From university days, we all knew that Stef Albert was destined for a brilliant career as a concert pianist. He’s now also a highly successful and sought after internationally renowned interior designer and has just published his first series of children’s books Saskia Constantinou spoke to him about his transition from concert pianist to interior designer of multi-million dollar homes and palaces.
How did it all happen and what elicited the change?
Since my teenage years I’ve entertained equal interest in music and the visual arts. However, the discipline and intensity of piano in the classical world consumed me fully during my formative years. Becoming a concert pianist was e my focus and where my passion was anchored. I gave no thought to the inevitability of degrees and continued education abroad. After achieving what I’d set out to accomplish, I suddenly found myself in a grown-up world in which the isolation and one-dimensional world of a musical career left me drained, unfulfilled and bored. My creativity was like the acorn ready to burst forth. There were early signs… I remember transforming my assigned practice room at the University of Washington and spending endless hours drooling over beautiful things in windows and feeding my imagination instead of studying. I couldn’t practice unless my environment was beautiful and balanced. So, I dipped into my food allowance and gave new life to the dreary practice room with aqua blue paint and cheerful Expressionist posters. I actually spent more time and creative energy on my first apartment than I did learning and performing all the Beethoven sonatas. Instead of buying music scores, I attended auctions and marvelled at precious antique textiles and shapes. I expressed myself through color and dabbled in drawings and paintings that leaned against colorful walls and flea market finds. But it was my first little house in Seattle that tipped the scale completely. I was playing a great deal and 58 students had me chained to the piano bench seven days a week. My passion for music was dwindling while my interest in design and art were boiling. It’s probably not good to admit, but I had greater pleasure transforming my home week after week than following a student’s progress or learning another concerto. Miraculously, a keen parent who had witnessed my budding creativity asked me to design a newly purchased home. Within two months I had several referral projects in my lap including a prominent celebrity in Los Angeles. Being the fast and astute learner that I am, I simply stepped out of one costume into another without questioning my abilities or potential. I followed my instinct and hired experts to support areas I hadn’t yet mastered. I had vision, passion and a good eye. All the rest I considered nothing but tricks of the trade and surrounded myself with an excellent team. Nothing was too big or too challenging and I loved every moment of it. My new career and prominent projects changed my life overnight and I’ve never looked back. Nobody has ever asked to see my degrees and most clients had no idea of my past life as professional musician.
What is it that you most enjoy from large scale projects and do you insist of being involved from start to finish?
A project is no different from a recital or a canvas. The larger the scope, the deeper you can reach. I’ve always enjoyed substantial repertoire, complex recital material and large canvasses. I find it difficult to paint on a small canvas or play miniature pieces. I respect those who do. I like broad strokes and moving fast. Over the years I’ve have come to the conclusion that in design one spends just as much time and energy, if not more, on small projects as on large ones. Generally, clients too, are more challenging, demanding and fearful with smaller projects. Clients with large business consciousness leave details to the experts and seldom micro-manage. This offers me the perfect arena in which I express myself fully to the benefit of all. It’s no different from forests versus trees, bigger strokes and bigger pictures are indeed much more rewarding and I get a lot more accomplished on large projects than on small ones. Being involved in a project from the outset to completion is ideal, but I’m in a complex industry and sometimes projects come because of what went wrong. This is all part of the collaborative process. The ability to adapt, solve problems, edit and transform is equally rewarding.
“I strive for artistic and professional integrity for each project from the outset through completion”
Do you consider design to be an art or science?
Undoubtedly both. Great design is rooted in divine proportion and at the end of the day it’s all about mathematics. The designer sees how things relate to one another – proportion, balance, rhythm. I think, this is what sets great designers apart from the average. It is not about blue goes with red, but how the proportions of the room equals this in relation to that and the flow of color here provides a backdrop for that particular accent while this unique piece is able to stand out just right due to its conversation with another unique piece. Rooms have form, texture, color, proportion, content. I refer to it as “logic” while some refer to it as talent.
How would you describe your style?
