate screens and locally sourced heritage antiques.

The Troutbeck in Upstate New York is another project that is special to Champalimaud, not only for its understated charm and sophisticated modernity but also because it is run by her son, Anthony, and his wife, Charlotte. The former private estate has been transformed into a 36-room retreat, that blends the bucolic vernacular of Upstate New York with the European charm that the studio is known for. It also features furniture pieces that were originally designed by Champalimaud for the office of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the former Prime Minister of Canada – one of her first major commissions. 

Troutbeck in Upstate New York has a rustic sensibility that speaks of its bucolic location and is elevated with sophisticated details.

The design principles used to create inviting hotel spaces can be applied across many other sectors, from new builds with a distinctive yet timeless personality, to residential spaces designed to feel like luxurious retreats from the everyday. “Clients choose us as they are looking for a testament to lifestyle, luxury, and timeless design,” explains the designer. 

The skill of designing is the ability to incorporate and mix your vision with your clients’ to produce a project you can both be proud of.

Alexandra Champalimaud

One of the studio’s recent residential projects, for example, is 77 Peak Road, a cliff-top mansion set amidst a lush forest in Hong Kong’s prestigious Victoria Peak. Inside, Champalimaud Design’s timeless elegance acts as an antidote to the famously fast pace of life in Hong Kong – think cascading chandeliers, handcrafted millwork and delicate timber screens, and rare marble.

There are, of course, differences between hospitality and residential projects – most notably, the presence of a single client. While hospitality design has to cater to and anticipate the needs of a diverse audience, a residential project needs to speak to the individual. “It’s a far more intimate and personal process,” says Champalimaud. “Regardless, paramount for both is that the design be current, enduring, and inspiring.”

The studio has also branched out into airport lounges, senior living residences, and universities. Champalimaud, however, has a particular project at the top of her wishlist. “I would love to do a flagship store,” she reveals. “Shopping should be a pleasure, and so many of the brands come off overly masculine in my opinion and miss the mark.”

Layered craftsmanship and nods to Hollywood's golden-age infuse Champalimaud's design at the Beverly Hills Hotel - Effect Magazine
Layered craftsmanship and nods to Hollywood’s golden-age infuse Champalimaud’s design at the Beverly Hills Hotel

Alongside her design work, the designer is known for her mentoring work with the Network for Executive Women in Hospitality, passing on her valuable experience and understanding of design to emerging designers. Her best advice? “It’s easy for a young designer to fixate on sticking to a certain concept or vision and this can mean the client’s wants are missed,” she says. “The skill of designing is the ability to incorporate and mix your vision with your clients’ to produce a project you can both be proud of.

She adds: “There is too much blandness in the world, so be confident in your design concepts – and add the colour!”

Read more: Champalimaud | Interior Designers I Interiors |  Design | Hotels | New York | Canada