Sylvia Sepielli Interview

The World's Most Famous Spa Designer

Sylvia Sepielli
••• Sylvia Sepielli, left, and Therese Martirena, spa director at The Dolder Grand, a client in Switzerland. The Dolder Grand

Sylvia Sepielli is one of the world's great spa designers, with dozens of famous spas in her portfolio.  Her work is inspired by the land, the traditions and the history of each place. Mii Amo in Sedona, Arizona is influenced by Native-American traditions, gifted energy healers, and intuitive readers who thrive in the land of vortexes. For The Ojai Valley Inn & Spa in California, she created a separate spa village with its own Spanish-Colonial-style bell tower and artist's cottage.

And for The Spa at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, she was inspired by American healing traditions from the 17th through the 21st centuries, including Native American, Colonial and African practices. One of her most recent projects was redesigning The Spa at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida

Q  This is an interesting and unusual line of work.  How did you get into the spa business?

A   A long time ago ... I studied Oriental healing arts in Japan.  After five years my husband and I decided it was time we moved back to the states and get real jobs.  Aerobics was a big thing then, and we were lifting, so we decided to open a fitness center and vitamin center in northern California.  I thought, "I've just wasted five years learning the therapies."  But we got deep into fitness and nutrition.Then in 1987, my mother-in-law was living in Desert Springs and she said  "You have to come here!

 They're building a new resort!" It was Marriott Desert Springs: they were building the biggest and most complex resort spa after La Costa.   I thought, 'Now I get it! That’s what the five years in Japan was about.'  It was everything that I loved to do -- fitness and nutrition and therapies all in one place.

 I worked there and got into operations deeply, and in 1994 started my own consulting company, SPAd (Sylvia Planning And design).

Q How have spas and spa design changed in the twenty years you've been designing them?

A  There was a time when resort spas were the thing to do.  You had to make them really big so incentive groups could spend four hours of their downtime in there.  But the occupancy of the spa was greatly reduced the rest of the time.  These giant things were empty!  Now, spa development is getting smarter.   It's important to size it correctly -- not too big, and not too small.  You have to be efficient in the design. You don’t want to have to hire too many people just to service the space.  At the same time, you want guests to feel relaxed.  

A  People used to brag about the size of their spa.  "Ours is 45,000 square feet!"  "Ours is 60,000 square feet!"

A  It’s so misleading.  I try and dissuade clients from going there.  I want them to talk about the features and the experience.  SpaHalekulanai in Waikiki is quite small compared to most spas, but it is excellent!  It has an ocean-front setting and the service is great.  ​

Q How long does it take you to come up with a design or concept? 

A  Some are easier than others.  The Breakers in Palm Beach came to me very quickly.  The original hotel was built in the 1920s by artisans from Italy and it's a beautiful, ornate work of art.  I wanted to keep an Italian connection.

In addition, it's an oceanfront property, and the spa opens into a courtyard that faces the adults' pool and the ocean.  I wanted something that would be very comfortable, and keep the Italian connection, so I came up with the idea of Armani's beach house. It would have a clean, contemporary design.  It would be timeless.  

The Breakers is owned by the original family. The spa was 16 years old, and they wanted to update it with something that was authentic, that would last, and that wasn't gimmicky.  It was being built for the long-term, and not for a developer to make it a success and then turn it around.

The idea of "fifty shades of white" seemed to work.  It's a palette that allows you to come in and relax.  The staff and the guest hold the spotlight.   And it won’t be dated.

Q  Have you ever been asked to go back to a spa you designed and reinterpret it? 

A  Not yet. That would be interesting. Challenging, but interesting.