Essential Macau | Winning spirit

Recognised worldwide, Alexandra Champalimaud is one of the most well-known figures in her area. In an exclusive conversation with Essential, the interior designer revealed her career path spanning over 30 years

By Cátia Matos

Destiny turned her life upside down when she was preparing to build her life in Portugal, her country of origin. It was 1974, in the middle of the revolution against the regime in force in Portugal, when the young Alexandra Champalimaud was forced with her then husband to leave the country and live in Montreal, Canada. With a course in Design and Art History and some works done in Lisbon, the interior designer headed for the North America, and could not even have imagined what the world held in store for her.

Recognised worldwide as one of the most famous personalities in the interior design area, the founder of the renown atelier Champalimaud Design based in New York, admits that “it wasn’t always easy”, but step-by-step things began to happen.   “I can frankly say that it has proved an pleasant surprise.  I never thought to have got this far, with works all over the world”, she reveals. Proof of this was her latest project, the mythical Raffles Hotel in Singapore which was the target of a careful and lengthy renovation by the designer and her team.

For 20 years she was in Canada until an opportunity arose to fulfil the ‘American Dream’.  “Champalimaud Design, in Canada was highly recognised locally in Montreal and its outskirts. In 1986 I began to compete in international competitions and won various projects. After some years of doing this and achieving international success I thought that perhaps I stood a chance in the United States. The two projects that I won in the country (Swissotel) New York and Swissotel Boston) signalled the start of my career in the USA.  I was becoming increasingly successful in New York and established a company there.”

She witnessed September 11 and felt up close the consequences of that tragic date. “It was a horror for all of us.  I saw the second plane fly into the tower. Moreover, my company has been redesigning the Marriott Hotel in the World Trade Centre.  That morning two people in my team were on their way to that hotel by taxi, the hotel that was destroyed.”  Despite losing some important projects, she didn’t throw in the towel. Her fighter spirit runs in her veins but gratitude too. “Little by little everything recovered (…) Today I have enormous recognition from the entire world for which I am very grateful.”

She managed a team today of 55 and has four “extraordinary” partners that have been with her for two decades. She reveals that the secret of success lies in working with the right people. But not just that… “Personal and professional integrity are also required. One of the most important things to have are values. Having talent, abilities and qualifications is important but it is not everything. People must trust in us because they are handing over millions and millions of dollars (or euros) for a project and we are responsible for this. We must take responsibility to invest in these values in order to get results at the end. We must put ourselves in other people’s shoes to understand their wishes, budgets and what they need done. I know in terms of the aesthetic I can create something they need, and this is the talent that I know that I have, and this has been super important.”

Photographer: Kevin Kaminski

The list of famous hotels that have already been opened and toasted with her talent goes to show.   Conrad Miami Hotel (Miami, USA), Hilton Times Square (New York, USA), Four Seasons Jakarta (Jakarta, Indonesia), Hotel Bel-Air (Los Angeles, USA), Mandarin Oriental Hotel Boston (Boston, USA), Raffles Hotel Singapore (Singapore), St. Regis Beijing (Peking, China), The Carlyle (New York, USA), The Ritz Carlton Kuala Lumpur (Kuala Lumpur, Malasia) and the Waldorf Astoria (New York, USA) are some examples of the countless projects from her atelier. “For me, all are of huge importance. I have immense respect for people who choose us because they not only know that we have the talent, but also the organisation and capacity to be able to create a luxurious hotel that will last for decades.

Although she says she likes all the interiors she creates equally, she says she has a soft spot for the last project in which she was involved. “We have just completed my favourite project, the Raffles Singapore.  It was something magnificent. It spans three blocks of the city Work began six years ago and was completed recently.” In this project, Alexandra has respected the history of the interiors, but has also put a little of her own hallmark on the project.  “A hotel like Raffles Singapore has its own personality and history and I was not going to change that. What I had to do was to contribute to the future of this marvellous establishment. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. Of course, it has a little of my taste and my way of seeing things, however, the respect for its personality has been maintained.  

She is emphatic that she doesn’t favour any brand image so that her work can be immediately identifiable, however there is a coherence that runs through her creative work.  “Usually, they say that I have a sophisticated style and that I create inviting and cosy ambiances.    Timelessness is also another of my hallmarks.”

Still riding on the crest of the media wave the Singapore project brought her, Alexandra still has some projects on the back burner for the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, for Claridge’s Hotel in London and for the Park Inn Hotel also in London. And, in Portugal which is another of her current projects

Despite her career centred on hotel design, as well as residential developments, and all of the awards and distinctions she has won over the years, the interior designer doesn’t hide her predilection for product design, an area in which she is more focused at the moment and for which she has a special fondness.    “I have had some moments of creativity. I recently worked on a line of furniture for Salon Art + Design of New York and I am also doing a design for some carpets for The Rug Company and for textiles design for Holland & Sherry.”

As to the future, Alexandra is happy to continue to do more product design. As to possibly returning to her country of origin, she doesn’t hesitate: “Well of course I will return!” Her house is still under construction, but the certainty of returning has long been built.