April 6, 2016

10 Questions With… Elina Cardet

Elina Cardet’s resume reads much like a novel. Over the past 20 years, the architectural designer, who joined Perkins+Will last summer as interior design director of its Miami office, has worked in practically every sector of the design industry, including civic, cultural, hospitality, residential, educational, and retail. So she’s not shy about switching gears from one “chapter” to the next.

Here, Cardet discusses why her next project is always the greatest, the importance of collaborating with clients, and how she knew she wanted to be an architect at the young age of 13.

Interior Design: What was the first project you worked on that made you realize that a career in architecture was right for you?

Elina Cardet: It wasn’t a work project but rather a school project in eighth grade descriptive geometry that involved learning how to draft using a compass and a pencil. I loved those exercises, and up until then I wanted to be either a doctor or an artist. My teacher said that I really had an ability to do geometry precisely, and that I should consider [a career in] architecture. My dad is an engineer, so he took me to one of his colleagues, architect Thomas Marvel, who had been practicing in Puerto Rico, and I started an internship with him that summer. At 13, I knew this was going to be my life.

ID: Your work can be found in many different sectors, including hospitality, residential, commercial, civic, and healthcare. What’s it like being a jack-of-all-trades?

EC: I don’t consider myself a jack-of-all-trades. It’s more that I’m very curious and a generalist and I’ve had the opportunity to be exposed to different aspects of the practice but in a very focused way, almost like chapters. But it’s also been a multi-disciplinary approach, and with each new chapter I bring new ways of thinking about design. In the end, I try to bring a fresh approach every time I start a project for a different sector. For example, right now I’m diving into healthcare, science, and technology. Those areas are new to me, so I’m looking at them in slightly different ways. Of course, I’m partnering with my colleagues who are expert medical planners. But I bring to the table a different take on how to approach them.

ID: What would you say has been your greatest achievement thus far in your career?

EC: The next project is always the greatest because it has the most potential to build in terms of your accomplishment.

ID: What’s the first thing you do when you start a new project?

EC: The other day I was having a conversation about a startup project and how emotion plays a big role in the initial impetus of a project. At Perkins + Will, we believe in design being transformational, and that initial state of the project is when we really get immersed in the client’s program. That’s also when the opportunity comes up to explore how to elevate the program for the client, transform it, and consider how we can address wellbeing in terms of function of the design. This is when brainstorming happens, and it just goes on from there. All the possibilities are just raw in the beginning.

ID: You’ve worked on retail projects ranging from Vera Wang boutiques to the Mercedes-Benz showroom in Coral Gables, Florida. How do you ensure a space feels authentic to your client’s brand, but also includes your vision?

EC: Authenticity is a key word right now. Most brands are seeking new ways to represent themselves in an authentic way. Eight years ago, Vera Wang was trying to define her brand with her new environmentally friendly ready-to-wear line, so she had a clear vision of what the line was about. It was a wonderful opportunity to articulate how the environment could be this white-box idea to showcase her ever-changing collection. But it was a process of discovery, too.

On the other side of things, Mercedes-Benz has the longevity of the brand in terms of the performance of the product and the experience of the customer, so they too have a clear sense of what the brand is and how it should be articulated. So where [our firm] came into play is how to take that vision and articulate the brand by adding site-specific details that deal with local parameters and culture, and how those two things evolve. But it’s a much more subtle evolution.

For me, retail design is fascinating because it’s similar to theater design. Each brand is like a play and you design a scene for it. The client knows how the brand should be expressed. Or, if they’re trying to figure it out, that’s when there’s more opportunity for a design vision. The clearer they are about who they are, the stronger the design can be.

ID: You received the Aveda Global Stewardship Award when you were the design director of Aveda. Why, now more than ever, is sustainability such an important part of the design industry?

EC: What is amazing about today is the awareness [of sustainability] within the industry is incredible. Almost everybody is aware of the issues and how our industry impacts the planet. We’re responsible at all levels for all that we’re doing. We’ve had so much incredible progress, but there’s still much work to be done.

ID: What are your clients asking for now more than ever?

EC: Clients, in my view, are very sophisticated these days, and they understand how design can be a tool to engage their workforce, their customers, and the community. It’s a way to create a very unique point of view. Clients are asking for ways design can help elevate the user experience. It’s such a great time, since we’re not doing as much education on why good design is a priority.

ID: What are some of the most challenging and inspiring elements of your current projects?

EC: In schools, doing passive security is challenging, but also designing civic spaces where the government wants to make it open to the community, but also keep security concerns in mind. The question is this: How do you create an environment that is both welcoming and secure?

Another challenge we’re seeing is the issue of healthy buildings. It’s such a complex issue, and we’re trying to educate the client in that sense.

ID: What would your dream project be?

EC: Right now I’m enjoying working on a mixed-use project that’s a civic center with a theater, middle school, and office tower. I’m finding it inspiring because there are so many components to it. I would also one day love to design a holistic spa resort.

ID: What is your design style at home?

EC: We just moved to Miami and love my new home, which was built in 1952. I gutted it and completely redid the flow by opening it up, exposing the ceiling joists, and painting everything white. My husband is an artist, so we have his artwork hanging on the walls. I also have several custom-designed pieces, including a dining room table for 12 I’m working on with my neighbor, a retired carpenter. My home is a combination of clean, modern shapes with a little tropical flavor, but it’s also very open like a New York City loft, which is how I lived for the past 26 years.

Photography courtesy of Perkins+Will.

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