Though Krista Ninivaggi, 34, spent the greater part of a decade cutting her teeth at some of the most esteemed hospitality and commercial design firms on Earth, it was the decision to form an industry softball league that would, in a rather roundabout way, seal her fate. That's how she first came to meet Gregg Pasquarelli of the Manhattan-based firm SHoP Architects, whom she routinely played against (and collaborated with on various projects) while at the Rockwell Group, and then again after she joined AvroKO. So a couple of years ago, when Pasquarelli was looking for someone to found and run SHoP's interiors division, Ninivaggi came to mind as just the person for the job.
As director of the interior design group and senior design associate, today Ninivaggi oversees a team of a dozen or so. That number will likely grow by the end of the year, but, she admits, "We're at a point where we have a good core group of people. I've personally been able to mentor every single one and I don't want to lose that continuity." Her assignments fall into three general categories: interiors-only projects; full-scale projects split equally between the architecture and the interiors divisions; and architecture-focused projects where she suggests finishes and other such details without providing a full-scale interiors program. "I feel so lucky that I'm able to take these big architectural ideas and figure out how to translate them into the interiors of a building," Ninivaggi says. "We're bringing back the idea of the 'master architect'—a team that designs buildings right down to the furniture."
With the new Shopbop headquarters and the interiors of the Barclays Center under her belt, and many other "secret" projects, as Pasquarelli describes them, currently underway, Ninivaggi is content to stay put at SHoP for the long haul. The fact will no doubt please her boss: "Krista is one of the superstars that I have ever encountered in 20 years of being an architect," Pasquarelli says. "You could even tell 10 years ago that she was going to be a star." He adds: "She's got this unbelievable light inside of her where she's a phenomenal design talent; plus, she has an amazing personality. She's charming, her staff love her, and they will go to the mat for her."
Of course, when you work on a project as large and as high-profile as the Barclays Center, with its nearly nine years of fights, protests, lawsuits, and delays before the much-publicized ribbon cutting last September, the focus tends to be more on the building's "textured and compelling"—as New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman put it—rust-colored facade, and not necessarily the cabaret tables in the main concourse, the food carts, or the wall of Champagne bottles lining the arena's most exclusive suites. But these details were all part of the overall vision. "I love sports because sports is a theater with an unscripted end—and I said, 'That arena has to feel like blackbox theater,'" Pasquarelli recalls about those early meetings with Jay-Z and developer Bruce Ratner. "And I said, 'You need to make everything black inside and the only thing that needs to pop is that court, like a stage.' And Krista literally took it from there and made the whole thing happen." As Ninivaggi describes it, she and her team "translated the overall concept of the building into the interiors and created different identities for all of the different spaces using a similar material palette, set of finishes, and custom and non-custom furniture." Above, a tour.