First and foremost I would say timeless. If you were to stand in the same room forty years from now, the same harmony and balance will caress the senses as they do now. My work differs because it contains music – there is always movement, motion, harmonic frequency and colour. As with a symphony, rooms must have layers and structure. I believe the prevailing strength over the years has also been variety. In design, there are those whose work, palettes and accessories are instantly recognizable. I liken myself to an actor who loves variety. The project determines the style just as the script determines the character. This has served as the best education and training ground for me over the years and the same applies to my art. As I look at my work, balance, proportion, stillness and warmth are always present within larger musical content.
What inspires you?
I travel a great deal and my vast capacity to absorb and take in all I see and experience is my biggest inspiration. I’ve always learnt through observation as opposed to instruction. I start each day looking at beautiful books (of which I have thousands) and finding stillness and in that, my creativity is born. I cannot start a day without my private hours of stillness and beauty. My living environment is extremely important and the surrounding beauty feeds and inspires me. I’m constantly moving things around my rooms, changing vignettes, flowers, art. These are the best parts of my days.
“The three prevalent elements in my work are always balance, beauty, and rhythm—never trend, force or pretense”.
Are you very structured, organised and disciplined in the way you work?
Yes, and this is directly linked to many years of training as classical pianist and musician. When you glance at a piece of music, your eye organises and your mind structures. You apply the finest discipline in order to be accurate and see the big picture immediately. Time, metre, key, form, tempo, scope, brevity – all these elements organise themselves in ones mind instantly. There is no room for sloppiness or error. You have to play the right notes in the right time with the right fingers. I am known to work extremely fast and my capacity has served me well in this industry. In my design world, the daily work-load is extremely intense with no room for mediocrity. So, those who work with me are very sensitive and skilled individuals who are able to juggle the many balls thrown at them with high expectations. My weakness is an inability to maintain order around me, as I tend to leave a trail behind wherever I go. Although I’m obsessed with order and neatness, my constant creativity unables me to stop and tidy up. I expect those who work with me to be equally disciplined and focused. I tend to use the word immaculate a great deal and I think this is the prerequisite for any design studio’s methodology.
Can you briefly describe your design process –
The project always leads me. At the outset, I ask to be left alone in the space, in silence, and from there it all falls into place logically and rapidly. If it is a pre-construction project on paper, I imagine the space in the same way as I would sit on the floor. Fortunately technology enables us to create empty room shells with accurate views and light exposures. I observe details, structure, form, and from there, the completed room presents itself in my mind’s eye. Light and location always dictate colour palettes and textures. Function, purpose and the client’s lifestyle are naturally additional key elements. Part of my challenge is to translate that vision to the client and colleagues. Then the process and work continues at the office where I draw, select and specify. Wherever I am on location, whichever city around the world, there is always a printer at hand to scan and correct. The process is varied and while some projects are being completed, others are just starting. An important part of the process often underestimated or overlooked by the public is the actual installation. This is extremely important and I oversee each installation personally. My teams prepare and execute but nothing is final until I personally approve and adjust the final touches.
Do you work with music?
It depends but mostly yes. I find baroque or jazz the best but also love to listen to movie soundtracks. Music truly affects the mood but it’s not because of a fear of silence. In the office, I’m very sensitive to music and background noise and have my own enclosed office as I’m disturbed by phones, conversations and noise at large.
Your philosophy is to enrich the perspective and experience of the client and to establish their own individual standards of living – how do you do this?
Clients come to me because they are searching and taking the necessary steps to get closer to their dreams. In many instances, they are unable to identify or illustrate what they are after. It’s my role to pinpoint the essence, lead them gently and open their eyes. From that point, the collaborative process grows and expands. I would say my biggest role is to awaken the client, to help them formulate their own individual expressions and standards through exposure and subtle education. A client may harbor exquisite taste but be unable to interpret or manifest that which lies beneath the surface. My role is to ignite the growing process.
How do you deal with ‘difficult’ clients – maybe those who don’t really know what they want? Are you flexible to change parameters as you work?
