An immersive narrative of design

Interview with Sara Duffy, Principal at Stonehill Taylor Interiors in New York

Sara Duffy - Photo © Blaine Davis
Sara Duffy - Photo © Blaine Davis

Creating hotels in dialogue with their historical and iconic location, Sara Duffy – background in art history and television – produces an high-end interior design with an immersive and unique narrative. Her classic vision translates into an exclusive and contemporary architectures as the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport, NoMad Las Vegas and New York (in collaboration with Jacques Garcia), The Conrad New York Midtown and Renaissance New York Chelsea… In the name of tailor-made design.

Conrad New York Midtown

Conrad New York Midtown

Can you tell us how your passion for interior design started?
My mom is an interior designer in the high-end residential realm. Having grown up surrounded by design, I originally thought I wanted to go in a different direction and decided to study art history in college. After school, I landed a job with MTV, where I served as a liaison for the consumer product division and the art direction team. My “aha” moment was when we decided to open an MTV store, and I had to hire the architecture firm and work with our design team. I loved the process of designing a space and opening it. That’s when I went back to school to study design at FIT Fashion Institute of Technology, changing my professional course.

Could you define your design vision in the world of hospitality and restaurants?
Each project is different, depending on the client, location, and building history. Despite those differences, all of our work has a compelling narrative to it. When we start a project, we delve into the property and surrounding location, often spending several days exploring the area and coming up with a layered and smart concept for the project. It is that narrative that drives the project and threads the unique aspects of the effort together.

Conrad New York Midtown

Conrad New York Midtown

Saint Kate - The Arts Hotel, Milwaukee, USA

Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel, Milwaukee, USA

How would you define your style?
I consider my style contemporary with a whimsical touch. Of course, as a lifelong New Yorker I wear all black most days. But I do appreciate a little color here or there – I even have a pink bannister in my apartment!

You are the head of the new Stonehill Taylor interiors division. How did your partnership with this important New York studio start? 
I actually was brought to Stonehill Taylor by former principal Mike Suomi, who started the Interiors division at Stonehill Taylor. I knew him from my time at Rockwell Group. Mike and I actually ran into each other with our families and, at the time, he happened to be looking for a new designer to manage this massive new job the firm had been awarded. One thing led to another and I ended up joining Stonehill Taylor as the project lead for The NoMad Hotel! And as they say, the rest is history…

Saint Kate - The Arts Hotel, Milwaukee, USA

Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel, Milwaukee, USA

Who are your main customers?
I largely oversee hospitality and restaurant projects, though in my background I have designed everything from hotels and restaurants to retail centers and entertainment complexes. More specifically, I have had the pleasure of working with such renowned hospitality developers as the Sydell Group, Marriott International, Turnberry Associates, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, and Hilton Hotels & Resorts.

How is the Interiors Department you manage organized?
Our Interiors Department is divided up into studios, each of which is run by one of our incredible Interiors Associates. Within each studio there are designers ranging from junior to senior who work on each project from concepting through construction completion. It’s important to us that all of our designers be experienced in a variety of skills, including blue sky brainstorming, custom FF&E design, AutoCad and Revit, and managing subconsultants.

The Stayton Room, New York

The Stayton Room, New York

What projects are you working on right now?
While we work all over the country, two notable current projects are in Stonehill Taylor’s hometown of New York City – the renovation of the Marriott Marquis in bustling Times Square and the redesign of the storied Algonquin Hotel, also in midtown Manhattan. Although I can not reveal any design specifics yet, I am thrilled by the opportunity to reshape such iconic New York City destinations.

Do you also design bespoke furnishing elements?
All of our FF&E is completely custom designed and unique to every project.

You have developed important locations for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Hotels & Resorts… What are the distinctive elements that express your design signature in these projects?
What is unique about Stonehill Taylor is that we do not have a specific “design signature.” It is important to us that every project have a totally distinctive narrative with bespoke furnishings so that it truly stands out on its own. However, we do strive to have all of our projects feel timeless, welcoming to guests, and featuring design details that allow for new experiences time and time again.

The Eliza Jane Hotel, New Orleans, USA

The Eliza Jane Hotel, New Orleans, USA

The Eliza Jane Hotel, New Orleans, USA

The Eliza Jane Hotel, New Orleans, USA

Your most important design challenge?
One meaningful design challenge that I have faced recently was when working on the TWA Hotel. While of course it was exciting to work on this iconic project, there was a lot of pressure to honor Eero Saarinen’s legacy and incredible design acumen. It was quite a feat, and well worth it!

In your projects there is always a particular attention to local culture and history. How do you manage to create a dialogue between contemporary design, innovation and historic relevance?
I do not see a site’s history as being in conflict with its future expression – in fact, that dialogue is key. I think my mother instilled that in me in her design of my childhood home, where she would make daring design decisions that at once respected the space’s original bones. In my work, I, too, like to have a certain reverence for the past when ushering a project into the future. For example, when I worked on the TWA Hotel’s guest rooms, I did not want guests to feel as though they were staying in a museum, so the interiors had to both nod to the past but feel utterly contemporary.

TWA Hotel, New York

TWA Hotel, New York

TWA Hotel, New York

TWA Hotel, New York

What are the most original requests you have received from your customers?
By far the most original request that I have receive was from Tyler Morse for the TWA Hotel project. We were tasked with designing a cocktail lounge – now known as Connie – within an original Constellation airplane!

In this difficult historical moment, how do you see the future of hospitality and catering? Have you thought about possible alternative solutions to deal with this delicate situation?
I think the design-world will respond to the need to social-distance by creating opportunities for guests to foster a sense of connection – that could mean a design feature like a decorative wall of hand-written notes encouraging guests to communicate with each other from afar. I also think that health and well-being will be top of mind with light and air circulation prioritized, and travelers will seek out nature escapes, where they can commune with the outdoors. But, most importantly, I envision hospitality making an overwhelming comeback – travel restores and inspires people and will remain a fixture of our culture.

Your dream design is…?
I have actually always wanted to work on the design of a spiritual space, whether it be a church, synagogue, or even a meditation center. What I love about those places is that it feels like you have stepped out of one world and into another. You have the opportunity to create this ethereal space that is unlike any other. It is a place of introspection that is very personal and quiet, one that allows you to sit within yourself.

Portrait photo © Blaine Davis
Projects photo © David Mitchel (Conrad New York Midtown, Saint Kate The Arts Hotel, The Stayton Room NY), Eric Laignel (TWA Hotel)