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Brother to Brother

When it comes to hospitality design, Sean Saladino is the yin to his brother Michael’s yang.


Sean and Michael Saladino

Sean (left) and Michael Saladino have a seat in a recent project: Nina’s House at the Confidante, a Hyatt hotel on Miami Beach.  

The sibling founders of Saladino Design Studios were born in Chicago just 18 months apart. They grew up in Austin, went to high school in St. Louis and earned their degrees in Mississippi. But Miami, the city that older brother Sean calls “a mecca of hospitality,” is where the dapper duo made their mark; anyone familiar with the local nightlife scene knows the Saladino name (Sean was the owner-operator of Rok Bar and Rumi; Michael was the owner of Automatic Slims and Pride and Joy BBQ). Miami is also where Sean and Michael settled down; each is married with two young children. “Our younger kids, our sons, they’ll go into construction together and probably get picked up for racketeering,” Michael jokes. Sean riffs on the theme: “The older kids will be the lawyers who bail them out.” The pair launched their firm in 2008, working on hot spots from Drunken Dragon, George’s and Suviche to Beaker & Gray and Ball & Chain. Interiors Editor-in-Chief Drew Limsky sat down with the Saladinos in their recently completed project—Nina’s House at the Confidante Hotel—to talk about the allure of hospitality and just what makes their creative team click.

What a coup to be able to recreate this house, an odd little jewel dripping with atmosphere, on the grounds of a deco hotel. How did this happen?

Michael: A very good friend of ours approached us about reprogramming the concepts of the hotel and asked us to give a fresh new look to this really cool space—so we brought it to our team and created this boho chic-surfer concept.
Sean: I think what makes this space superunique is you have this mammoth hotel that’s been here forever, and then you discover this quaint Spanish house. You’d never expect to find this home placed here—there’s nothing like it in the area. I’d been to the hotel before, eaten at Talde and Bird & Bone, and never knew it was here. Hyatt is a big hotel company, and obviously they have their own internal design teams, yet they said, ‘Do what you want with it.’ They gave us free reign, and people have been very receptive to what we did with it.

It reminds me of California, like something you might find tucked into an olive grove in Santa Barbara. It has so much texture and a sense of legacy.

Sean and Michael Saladino

The brothers take a seat on “the snake,” a piece custom-designed by Saladino Design Studio. 

Sean: That’s exactly the vibe of it, very Santa Barbara surf house, as if it had been passed down in the family and ended up in the hands of a younger guy who filled it with his collections and memories, curated with items from different parts of the world—his sanctuary. That was the theory behind it.

Very specific concept. Michael, is Sean always this clear in his approach?

Michael: Sean’s very detailed, very organized. He implements a structure with our team, both administratively and creatively.
Sean: He’s definitely the philosopher, and I’m the realist.
Michael: That’s for sure.
Sean: Creatively, we’re both very involved in the process. We’re a good complement, that yin and yang. I’m a little bit more intense, and he’s a little more relaxed. So we strike a good balance that keeps the staff mellow and calm. The way we run our office is that there is no hierarchy—we don’t like that I’m-your-boss kind of mentality. Everyone in the studio makes up our collective brain trust. We just brought in a designer with an extensive residential background. She said, ‘I want to do what you guys are doing,’ and after a while it just clicked. I asked her if she misses residential. She said, ‘Not at all—I would never be able to do what I’m doing now.’

You two have executed residential projects, right?

Sean: Yes, it’s just not for us. We’ll work with developers, not end-users. [To Michael]: What do you think about hospitality versus residential?
Michael: We know that hospitality is in our blood, and I think that’s where we have more opportunity to express our creative vision. Our family has been in the restaurant business for 60 years, with different concepts in Texas.
Sean: Hospitality is where we found our niche. We’ve worked every position in hospitality, from the menial all the way up to the top. We know how a restaurant has to function beyond looking good. A lot of firms out there don’t have that hands-on experience. So it’s been beneficial to us to be able to explain that to a client when we’re developing furniture plans and kitchen layouts.

You’ve moved around these types of spaces and have hired people who have to move around the spaces...

Michael: Exactly. As owner-operators from the nightclub business to the restaurant business, we understand it. We can design the most beautiful place in the world, but if it doesn’t function properly, it’s useless. We had a client, a very well-known restaurateur from out of town, who was coming to Miami to open a sister restaurant. He had an idea and vision, and we came in and said, ‘That’s not going to work, from area to flow purposes,’ so we revised everything.
Sean: When he finally saw the renderings, he said, ‘Now I understand.’ You can come from a city with a major hospitality market—New York, Los Angeles, Vegas, Chicago. You can be a supersuccessful operator there, then come to Miami… let’s just say we’ve seen supersuccessful people come to Miami and be sent home packing within months. There’s a certain energy, a certain vibe, that the Miami clientele wants. We know it, we’ve lived it and we’ve been there from the minute the key goes into the door to the minute we lock the door at the end of the night. And to see the restaurant open up… it’s great to have your picture in the magazines, but to see the owners open a restaurant and it’s suddenly successful—that, to us, is the best part of the whole process.