Spend just 10 minutes exploring the interior of a New York apartment building designed by William Sofield ’83 and you’ll be treated to the prolific designer’s intimate attention to detail.
Inside midtown Manhattan at 111 W. 57th St., also known as the Steinway Tower because its base is the former home of the Steinway & Sons piano store and recital hall, the residential skyscraper boasts some of the graceful touches of Sofield, who share stories beyond aesthetics Appeal: Custom gold- and silver-leaf murals in the lobby include images of elephants surrounded by ebony trees emerging from the Central Park Zoo, which Sofield calls an homage to the resources used to make pianos.
Look up and you’ll see four ebony trees and leaves intertwining in a dome acting as a light fixture.
“I see architecture as a series of emotional experiences that engage both mind and body,” Sofield, 62, tells PAW.
A sought-after designer of interiors and exteriors for residential, commercial, hotels, private clubs and fitness clubs, New York-based Studio Sofield has created spaces for brands such as Tom Ford, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Harry Winston and Ralph Lauren. He has also designed residences and commercial projects for Tom Ford himself and celebrity couple Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos. He has worked on projects in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and in countries such as China, Germany, Switzerland, Indonesia and Spain.
“I learned that luxury has nothing to do with cashmere and 24-karat gold, but what people like to touch and feel and how I can bring that connection into design.”
— William Sofield ’83
Sofield is adamant that the design of the building should not only appeal to those inside the site, but to those outside as well. In the Steinway Tower building, Sofield added engravings to the exterior showing branches being grasped by animals such as owls, dragonflies and partridges. “Buildings also have a civic responsibility, and I added the sculptures because I knew there was a bus stop near the entrance to the building where people would stop and be able to look at this piece,” Sofield says.
He did the engraving himself, a skill he honed when he apprenticed with an Italian miller on the Upper East Side after graduation. “My academic education did not include an understanding of the craft of design. I wanted to focus on craft specialization because a lot of technical knowledge was disappearing quickly because rents in New York were going so high at the time that many craftsmen had to close their shops,” he recalls.
Growing up in Metuchen, New Jersey, 5-year-old Sofield was fascinated by home design. He busied himself sketching blueprints of “homes that looked like they were from The Jetsonsthen I would also sketch places that are neo-gothic.’
While at Princeton, Sofield enjoyed not only the architectural history courses and inspiring professors like the late William Schellman *41, but also the look of the campus. “It was a romantic and bucolic time there and I remember an impromptu party at Prospect House where people brought candles to fill a massive cedar of Lebanon with lanterns,” he says. “There was an old part of the Art Museum that stylistically bridged Romanesque and Collegiate Gothic architecture, and it’s a shame it’s no longer there.”
After starting a design studio with a partner, Sofield sought his own direction and started Studio Sofield in 1996.
On his design philosophy, Sofield says, “I want my work to have an impact on people, and I try not to do what other people are doing. I learned that luxury has nothing to do with cashmere and 24-carat gold, but what people like to touch and feel and how I can bring that connection into design.”
Drawing inspiration more from the outside than from the design community, Sofield is known for taking meandering walks in cities like Tokyo and London to take in how pedestrians interact with outdoor spaces. Not every traveler will buy into a plan directly, but they help feed their appreciation of both art and history. As he says, “going down a very controlled and planned path is not interesting to me as an artist.”