Room to Renovate

In need of major life changes, architect Chiara Santini rebuilt herself, personally and professionally.
Santini Studio prioritizes sustainable design choices. Photo courtesy of Santini Studio

By Laura Hine

“My husband and I quit our jobs at the same time in 2019,” says Chiara Santini, founder and creative director of interior design firm Santini Studio. “We were both having midlife crises, but instead of buying a Porsche, we started our own companies.” An architect, Santini was thriving professionally in Chicago as a design director, but she wanted more creative control and the chance to build something for herself, so she gave her notice and took a leap into the unknown. She opened her eponymous company at the end of 2019—right before COVID hit—but the fledgling firm weathered the early disruptive months of the pandemic, thanks to Santini’s strong business relationships.

In the summer of 2020, Santini and her husband escaped to Aspen for a week of hiking. “I grew up in the Italian Alps. I love Chicago, but it’s really flat land,” she notes with a laugh. “When we were in Aspen, we agreed that it would be nice to have a business here, so we could come more often.” And just like that, Santini Studio bought a small design-build firm in the valley, rebranded it and started working for clients on renovation projects.

“The smaller projects gave us the credibility to win bigger projects,” Santini says. “Now, we’re working on the renovation of a 12,000-square-foot home, and we’re also working on a new construction house.” The Aspen builds have given the LEED-certified business a chance to find sustainable materials and solutions for their clients. “We work to educate our clients and show them that the sustainable choice is also often the smart choice,” she says. “For example, reclaimed wood costs a little more, but it has already lived 50 to 60 years, so it has advantages in a climate like Aspen’s, and requires less maintenance over time.”

The firm’s Chicago projects, while wildly different from what they’re doing in Aspen, give Santini the chance to continue to flex her creative muscles. Her Chicago team, which includes two full-time Chicago-based designers, are working on hospitality projects that include a 220-room hotel as well as a mixed-use building that includes two condos and a ground-floor restaurant. Plus, Santini has a once-in-a-lifetime project to restore a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright’s firm after his death and design Prairie-style interior furnishings for the home. “The clients want an integrated approach so the interior and exterior go together,” she says. “It’s what Frank Lloyd Wright did when he designed a house, and they’d like us to restore those original, but lost, features.”

Growing up with a father who was an architect, Santini was perhaps destined to someday own her own firm, but she recognizes that taking that leap isn’t always easy. “I wouldn’t recommend that a couple quit at the same time because it’s a lot of stress,” she admits. “But we’re happy and we’re closer now than we were three years ago because we decided to take this adventure together. We’re both really proud of what we have each accomplished.”