Antonio Martins: A Designer's Vision

Interiors Photographed by Drew Kelly
Portrait by Jeffry Raposas

Born in Lisbon and raised in Rio de Janeiro, a distinct set of variables led Antonio Martins to become a modern nomad. He traversed a range of exotic places, including Switzerland, Hong Kong and Italy — but his story began in his native Portugal. The country’s monumental architectural designs spoke to him as a child, shaping his lifelong design perspective. He calls it “smart design,” and it is timeless in its appeal. 

Establishing his signature style in the corporate world as a manager at Hyatt International for 10 years, relocating to San Francisco to study at Academy of Art University, and later founding his namesake design firm, Martins has always been certain of his vision. He adapts his creativity to each client’s lifestyle, bridging space and function for a cohesive space.

His first design rule, if any, is to find something that conveys stature and personality. He is acutely aware of the feelings that connect people to their space to establish a comfort zone. Modern design is not something Martins rejects; on the contrary, innovative and timeless design is the key to his success.

Combining a background in economics, hands-on learning in the hotel business, and finally interior design, Martins has managed to engulf himself in every facet of his education — academic, corporate and creative — all essential to running a successful firm, as he does today.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Martins about his unique vision of the world:
[SASHA LEON]: Your birth land of Portugal obviously influences your work. Would you say there are elements/aspects of Portuguese “old world culture” in every space you produce?

[ANTONIO MARTINS]: I have influences just from being Portuguese and living there. I was born in Lisbon. [Portugal] was the most powerful country in the 16th century and the amount of stunning architectural structures and buildings is unbelievable. Statues from the 14th century and beyond are still there, and just going through the north of Portugal you can see beautiful country homes — architecture in the countryside — which has greatly inspired me. 

SL: What contributed to you switching from mega-commercial to ultra-private/residential space design?

AM: I moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I always wanted to be a designer. Then I went into the hotel business in Rio, which I loved. And so I stayed 13 years with the company, until the moment I realized I had the financial stability to do what I wanted. I started doing private spaces. In today’s generations, you see more career shifts, more multi-dimensional careers, where people can adapt their skills to more than one job. In the past, people would stay in the same field. Today, unless you are really specialized or committed, you won’t stay in the same area. Once I was told: “Why does your business card say ‘interior designer’? You can design a hotel, but you can also design a business card, a menu, a place. Don’t limit yourself.”

SL: Hotels, restaurants and residences are all very different from each other. How do you separate different design visions into a cohesive portfolio of work? 

AM: I think it comes to two things. One is how your portfolio looks —the format — how you present your portfolio. And the second thing is the content. I can design a Victorian house in San Francisco or a Tuscan-inspired house in Napa Valley, or a shopping mall in Lisbon. If I do a house or a hotel, I don’t think they have to be cohesive with one another in my portfolio as long as I do a good job on each specific assignment. The look of a portfolio has to be consistent in the way you present the pages, how they face each other, the same colors, smart fonts. And then you show that you are versatile, that you can make anything work. It’s how you present the subject.

You can have different content — still consistent — but every page has to be different. I’ve seen magazines with the same house featured three times!
I think that as a student, if you love to do Victorians, do it! But also learn about the modern designs. The more styles you can learn just shows how well versed you are.

SL: How do you balance creativity and function? 

AM: It’s just the experience. Sometimes the function is secondary, but then sometimes you’re in trouble when you execute. We’ve done a beautiful design to a restaurant, for example, and then it’s not operative, and the restaurant closes. 

It’s like designing a dress. You can design a beautiful one, but if it’s stiff and you can hardly walk in it, then what for, right? You have to focus on real life and see if it works functionally. 

SL: Where do you get your inspiration?

AM: Inspiration is everywhere! I believe that it starts, for me, from going out. Just go out to restaurants, museums, and movies. When you watch movies there’s so much stuff that goes on the set. Also, when you travel, you get so much exposure to different things. It’s everywhere — TV, magazines, traveling, the Internet. It’s more about being curious and always looking around.

SL: You collaborate with painters and artists for your interior design projects. How is it working with a group of people? How do you balance your vision with that of others?

AM: Ultimately, in every project, we all have to get right the initial vision. Sometimes everyone gets stuck and sometimes this vision is lost. So it’s very important that there’s one specific person, a conductor, [who] has the vision. Sometimes it’s the architect, the landscaper, the designer or the client. It’s very important that one person keeps everyone on track, otherwise the idea gets lost and everyone starts adding his or her personal taste and opinion and the concept disappears.

SL: What’s the first question for a client?

AM: The first one is really about how they live. Sometimes families are in this precious house and they have kids who want to jump and play all day, so it doesn’t work out. Then I ask what the client likes and dislikes. I go through their inspiration mood board to get a first impression. I ask what colors they like, and what they accept in terms of design — but it’s mainly about their way of life.

SL: Do you recall your favorite professor at Academy of Art University? Any advice or lesson that you still believe has relevance a decade later?

AM: Marlene Farrell. She was great. If you look through the ages, first we were decorators, then designers, then interior designers, and now we want to call ourselves interior architects. Farrell taught me to just enjoy and decorate. Who cares what you are called? Do what you like and just enjoy it!

SL: What is your favorite object at home?

AM: It’s something that has immense meaning to me. It’s actually two candlesticks that my mother bought with her first salary as a nurse. I think meaning is most important for any art or object. Some people like glam luxury, but me, if I had to run away with something from my house — just one thing — it would be the candlesticks. They have so much meaning to me. 

Your living space has to speak to you. That’s my vision.