10 Questions With... Ámbar Margarida

For Ámbar Margarida, principal at the global architecture and interiors firm Spacesmith, making design more accessible to all is a mainstay of her career. Margardia, who won the HiP Greater Good: Large Firm award at this year's virtual HiP People awards ceremony, leads the design of humane and uplifting urban environments at the firm, creating environments for some of the most vulnerable and underrepresented communities, such as the homeless, the previously incarcerated, and children in the foster care system.

Margarida, who grew up in Puerto Rico, draws on psychology often in her work, taking into account wellness and sustainable design principles when starting a new project. The designer, who also is a faculty member at Manhattan's School of Visual Arts, has reimagined spaces for organizations such as the New York Legal Assistance Group, the QueensEconomic Development Corporation and SCO Family of Services and has helped minority-owned businesses safely resume operations given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to teaching and her work at Spacesmith, Margarida also is a founding member of the Latino American Commercial Real Estate Association, where she advocates for Hispanic members of the commercial real estate industry. 

Here, she shares with Interior Design the beginnings of her fascination with design, strategies for incorporating biophilic elements, and how she resets with the meditative ritual of forest bathing. 

Ámbar Margarida was the lead interior designer for this Dattner Architects-designed LEED v4 Gold certified multifamily residential complex—Halletts Point Building 10, located in Astoria, Queens. The complex includes 400 apartments of which 81 are designated affordable. Photography courtesy of Spacesmith LLP. 

Interior Design: How did you become interested in creating spaces with health and wellness at the forefront?

Ámbar Margarida: It has grown in me over time. I firmly believe that space is a silent partner in our lives. And places where we work, play, and relax profoundly impact the way we feel psychologically and physically.

In design school, my favorite classes were in the area of environmental sustainability. My thesis project was an eco-house in Puerto Rico, a sort of oasis starting in a place where nature envelopes your life. When I moved to New York, drawn by the design scene, life suddenly was all about being indoors, so interiors become very important. This experience ignited in me a growing curiosity about how being indoors would affect how your body and mind feel. 

The Danish concept of hygge guided the interior design throughout Halletts Point Building 10 with the use of warm color palettes, natural materials, and muted textures. Photography courtesy of Spacesmith LLP. 

ID: What are some surprising ways you’ve incorporated biophilic design into projects?

AM: One of the fascinating ideas is how biophilia can be reflected in spatial organization and other ways, beyond the incorporation of living things into the built environment. One example is a project in Mexico City we’ve worked on with Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Davis Brody Bond Architects, which is organized around around half dozen, accessible interior courtyards of varying sizes. We’ve also used unexpected wallpaper in the cellar level of a training space for a client. You walk into this space and the bright white, wood grain and big leaf philodendron pattern on the walls, brighten what is in actuality, a basement, with low ceilings and no natural light. A guiding principle in our workplace design are the biophilic concepts of prospect and refuge. Prospect is an unimpeded view over a distance. Refuge is a place for withdrawal, from environmental conditions or the main flow of activity, in which the individual is protected from behind and overhead. We begin space planning with these principles in mind and you will find that the spaces that are most used in any space end up being the ones that apply these concepts successfully.

ID: What are some of your earliest memories of design?

AM: I love this question. My early life around design came in different shapes and forms during my childhood in Puerto Rico. My dad was in advertising and had clients like Goya, and my mom had her own jewelry business, which she operated out of a studio space in our house. Both were involved in design, including graphic and product design. I think my mom’s work, creating jewelry for wholesale clients and fashion shows, really had an effect on me. I remember watching and absorbing the iterative design and fabrication process, defining what was tasteful and beautiful (in the 80s!), and the drawers filled with Swarovski crystals and stones, the model fittings and the creativity of it all. 

Spacesmith is the main design consultant for the nonprofit SCO Family of Services, the largest human services provider in New York offering foster care, residential care, care management, education, and family support services. Photography courtesy of Spacesmith LLP. 

ID: What experiences shaped your interest in helping vulnerable communities? 

AM: This also strikes me today as logic, a common-sense idea. It’s also something that my parents taught me: Mom and I often have conversations about inequity and inequality, what it means to be disadvantaged or an outcast and how institutions and systems contribute to or interrupt inequity.

We don’t have equal access in this world, and I think—as many at Spacesmith do—that everyone should have access to good design. That should be universal. I’m drawn to learning about the problems people face and helping people solve those problems, so ultimately I’d rather work on a clinic space for children and families in foster care as opposed to a museum for Renaissance paintings. Now, if the museum is telling the story of American Latinos, that's really interesting to me! That’s just where my interests lie and where my heart goes.

