Designer Alexandra Champalimaud has no limits when it comes to flurries of adverbs, adjectives and enthusiastic qualifiers: her husband, banker Bruce Schnitzer, is an ‘phenomenally, fabulously, wonderfully crazy’; summers in Litchfield county where she has not one but two country houses, can be ‘abysmally hot’ and her earlier life in Portugal where she was raised was, ‘beautiful, warm, heavenly’. In England, where she was schooled, her way of talking would be described as plummy and rather posh but she sees herself as European rather than British. Although her life might seem charmed right now, she was un-self pitying about having to flee her ‘heavenly’ Portuguese life after the revolution in 1974, losing her marriage and starting again as a single mother in freezing Montreal.
Did you stumble into designing hotels when you started out? It seems a good match for you.
No it was a choice—a deliberate choice. I was living in Montreal at the time, still terribly young.
Well you had your children there—you had them when you very young.
I was a single mother … that’s it … I feel like I know you. You know everything about me already! I was in Canada because there had been a revolution in my country [Portugal] and so I had to leave with my first husband. It was very traumatic. Eventually [my husband] just couldn’t deal with it and I couldn’t very well either but I stuck at it.
What did you find particularly difficult about it?
Well, you’re a chunk of years younger than I am but everyone traveled a little less than they do today. Going from Portugal and a rather beautiful, warm, heavenly, comfortable life … and you go to forty degrees below zero. And you are definitely poor because everything has been nationalized, so you start taking buses. I got frostbite on my nose. You put your child into a day care center, which I had never done in my life … but this isn’t a sad story. It’s just that’s what makes it hard … if you want to survive you’ve got to just learn it.
Your name is French—was your family originally French?
No, it’s a very old Portuguese name. Apparently I look French and I act French and I do all of this.
What’s ‘acting French’?
I don’t know … European sort of stuff. I’m not grumpy I don’t think.
So when you design for hospitality, what sorts of things come into play? It’s different from residential.
Hopefully there’s a knowledge base that I’ve had sort of from inception, but you also learn it. And then some talent. It’s life experience. Every nuance adds to a sense of people feeling great in the space.
What have you learned about people by designing hotel rooms for them?
I know what makes people happy. Here’s one: if you have ironed sheets, getting into bed is the most extraordinary feeling, of getting into a lovely, clean, fresh, ironed. There isn’t a human being in the universe who doesn’t like this. It’s the same thing with good food. Deliver good food with a smile.
So they’re quite small things, really.
What else needs to be in a hotel room to make me feel good?
To me, light … soft, indirect light and natural light. Well, again natural light is divine but can you always have it? So, gentle light, but light. And a sense of air … space.
How do you get that?
Moving out furniture and taking overstuffed curtains off windows.
Most hotel rooms in the US don’t have windows that even open.
Some of them mostly allow a small window to open about four inches. It has everything to do with whether you can stick a baby’s head through … a lot of our regulations are all to do with safety. I’ve just been in Kenya at a beautiful place called Hippo Point and when I checked the staircase, I was giggling to myself.
Yes, I want to go back to Africa—I grew up in Africa and I read that you once spent a year in a derelict farmhouse in Mozambique.
How interesting that you picked up on that. I was married when I was nineteen, to a beautiful Portuguese man, an aristocrat. But like everybody else in Portugal, he had to do military service overseas. And as you know they had a terrorist war and then that went on to become a civil war. He was mostly at the front. But after he had been there six months there was a telegram saying: Come, I think there is a place that is safe here. It was in Pemba, which is now very chic, which is quite funny.
What did you think of the house?
Oh I was so excited I couldn’t see straight. Because prior to that I had been living in dungy, grungy motel with a bunch of soldiers and we all shared a bathroom, and that I can tell you was positively revolting. But I did this because I wanted to be with my husband. [The house] had these beautiful polished red floors and white walls. I taught English in my spare time. But by twenty-six I was divorced.
That was your first life, I guess.
Yes. It was hard but I had had training. English boarding schools are not a piece of cake.
Where are you happiest?
That’s a damn good question! Can you turn off that … no only kidding. I think I’m happiest right now in Connecticut, believe it or not. I’ve created an amazing spot—we have. I’m very happy. And [my second husband] is an unbelievable man—fun, interesting, loves my children and his daughters seem to like me even though they’re New Yorkers and I’m this European who just showed up and their life changed.