10 Questions With… Sara Duffy of Stonehill Taylor

When we last met up with Sara Duffy, she was coming off a high. A Stonehill Taylor principal, she was instrumental in the interior design of one of New York’s most highly visible and talked about projects in years. That would be the TWA Hotel, transformation of Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, in collaboration with Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, INC Architecture & Design, and Lubrano Ciavarra Architects.

A New York native who grew up just blocks from the Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side, Duffy was destined to be a creative. Her mother was a high-end residential designer, her father a writer. She came to design, however, via a circuitous route, starting out in television at MTV. There, animation led to a liaison between the consumer products division and the graphics department. Then came MTV’s first store—Duffy’s “aha moment” for a design career. She was involved in choosing the architect, reviewing drawings, and participating in site walkthroughs. All a natural lead up to enrollment in the Fashion Institute of Technology. A prestigious internship at Rockwell Group ensued, turning into a full-time job upon graduation. In 2008, she joined Stonehill Taylor where her hotel credits include the Renaissance, New York; JW Marriott, Nashville; and The Eliza Jane, New Orleans.

The TWA Hotel pays tribute to a bygone era of air travel. Photography courtesy of Stonehill Taylor. 

Interior Design: The world is a new place, and who knows how the new normal may evolve. What are you doing now to stay busy, creative, and connected to colleagues, clients, and potential clients?

Sara Duffy: Fortunately, Stonehill Taylor has continued to move forward with existing projects, and we’re finding ways to be even more efficient. I have numerous calls throughout the week to stay connected to my team, making sure that everyone is staying on top of deadlines and has the resources they need. With clients and potential clients, I’ve been reaching out personally to make sure they know I am fully available. In ways, our creativity has been augmented. While working from home, we’re spending a lot of time on our computers, so focusing on the creative aspect of the design process gives a welcome break.

ID: What are learning from this personally and professionally?

SD: The silver lining has been having more time with my family. To take advantage of the extra time I can have with my daughters, I’m prioritizing being thorough and efficient in my work. I’ve been more productive than ever.

Many light fixtures illuminate the ceiling, like a sky of stars, in the JW Marriott, Nashville. Photography courtesy of Stonehill Taylor. 

ID: Particular challenges and solutions you can share?

SD: Our greatest challenge during this time is the ability to review and select materials. We have a fantastic library in our office and if we didn’t have something available, it was easy to meet with a vendor or have a variety of samples delivered right to our desk [think Material Bank]. Now, it’s a more cumbersome process of sending samples not only to our teams’ homes, but to each of the clients’ teams and to consultants. Before sending to the client, we typically have a video call to review samples internally. While the process takes more time, it ensures everything is vetted and approved.

The reception area in the JW Marriott, Nashville. Photography courtesy of Stonehill Taylor. 

ID: Let’s talk about travel. As a hospitality specialist, how do you see things opening in both business and recreational arenas?

SD: As the world begins to open back up, travel will also make a comeback as people seek ways to recharge. Travelers will opt for destinations perceived as safer and more affordable, meaning those reachable by driving or even spaces in their own communities. This will build a strong foundation for regional hospitality. Business travel will follow this trend. Companies and institutions will likely choose to keep conferences and larger meetings closer to home.

An installation nearly mades invisible a staircase in the Renaissance, New York. Photography courtesy of Stonehill Taylor. 

ID: What can designers do to enhance the hospitality experience when travel does resume?

SD: Travel in its essence is about being adaptable and experiencing something new. As we confront this pandemic, design-world responses will seek to foster connections among people—amid a new awareness of physical distancing—and usher in a return to old-fashioned values and practices. Take, for example, the art of letter-writing. It can be incorporated into a design feature, such as a decorative wall of hand-written notes encouraging guests to communicate with each other while also practicing safe distancing protocols.

An emphasis on health and well-being will take center stage.  Perhaps with the use of materials like copper that promotes wellness or a thoughtful regard for light and air circulation. There will be a welcomed return to nature. Sometimes that will be literal in the sense of locale or more representative in the sense of greenery, open spaces, and inspired art. There will be a heightened observance of sustainability practices.

A suite in the Renaissance, New York features vibrant colors and floor-to-ceiling windows. Photography courtesy of Stonehill Taylor. 

ID: What were you working on before the pandemic hit?

SD: Renovation of the historic Algonquin Hotel in New York; a new, mixed-use project in Denver; and a few others that we have on the boards for 2020.

ID: Is Stonehill Taylor planning to concentrate efforts on other project types now?

SD: Our focus and expertise remain on hospitality, and we continue to expand with a new focus on international projects. With the appointment of Mark Hayes, who spent decades working in southeast Asia, to our executive team, we have some exciting things on the horizon. One thing you might not know is Stonehill Taylor has a strong track record in healthcare and educational institutions. Our ability to cross-pollinate positions us to build safer and healthier hospitality projects.

Duffy and her daughter, Ella, in Barcelona. Photography courtesy of Sara Duffy. 

ID: Speaking of travel, you lived in Barcelona for a year with your husband and daughter. How did this come about? Tell us about the experience.

SD: When my husband and I first met, I told him I was going to move to Spain. Then we fell in love, got married, and pregnant. Shortly after having my daughter, my husband said we should actually do what we talked about—move overseas. While in Barcelona, I took care of our year-old Ella, allowing me to have a unique experience. She was a ball of energy and needed to be outside constantly interacting with people. As a result, I had the opportunity not only to explore the city, but also meet and connect with the community. This was from 2005 to 2006.

 The Eliza Jane, New Orleans, features exposed brick, jewel tone hues, and artful details. Photography courtesy of Stonehill Taylor. 

ID: Favorite little-known places there?

SD: My favorite is the Barcelona Cathedral Cloister, where they keep 13 white geese. Another was the bakery-coffee shop in the lobby of our building. A typical day started with taking my daughter to one of the incredible food markets—think the famous Mercado de La Boqueria. Tasting the local foods, we were greeted by all of vendors, and Ella was the star. After the markets, we would head to the park, go home to make a big lunch, rest, and eventually head back out into the city. It was amazing.

A guest room in The Eliza Jane, New Orleans, takes on the appearance of a chic studio apartment. Photography courtesy of Stonehill Taylor. 

ID: How’s your Spanish?

SD: It was really good. These days—no bueno.

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