ID: Can you describe your psychology-driven design approach, particularly given your work creating spaces for trauma survivors?

AM: Our trauma-informed design approach is valuable for our clients such as New York Legal Assistance Group, NYLAG, where the talented lawyers are working with people who have survived trauma or are under great stress, or both. For example, one client may be in the process of being evicted, which is traumatic and why they need a lawyer. So we know from clinical research that environments directly impact our physical and psychological wellbeing: Using well thought out, evidence-based design, interiors can reduce stress and address many of the negative impacts on our bodies.

For example, we recommend simple, linear, easy-to-navigate spaces with good sightlines. It’s important to reduce clutter and ambient noise, too. Even furniture placement, as shown in studies by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, can be confrontational—such as people sitting across from each other—or collaborative, by providing side-by-side arrangements instead. Similarly, people often choose to sit or stand in spaces where their back is to the wall, and they have clear sightlines of what is around them. It’s human nature to prefer spaces where you can see the lay of the land—place to “prospect,” which goes back to our primordial origins—and places where you can take refuge. An example is an intake room, where you explain to NYLAG why you need a lawyer. This should feel like refuge—protected and safe. 

A mix of bright and soothing hues create a welcoming environment throughout the SCO Family of Services office. Photography courtesy of Spacesmith LLP. 

ID: I understand you’re helping minority-owned business create safe plans to reopen, what are some recommendations you’ve made?

AM: My favorite recent example is the Queens Economic Development Corporation, a group that supports small businesses. For coping with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we worked on two sets of guidelines: one for small offices and one for retail stores, which the QEDC provides to help their members safely reopen. We worked on a series of webinars and created written and graphic documentation to support the guidelines. For the retail businesses, we offered guidance on spacing of merchandise and customers, air filtration and the basics of air purifiers, and how to organize displays and merchandise, such as moving frequently requested items closer to the entry area or even outdoors to limit exposures and improve the customer experience.

ID: What role has mentorship played in your career and who do you admire? 

AM: Of course, Jane Smith, FAIA has been a huge influence. She has mentored my career as a designer, a student and as a design educator. At the School of Visual Arts, Jane was the new chair of the Interior Design Department and I was in my second year, and that’s when our relationship began. Later I interned at Spacesmith and two other places, and in 2009 I finally started working at Spacesmith again, and it was a wonderful fit. Along the way, Jane has taught me so much about how to run a design business.

Another important design mentor has been architect Elisabeth Post-Marner (AIA, LEED AP), who has been a colleague at Spacesmith for a few years. She just built her own house using passive-design principles, though she is best known for 30 years of award-winning corporate interiors, alternate workplace strategies to enhance client productivity, and gorgeous headquarters.

New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) provides free civil legal services to New Yorkers who cannot afford a private attorney. Spacesmith, with Ámbar Margarida in the role of lead interior designer, is currently developing two floors to accommodate approximately 312 staff and 65 seasonal interns.  Photography courtesy of Spacesmith LLP. 

ID: Where do you often find inspiration, especially given our extended time at home? 

AM: Inspiration strikes when you’re not looking for it. During the quarantine, I’ve picked up tennis, turned a patch of weeds into a gorgeous garden in Brooklyn, lots of cooking, and continued to hone in my pilates practice. I also think inspiration comes when you have a problem to solve and you aren’t thinking about it in the moment. I’ve been reading a lot—about environmental psychology, racism, tyranny, and plants.

ID: How did you discover the practice of forest bathing? 

AM: There is a practice in Japan I learned about, shinrin-yoku, believed to reduce stress and promote wellbeing. It involves walking slowly, mindfully, and absorbing the surrounding nature and trees as you’re walking. It’s almost a form of therapy, some call it mindful walking. I learned about forest bathing through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where I'm taking horticulture classes.

New York Legal Assistance Group features a communicable staircase to directly link the two floors. Photography courtesy of Spacesmith LLP. 

ID: What advice would you give designers starting their careers during these very unusual times?

AM: Take advantage of this highly unusual time where everything is taking place online. Attend as many webinars as you can. Get connected with organizations that are inspirational or that you want to know more about. The AIA has been hosting incredible panels and lectures. This month I've attended lectures about designing for aging populations, and another on cooperative housing in Berlin. These were presented by experts who might have been behind closed doors, or in different countries, and now they are a link and a click away. It’s absolutely fantastic.

If you are a new hire in a firm, spend some time, every week, building social capital and relationships within your firm. Meet with as many of your colleagues as possible. Ask people for a quick coffee chat via video (face-to-face, cameras on is always best), and get to know others. Finally, continue learning, seeking knowledge and developing critical thinking skills.

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