June 1, 2014

William Sofield: 2004 Hall of Fame Inductee

William Sofield By Don Freeman

Portrait by Don Freeman

William Sofield’s tale is in some ways a classic one. Drawn in the broadest strokes, it begins with a childhood in an East Coast suburb, followed by an Ivy League education. Then, disillusioned with subsequent jobs, Sofield retreated into handiwork, only to emerge-after several more twists and turns of this privileged success story-with a spectacular design career that has helped redefine modern glamour. It seems entirely fitting that Sofield now lives part of the time in a Los Angeles house once owned by the 1920’s film legend Douglas Fairbanks.

Sofield’s ascent to stardom can be attributed to his unerring ability to reinterpret modernism. And he does so with an arresting combination of controlled virtuosity and a flair for the theatrical.

For his most famous projects, a staggering 400 boutiques for Gucci, he deployed a rich palette of rosewood, acrylic, lacquer, stainless steel, and mohair in shifting planes, interlocking platforms, and bold grids, giving dynamic, tactile expression to the modernist vocabulary. Walls of CinemaScope lighting serve to heighten the drama.

Sofield’s work is diverse, ranging from residences and hotels to offices and furniture. But one thing remains constant. “Whether it’s lacquer or Lucite,” he says, “my work is grounded in craft and materiality.”

Born in 1961, Sofield was raised in Metuchen, New Jersey, in a house he has described as “purist, spare.” After receiving a BA in architecture and urban planning from Princeton University, then a Helena Rubenstein Foundation grant through the Whitney Museum of American Art, he moved to New York.

He got his real start in the design world when he found employment consulting for Ralph Lauren. Despite apparent success, though, something was missing, and he took a detour from his chosen career path to spend three years apprenticing with an Italian woodworker on the Upper East Side. In 1992, having learned that trade-and cemented a lifelong respect for craftsmanship-he and fellow Ralph Lauren alum Thomas O’Brien opened

Aero Studios

. The next four years would see the firm set trends and build an impressive roster of clients, including Giorgio Armani, Martha Stewart, fitness guru David Barton, and restaurateur Ken Aretsky.

It was while Sofield was at Aero that he met Tom Ford, whose sexy, lush fashion designs were reviving a once flagging Italian label. The two made a perfect creative match. Not only would Sofield reinvent Gucci’s boutiques around the world, but he would also go on to design stores for Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, and Boucheron after they were acquired by the Gucci Group.

In 1996, Sofield was simultaneously earning accolades for the interior of New York’s SoHo Grand Hotel, which merged his modernist chic with industrial elements drawn from the surrounding neighborhood’s turn-of-the-20th-century manufac- turing buildings. It was also at this time that he left Aero to establish

Studio Sofield

in New York and, soon after, L.A.

Sofield’s own L.A. residence shows off a more flamboyant side, bringing what he calls a “pan-exotic” array of Asian and Near Eastern influences into splendorous harmony with the mission and craftsman styles. His L.A. office projects include the Walt Disney Company and Silver Pictures. In addition, he has continued to attract celebrity clients nationwide-Ralph Lauren, Joel Silver, and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs among them.

Bill Sofield for


, his three-year-old furniture line, is a deco-infused meditation on dark woods. “The collection lets me explore slightly more traditional forms,” Sofield says, pointing to a low table with tusk-shape legs and a butler’s chest with rice-textured gilding. “It’s a nice counterpoint to the modernism I’ve been practicing, and that excites me.”

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