As design director for Studio Sofield, a residential, retail, and product design firm, Alberto Vélez works on spaces intended to make people swoon. Under owner William Sofield, the firm has created store interiors for Gucci and the penthouse in the Soho Grand Hotel in Manhattan—settings for movie stars and other discerning visitors accustomed to a high fashion quotient. For Vélez, who specializes in furniture, that means custom work with fine detailing. On recent projects, he’s designed sofas shaped to reflect the contours of a room, and intricate circular staircases. “Those stairs are faceted, they’re not completely round,” he says, pointing out what is not apparent to the untrained eye. Proportions must be precise, and wit is sometimes appreciated—witness his “twig table,” a smoked glass disk with a metal base cast to look like intertwining branches, created for Sofield’s line with Baker Furniture.
The new Tom Ford flagship store on Madison Avenue was perhaps the epitome of a chic design challenge. The 8,680-square-foot space had to be luxurious and modern, the antithesis of the gritty old-world bespoke shop. “The idea was to create a very masculine look,” Vélez explains. To showcase Ford’s suits, Vélez created austere glass wardrobes, inspired by the only architecture design executed by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Vélez says, “The building reflects Wittgenstein’s writings on the balance between functionalism and elegance. The windows have a vertical orientation, but the glass panes are divided vertically to create a slim, elegant rhythm. The display cases are inspired by these windows. They each have 12 or more layers of paint, simulating old, repainted steel.”
In person, Vélez is as down-to-earth as his work is rarefied. His career isn’t all high-end assignments like the private screening room he designed for a Hollywood producer. He created a crib for his daughter, Matilde. “We were in a one-bedroom, and the cribs we found were all ‘Cadillacs,’” he says. He also teaches Interior Design studio classes at FIT. The most important lessons for students? “One, a great idea comes from exploring ten or 20. I want to see a lot of investigations and studies in sketch form,” he says. “Two, this is a profession of context: fabrics and furniture need to be looked at against their intended surroundings and concept. You must be able to give up things you love if they are not appropriate for the environment you have been asked to create.”