With experience comes the ability to notice red flags right away. I select clients and projects very carefully and the interview process is as much for them as it is for me. I listen well, observe and read the signs. The designer is first and foremost a psychologist and secondly, the creative visionary. The important necessity between client and designer is healthy boundaries. When I feel a project or client holds conflict or un-called for problems, I pass. I work with clear contracts and prefer professional relationships not to be on a first name basis. Not only does it set the proper tone and dynamics, but cancels any possibility for faulty boundaries. Integrity is a big part of my operation and even when a client is demanding, I keep focused on the project and not on personal matters. Usually clients are difficult because of a misunderstanding. So, I always ask the client to define what is expected of me. In the end, the work of a designer is a delicate dance between vision, skill, passion, project requirements, expectations and psychology.
“The key to a successful project is in allowing free creativity to preside over preconceived notions or limitations”
What are you most proud of to date?
First and foremost, that I live each day passionately and freely, doing what I love and secondly, that I am not intimidated working with famous or important people. I usually don’t even know a lot about them, and often find myself reading about their lives and achievements only later. There is a silent comfort around them and vice versa.
Your clients primarily hail from the upper echelons of society – what would you suggest to someone with a limited budget, but who still strives for elegant and beautiful surroundings?
Beauty and harmony does not need vast sums of money. I sometimes wear a jacket from H&M with expensive boots and jeans from Gap. It’s about how you wear it – how you put things together. My homes sport items from Goodwill or flea markets too. It’s not about where it comes from or the price tag, but how you play with things and express yourself as an individual. We all know that labels and expensive things are of no use if you can’t apply them artistically or with panache. So, to aspiring homemakers after style, I would advise questioning the essence behind your dreams and check what gives you joy. When something excites or inspires you, follow the scent. What are you after? What small things can you do each day to get you closer to your goals? Beauty is all around and there is so much of it. Money is but a tool. Style is priceless.
Is the design process the same whether it’s a jet or a palace?
Ultimately yes. The design process is about vision and the end product, something spectacularly beautiful, quietly sophisticated and most of all, very practical and comfortable.
Tell us about Sophie, your beautiful dog.
My constant companion over the past ten years. She travels with me to most locations all around the world except for countries with quarantine restrictions. She’s adored by everyone, fills my life with tenderness, playfulness and unconditional love. One would think I own a Great Dane or Russian Hound, but this little one is as potent and remarkable as any dog could be.
What about Stef Albert, the private man?
I seldom take vacations. Actually, let me clarify that with never. My creative life offers satisfaction and my work is always a combination of work and play. I’ve never worked for anyone and create my own schedule. So, if choose to be alone for a day or a week, I do so. But I’m always connected to my work which is fun and rewarding. Taking time off makes me restless, although it’s then, that creativity boils. Before long, I’m sketching or imagining….Despite constant business trips, I always take time out and live life to the fullest and enjoy the best I can find, from restaurants, spas, beaches, museums, parks, private and quiet places. I love luxury and beauty and it’s my private indulgence. In order to be successful, you must live your passion. It’s not point being stressed, overworked and constantly compromising, if you design the opposite for your clients. I devour biographies, history and my continued education process in culture, aesthetics, fashion and creative subjects at large. I also love to cook and write; all things rooted in beauty and the senses. A healthy body and mind is important and I am committed to daily exercise and meditation. And then there is sleep…lots of it! I tend to go to bed early as I am an early riser and despise pointless conversations, parties and events.
What are your dreams and where do you see yourself in five years?
I’ve worked on many high-profile projects and enjoyed the rewards of one-on-one dynamics. So often I finish a super project which is only enjoyed and used by a fortunate family or small group of people within private or confidential criteria. The time has come for me to take my work out into the world so more people might enjoy and benefit from it. I dream of public spaces and areas frequented and seen by many people around the world. So, my dream is to design superb hotels and resorts, specific retail and museum spaces. I’m currently working on formulating my own brand which encompasses lifestyle. Think of it…. unique hotels that branch into product, fragrance, luggage and travel, music, fashion and all things delicious to the senses. I believe dreams are the very essence of our growing process. My main goal is to uplift, improve and inspire, and with my brand I intend to do just that.