Duos: Krista Ninivaggi and Matthew Stephenson on the Importance of Holistic Design

Krista Ninivaggi and Matthew Stephenson.

Having recently integrated Principal and Interior Design Leader Krista Ninivaggi and her esteemed interior design practice, K&CO, into the studio, Woods Bagot New York is more proficient than ever at delivering comprehensive design solutions at multiple scales. 

Reflecting on this, Principal Matthew Stephenson and Krista took a moment to discuss the significance of designing from the outside in and how this approach benefits clients through efficiency and direction, and end users through coherent environments. Their conversation outlines how they collaborate to create holistic designs from start to finish, what they enjoy the most about the process, and what opportunities they see for design in New York in the coming years.   

Why is it important to integrate the interior of a project with its exterior and vice versa?

Krista: Cohesion is the obvious answer but, more than that, a true commitment to the integration of architecture and interior design is about achieving a better result overall. Historically speaking it has been more common for developers to ask for separate interior design and architecture proposals – like the interiors of a hotel being designed separately from the design of the building itself – but better results happen when those teams are collaborative.

Disconnection is a problem running rampant in the design world, and we need to create more opportunities for the poetry that happens when the form and materiality of a project is continued throughout. From building to doorknob to chair, having a sense of continuity creates a result that feels right. At Woods Bagot New York, we’re able to offer the kind of integration that creates spaces that instill a sense of belonging – where there’s no hard line between interior and exterior.

Matt: When you segregate the interior scope from the architectural you create a one-sided conversation, which is nowhere near as rewarding. At the end of the day, it’s just the one design experienced by users as a whole, so it makes more sense for any project to be considered as a whole from the start rather than two halves. Design from the inside out and you have something special.

Woods Bagot’s first tower in North America, The Amberly, resides at the intersection of New York’s fastest growing neighborhoods: Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO and Downtown Brooklyn.

Woods Bagot completed the interior and architectural design of the project.

How does an integrated result effect the end user? How does it effect a city? 

Matt: An integrated design has a character that resonates with those that use it, therefore contributing to a city by way of enriching its very identity. Holistic designs are more robust and feel three dimensional rather than flat – which can be an unwelcome side effect of a disconnected design because of the way that ideas and identity can be diluted through lack of communication and commitment to a clear vision.  

When interior designers and architects get together to really, deeply understand how a space will be used and by who it yields a result that fits the setting.  

Krista: A building that has been designed under a fully integrated vision has landmark potential, creating a chance to inspire future generations.  

When you really stop to consider it, designing for a city and designing for the end user are one and the same – if your building is IN a neighborhood, then you should design FOR the neighborhood. I think the magic happens when designers get together to cater to an inspirational vision that applies to a target group. In those cases, I’d argue that it’s okay for designers to have heavy hand and really double down on committing to a result that’s tailored to the specific needs and wants of the group they’re creating a space for – really understanding the impact that it might have on future generations.  

Krista and Matthew at Woods Bagot’s Over/Under Kiosk, New York.

What are your predictions for new design in New York over the next 2-5 years? 

Matt: I think we’ll see existing spaces reimagined for new purposes and functions in order to reflect the city’s evolving needs. Over the next 2-5 years, ‘new’ in New York City is more likely to allude to new functions rather than entirely new buildings (for which there’s not a whole lot of space) – I think we’ll see our city move into a period of updates and improvements that build upon its existing fabric in order to best serve the way we live, work and play across the five boroughs.  

Rather than pursuing what’s ‘new’, I’m very interested in the notion and maintenance of ‘character’. Reimagining spaces requires an understanding of what to keep, so I’d argue that good design is as much about understanding what’s already great about a space as it is about identifying what new elements need to be added. Generally speaking, this approach is more sustainable – both environmentally and economically – if done correctly.  

I’m very proud of Culture Space and IMG’s Hall des Lumieres. Located on the first floor of the former Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank building, a 15-story tower at 49-51 Chambers Street that Woods Bagot have also worked to update with a residential offering, Hall des Lumieres is a digital art museum that will open its program with ‘Gustav Klimt: Gold in Motion’ – a multi-sensory celebration of Klimt’s most iconic work reinterpreted with cutting-edge mapping technology.  

During the space’s significant restoration, the Woods Bagot team paid meticulous care and attention to the task of bringing luster back to the exquisite marble, classic brass & stained glass of this former 1912 Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank. We’re restoring the space in Tribeca for the next generation of art-lovers to enjoy for years to come, but also adding in much needed alterations like a ticketing area and space for the necessary audiovisual equipment – weaving in the building’s character has been very important to us.  

Krista: Rapid convergence. Historically speaking, design and designers often get separated into sectors or specialties – workplace, residential, retail, health, hotel, hospitality and so on. Lately there’s been a logical move to cross-sector work, or sector blur, that’s seen residential design take cues from workplace, workplace take inspiration from hospitality, health spaces take elements from hotel design and more.  

In New York and beyond, we’re working differently, living with renewed priorities and approaching our recreational time in different ways. As a reflection, new design in the city pushes the boundaries of what’s expected – rapidly creating a convergence of the expected and unexpected. We’re seeing tech offices that look like apartments, hospitals wards that look like hotels and café’s that draw on key elements of a home. The next 2-5 years will see very creative, unexpected design that pushes the current ideas about typology in design.  

Culture Space and IMG’s Hall des Lumieres (Photography by John Pampoukidis).

Marble and brass details on site (Photography by John Pampoukidis).

“New design in the city pushes the boundaries of what’s expected – rapidly creating a convergence of the expected and unexpected.”

Do you think interior design and architecture have more differences or more similarities? 

Krista: They’re more similar, any difference is just a matter of detail. A comparison of the two really just comes down to scale because architecture typically operates on a larger scale to interior design. As a result, the experience of interacting with architecture encourages you to look while interaction with an interior elicits touch – two very different experiences that boil down to perspective, proximity and scale. It’s experiencing space versus space to experience.  

Matt: They’re so similar! Practitioners of both disciplines are experts solving problems, but – like Krista said – the key difference between the two is that they solve problems at different scales. Working with an interior designer is to work with an expert in space, warmth, tactility and the 1:1 encounter, all things that greatly benefit my role as an architect. When Woods Bagot is awarded an integrated opportunity where interior design and architecture teams can work together, we’re able to overlap our expertise and experience in a natural fashion – creating a cohesive result from the inside out.

D.S. & DURGA Williamsburg – the premier fragrance house’s Brooklyn retail location designed by K&CO in association with Woods Bagot, Kavi Ahuja Moltz and Pilskin Architecture.