As a world-renowned, award-winning tennis player, Venus Williams is a household name, but not necessarily one associated with the design world. However, as her design firm, V Starr Interiors, continues to grow and take on higher-profile projects, Williams is becoming known as not only a champion of the tennis court, but of hospitality design, as well.
Interestingly enough, Williams’ interest in design began at a young age, with an eye on interiors since her childhood. With that, it was a natural progression to head up V Starr and EleVen by Venus, her recently launched line of active wear. “I was always interested in fashion and design when I was young,” she reflected. “I would read my mom’s [design] magazines; she was the creative force in our family… I was [also] taught to have an entrepreneurial spirit. My dad taught us to work for ourselves. I grew up in a different environment than most children. [Design was a] natural step; it’s about finding what you love and you go with it. That came from infancy.”
With Williams’ passion for starting a venture that could seemingly last longer than her career as a professional athlete, V Starr was founded in 2002. “As we all know, there is an end to being an athlete; you have a timeframe,” explained Sonya Haffey, design director for V Starr, who works closely with Williams. “[Design] is really a passion of hers, and at first she was residentially focused locally in the Palm Beach, Fla., area. I joined Venus in 2009 and that’s when I helped her transition the company, going straight from residential into commercial.”
A Focus in the Market
The move to commercial design seemed natural for Williams, as did her focus on hospitality work. Staying in countless hotels over the years as she traveled for her tennis career, she started to take notice of the details of the interiors in which she stayed. “I spend a tremendous amount of time in hotels,” she said. “This has given me some expertise in the guest experience, and I’ve noticed how much I think about fixing the flaws in hotels, so I always have a lot to draw on in that respect. The focus on hospitality has also allowed us to directly impact people with design.”
Haffey and Williams brought together their strengths and connections to help boost V Starr’s work in the commercial market. “On the commercial side, a lot of it is who you know, how you met them, and the projects you’ve already had,” Haffey reflected. “I had completed several buildings … we worked from that—some of my [previous] contacts, some of [Williams’] contacts—and we started reaching out to set up meetings. We also went to some different design shows to meet people in the hospitality industry.”
V Starr’s first hospitality project was the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami. The firm worked on the location’s presidential and royal suites alongside the hotel’s strategists and owning hospitality group. “We had a really great experience working with them, and [it helped that the project] was local,” Haffey noted.
The Creative Process
Since Haffey was brought on board at V Starr—her reputation in the design community and living across the street from Williams helped the two join forces—she has been “the driver and the glue” behind the organization, Williams said. “Sonya and I are both ambitious designers, and our process reflects that,” she added. Together, the two collaborate on conceptualizing a project, working closely with the client, and having their multifaceted team all dive in, regardless of skillset.
“We often start with brainstorming an extensive list of ideas that is then narrowed down to fit the project,” Williams explained of the V Starr procedure. “But, in the end, our process is mainly client-led. We yield to the client’s vision and are very thorough, going through schematics three to four times to make sure they’re right. Everyone at V Starr Interiors is close, so teamwork is also an essential part of the design process, from beginning to end. Sonya and I work together on projects to achieve the ideal results for each client. I dream big when it comes to design, and Sonya and the team help me keep within the range of the achievable while still incorporating the client’s vision and mine. Sonya is very creative and experienced, so she is really good at laying out a plan for each project.”
While many companies that are connected to big names often operate without the founding personality, Williams stays involved in the daily work at V Starr. She is a hands-on leader, and works directly with her team and clients. “The day-to-day is important because the business is growing and living and changing, so it is important for me to be part of everything,” she said. “I meet with clients, I am connected to the team; we have a lot of fun together, in fact. I love being able to be inspired by them and inspiring them as well. I like to think our team members are [with the firm] for life, but if they aren’t, the goal is that they leave V Starr, move forward and progress, and become even better designers.”
The staff at V Starr works collaboratively to bring its trademark lively and energetic style to all projects, while focusing on creating a unique, individual mark for each project. “I think that comes through in our work,” Williams noted. “We tend to use a lot of color and clean lines with interesting geometry. [And] we’re not only timely with projects, but we’re also very communicative. We are always thinking outside the box with our designs. Working with us assures a quality job, no matter the timeline. At V Starr we express [our point of view] in a way that reflects how we see the world—really through colored lenses. It is awesome to be able to express that. At the same time you have to understand the goals of the project; each project is different with varied demographics, regions, etc. [We deliver] design that’s appropriate for each setting.”
Some recent notable projects from V Starr include the Tennis Lounge for the new Midtown Athletic Club facilities in Chicago. The firm also designed a suite at the adjoining hotel. The Curio conversion of the Waterstone hotel in Boca Raton, Fla., is another major venture for the firm, in which the design group provided art, accessories, and lighting for the lobby and guestrooms.
“One of the projects the V Starr Interiors team and I are most proud of is the SETLC [Southeast Tennis & Learning Center] in Washington, D.C.,” Williams noted. “The facility was constructed for after-school programs in an underserved community. We were so excited to change these kids’ lives and give them a great place to go. [It] is doing so much for young people in the area. It is such a great model that can be repeated over and over again. [We were] involved in a design that can shape young people’s lives. Kids will walk down those hallways and that’s going to be part of their childhood, creating memories for them as they grow up. I visit the Learning Center every so often. I surprise [the kids] and hit some balls or do a reading. It’s very exciting.”
Of the current “resimercial” design trend, Haffey said V Starr’s heavy hospitality portfolio reflects the blended market of today. “A consistent topic [in hospitality] over the last few years is bringing defining elements of a location and a ‘home vibe’ into hotels. If I go on a trip to India, for example, I want to walk into a hotel that feels like I am in India. We think about how we can make guests feel they are part of the community, and how to make the community feel part of that space. The original meaning of hospitality is inviting people in and being hospitable toward them. You always have to consider that; when you’re in a hotel you want to be comfortable—you should want to stay there.”