During college, Ariel Ashe worked as an assistant designer for Saturday Night Live. Fast-forward 13 years and now Ashe is back in 30 Rock; but this time, she’s calling the shots. Ariel Ashe and Reinaldo Leandro began their architectural and interior design firm, Ashe + Leandro, in 2008, after working at Pierce Allen together. Since then, they have designed a slew of homes for celebrities from members of Coldplay to Mindy Kaling.
Leandro received his Master’s in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University and credits his Venezuelan roots for his “Tropical Modernism” aesthetic. Ashe studied Technical Production at New York University and gets her inspiration from both Broadway theater and her family lineage—her father is a builder in New Mexico.
Last week Seth Meyers, Ashe’s brother-in-law, moved from Studio 8H to Studio 8G in 30 Rock, where Ashe and Leandro designed everything from the greenroom to Seth’s office and even five dressing rooms. We caught up with Ashe and Leandro at their downtown Manhattan studio to discuss Late Night, designing Rashid Johnson’s residence, and their dream projects.
NEESHA ARTER: Late Night must have been a particularly upbeat project; were you able to embrace your comedic side while designing a space that welcomes the funniest people in show business?
ARIEL ASHE: We always try to have a little humor in our design. It’s nice to look around a room and have something to smile at. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. For these spaces,we wanted a mid-century look.
REINALDO LEANDRO: Sort of Mad Men meets industrial loft, with a touch of Ralph Lauren? Doesn’t sound like it would work but it does.
ARTER: I think that combination works.
ASHE: I remember a while back someone left a comment under a photo of ours online that likened our design to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. We laughed and now we ask each other “too Pee-wee?” all the time. [laughs]
ARTER: [laughs] I’m sure you’ve managed to find a balance.
ASHE: [laughs] We’ve managed to.
ARTER: You originally got your start as an apprentice onSaturday Night Live for set design, and you’ve said that job left a mark on your creative inspiration; was it surreal being back at 30 Rock?
ASHE: It was great being back at 30 Rock, but yes, surreal. Nothing has changed there. The guys I worked for are still designing the sets on SNL—two have been there since the very first show, and one of them designed Seth’s set. I was angling for that job, but he had at least 40 years of TV design experience on me!
ARTER: [laughs] Well, you managed to come full circle! How was designing Late Night different from designing sets onSaturday Night Live?
ASHE: To quote Kanye West on last night’s Late Nightepisode, “Everything in the world is the same thing.” [laughs]
ARTER: [laughs] A great interview for night two of Late Night.
ASHE: It was. But it’s obviously different designing a set that will air on TV for three minutes versus a room that needs to both look good and withstand 40 visitors a night for years to come. Whenever I stop by the show I end up fluffing pillows and wiping down the coffee tables. This is the first time we’ve designed a space that doesn’t belong to one person—I feel like it’s still mine.
ARTER: I know Seth is your brother-in-law; did he let you guys take the reins on designing the backstage, or was it a collaboration?
ASHE: I sent a proposal early on with reference images and furniture ideas. He loved it. Fortunately the producer, Mike Shoemaker, has an interest in design and furniture and was happy to indulge our ideas and take the rooms up a notch from what they usually are. The green rooms I’ve visited are usually utilitarian and grubby. We wanted to do something nice for people visiting the show.
ARTER: You designed a small kitchen, Seth’s dressing room, Seth’s office, a green room and five guest dressing rooms. Was there an overall feel you were hoping to accomplish with each room?
ASHE: We wanted each room to feel different but connect in some way. They range in size and shape, and instead of plugging the same furniture into each room, we chose a range of wallpapers, sofas, and chairs that related to each other—like a house. We used the same lighting pieces throughout—Jason Koharik’s “Collected By” line is really good.
ARTER: Reinaldo, you have worked on many projects in your hometown in Venezuela. How has Venezuela influenced your aesthetic overtime?
LEANDRO: It’s pretty much part of my aesthetic, “Tropical Modernism.” Lots of poured concrete, open layouts that allow a continuous flow of light, circulation or cross-ventilation. Funnily, enough it meshes well with Ariel’s New Mexican influence, the palm tree meets the dessert cactus. It makes sense, since both styles have their roots in colonial Spanish architecture.
ARTER: How has New Mexico played a role in your designs, Ariel?
ASHE: My dad is a builder—that influenced me more than anything else. I spent a lot of time with him choosing fixtures and finishes, and then installing with him. My kid hands were useful in tiling showers and bathrooms! I could also work all the controls on a backhoe at age five.
ARTER: So it’s been ingrained from the start. Have you worked on many projects in New Mexico?
ASHE: We’ve actually done nothing in New Mexico. But every time I go there, I bring something from my childhood home back to New York with me… Navajo rugs, antique paintings, a bow and arrow set, Indian pots. My parents have become very willing to part with stuff all of a sudden!
ARTER: Who are a few of your biggest mentors, in the art world and otherwise?
ASHE: I look at Christian Liaigre designs all the time. And Axel Vervoordt. My friend just gave me a book called Georgia O’Keeffe and her houses—about her homes in New Mexico. I love it.
LEANDRO: We both love architect Luis Barragán’s work, too.
ARTER: You believe that possessions tell the story, which is why you tend work with wood, marble, and concrete the most. How do you pick the possessions in a room when designing it?
ASHE: Materials tell a story by themselves, of age, permanence, even utility. In that way, it’s easy. Personal possessions for a client are more difficult. As projects progress, we get to know our clients better and it gets easier to buy for them.
LEANDRO: We don’t buy a book because it’s beautiful, although that helps. Would it be a book that they would have in their library or coffee table? Same with art. Also, in telling a story we always look for things they already own too. That helps ground and pulls everything together.
ARTER: You began your firm in 2008 with designing Jennifer Carpenter’s home in Los Angeles followed by a waterfront cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. How did you decide which projects you would take on in the beginning?
ASHE: We took whatever was offered! Jennifer is a good friend—she did me a huge favor by letting me publish her house. It was a really exciting way to launch our firm and make our presence known. We are now re-designing the waterfront house on Martha’s Vineyard, which was our first job ever—it’s already outdated. We are so old!
ARTER: You guys aren’t old! Has your design shifted since you began?
ASHE: Yes—we have learned and changed. We are less Pee-wee now. I think.
ARTER: [laughs] One of your most recent projects is Rashid Johnson’s residence here in New York. What was it like collaborating with a contemporary artist?
ASHE: Rashid and his wife, Sheree, have amazing taste. They really let us go for it—Vivienne Westwood wallpaper in the bedroom, three Serge Mouille chandeliers in a row.
LEANDRO: Custom floor-to-ceiling floating bookshelves in the study.
ASHE: They let us design custom furniture pieces, which is always a lot of fun. They had amazing ideas too—and obviously the house came packed with art.
ARTER: What’s a dream project you would love to work on?
ASHE: We want to do a hotel! One anywhere that’s a nice place to visit.
ARTER: Any place in mind?
ASHE: After this winter—anywhere above 13 degrees.
Published in Interview Magazine.