No other designer has been as personally influential on my style in the past two years as Noa Santos. His rooms are so upscale, so grand, yet so relaxing to look at and be in that they capture perfectly how I want to decorate at the moment.
Based in New York, and the founder of the design studio NAINOA, he works on projects around the world. He sets the interior design trends I most want to follow, characerized by a use of stone, plaster and other soft and natural textures.
His aesthetic could be called luxe minimalism, and his emphasis is on creating homes that feel luxurious yet relaxing, and using a blend of opulent materials with more affordable decor - I asked him to explain exactly how he does it.
On creating a luxe space to relax in
Pip Rich: I’m very excited by how many times I spotted the phrase ‘Coming Soon’ on the projects section of your website next to teaser images, as I always get so inspired by your work. You alway have such a wonderful rhythm in interior design, and you set architectural trends and moods. What moods and materials can we expect to see next?
Noa Santos: Thank you! There’s a huge trend post-Covid for homes that also function as retreats, and our work has a spa-like quality to it I think. We use lots of natural stones and plasters, unintentionally developing this style that seems to resonate with people wanting a place they can go home to and feel calmed.
PR: I’m so glad to hear that this your intention, as I was going to say that for all the grandness in your work, all the luxe stone and architectural statements, you always create spaces that seem soothing. I find it a little like Brigette Romanek’s schemes - who I also love - smart, but in a shoes-off kind of way.
NS: That’s right! Interiors need to not feel ostentatious, and Iuxury is being redefined. You don’t want to feel like you’re in a museum, you want to be comfortable, and have a house that works for the way you live. Just like in fashion, gone are the days when you might be decked out in labels head to toe, and now it’s about the high/low mentality as overspending doesn’t feel chic.
On mixing affordable pieces into a high end scheme
PR: Interestingly, when I look at your rooms I can never see any evidence of the lower end - everything always looks fabulously expensive.
NS: The secret is how you pair it, making sure each room has three or four statements to catch someone’s eye, but everything else needs to fade into the background. We did a dining room where the wallpaper was a wonderful de Gournay mural but the chairs were from cb2. I mean, look, when you have kids or you drink red wine or coffee you don’t want to be worrying about every surface - you want a table you can put things down on and knock into and not be stressing about. Every home needs a corner to flop down into. If everything in your home is precious you're constantly holding your breath - design needs the mix of an inhale and exhale, the balance of the fabulous and the functional.
On which materials feel most spa-like
PR: What materials and colors would you say fit with your spa vibe, but also wear very well?
NS: Taj Mahal quartzite. It still looks beautiful after plenty of wear, and means you don’t have to always be policing the use of coasters. I also like silver travertine, and we’re using a lot of limewash. It has the same softness and subtleties as Venetian plaster, but if Venetian plaster cracks you have to replace the whole thing. Limewash can easily be touched up, which is so refreshing from a design point of view. As is Tadelakt in a wet room. Imagine all that time saved from not having to scrub grouting clean! Colorwise, we work with a lot of natural shades like ivory and beige, which feel more long lasting than jewel tones. Though I do love blue stone and a green marble called Guatemala Verde. It’s so dramatic.
On how to give a room drama
PR: A lot of your projects centre around a big architectural statements, like a vast concrete staircase or fulsome pillars. At what point do you fold them into the design?
NS: I always start with the constraints of a room. Perhaps it’s the ceiling height, or a weird closet, or a window that is off-centre and I decide how to work with it instead of against it. In one gesture you take the most challenging aspect and get it right turning it into something unique.
On how to start a project off for success
PR: Is that how you would advise anyone taking on a project, or looking to refresh their decor? To really study the shape of the room first?
NS: Absolutely. Use your phone as a tool - pretend like you’re a photographer and just look at the space through the lens. What is feeling unbalanced? What is unfinished? And go from there. It’s helpful to analyse those photos - design can be enjoyed in smaller gestures and you can start with just a corner of your house. What I love about design is that it isn’t stagnant, it grows as you do. Our lives are evolving and our spaces should feel complete but never finished. Shift furniture around. Decorating is a muscle, and you have to engage that muscle frequently. If you do that, you can understand what the space needs to be, how you want to live, and who you really are.
The editor of Livingetc, Pip Rich (formerly Pip McCormac) is a lifestyle journalist of almost 20 years experience working for some of the UK's biggest titles. As well as holding staff positions at Sunday Times Style, Red and Grazia he has written for the Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times and ES Magazine. The host of Livingetc's podcast Home Truths, Pip has also published three books - his most recent, A New Leaf, was released in December 2021 and is about the homes of architects who have filled their spaces with houseplants. He has recently moved out of London - and a home that ELLE Decoration called one of the ten best small spaces in the world - to start a new renovation project in Somerset.
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