Designers to Watch

In Hawaii and L.A., This Celeb-Approved Designer Embraces Island Style and Hollywood Glamour

Portrait of Barbie Palomino, of Studio Palomino
Though she now lives in Hawaii, Barbie Palomino continues to take on projects in L.A., where she started her interiors business in 2015 (photo by Renee Farias). Top: In Palomino’s own home, a gallery wall includes family photos and work by photographer Xan Padrón, as well as pieces by Cuban artists that she picked up in Havana. A rounded stool by Kristina Dam Studio provides a perch next to the FOUR HANDS rattan cabinet (photo courtesy of Studio Palomino).

Designing professionally for more than a decade, Barbie Palomino, founder of Hawaii-based Studio Palomino, has worked on high-profile projects that include the Ritz-Carlton Residences in downtown Los Angeles and the home of television star Issa Rae in the city’s View Park neighborhood. 

Although Palomino, who moved with her family from L.A. to the Big Island at the beginning of the pandemic, has enjoyed great success as a designer, this was not her first career choice. Born and raised in Miami, she earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Florida and took a job in retail upon graduating. 

Realizing that her line of work didn’t offer the creative fulfillment she needed, she packed up her bags, sold what wouldn’t fit in them on Craigslist and headed off to Los Angeles. There, she indulged her lifelong interest in interiors, earning an associates degree in interior design from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM). After working for various firms for a few years and even running one with a partner, she took the plunge and opened her own in 2015. 

Today, Palomino is known for her bold use of color and her eclectic sensibilities. “People will call me and say, ‘I love what you did with that teal kitchen or that salmon one or the blue bathroom,’ ” she notes. “My clients don’t want a neutral space.” She attributes her affinity for vibrant hues to her DNA. “It’s in my blood. Both my parents are Cuban, so I would say it’s the Cuban roots!” 

Here, Palomino speaks with Introspective about designing for Rae, provocative photography and the importance of ‘ohana

Living room in Los Angeles designed by Studio Palomino
For the living room of a newly built house in Los Angeles, Palomino paired Four Hands velvet swivel chairs with a nickel-and-glass coffee table by Bernhardt. A crystal chandelier with nickel hardware plays off the coffee table, while a side table with faux-bone inlay adds a graphic pop. Photo by Jess Isaac

Where do you find inspiration?

Since I live on an island where there are no showrooms or strips of amazing furniture stores, like there are in L.A., I scour design-related blogs, feeds and emails every day for inspiration. Before I started designing professionally, I would read and analyze magazines. I’d think to myself, “Well, they used Carrara marble in this room, and they mixed it with a subway tile and . . .” I just studied the magazines to figure out what designers were doing.

What is your favorite design period?

Mid-century is my favorite because I like the blend of clean lines with interesting features. Eero Saarinen’s Tulip table was the first piece of furniture I ever wanted to own. It’s this beautiful slab of marble on this very sleek but curvy pedestal base. 

Who is your personal style icon?

Jenna Lyons, the former creative director and president of J. Crew. I love her sleek and sophisticated, high-low, fancy-fun aesthetic. 

The study of an L.A. residence, designed by Studio Palomino
In the study of the new-build L.A. residence, a sleek Hooker Furniture desk and a fluffy faux-fur rug lightheartedly contrast with the dark wood paneling and the clients’ traditional painting. Photo by Jess Isaac

Who is your favorite artist?

Richard Combes’s paintings feel completely immersive to me, as if you could just jump right into the scene. The level of skill it takes for a human being to create such photorealistic works by hand blows my mind.

For photography, Helmut Newton and Tre Crews are two of my favorites. I’m drawn to edgy or nude photography that makes people a little uncomfortable.

What is your favorite historic house?

I get so excited when I see historic buildings converted into residences, for example [architect] Ricardo Bofill’s cement-factory conversion in Spain or the former caviar warehouse in Manhattan converted by Andrew Franz. I have a church conversion at the top of my bucket list.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?

I’m kind of in paradise right now, but if language were no issue, I would live in Portugal. I haven’t been there yet, but from what I understand, it’s a very community-focused culture, which is very much like island life in Hawaii. People are less selfish here. They’re focused on their ‘ohana — their extended family and neighbors. People take care of each other. 

What would your dream project be?

It would be to work with a developer from the ground up. I’m generally brought in after a homeowner has purchased a property, and I often find myself undoing so many things. I would love to select all the finishes and materials from the beginning of a project and then take it through to the decorating stage.

What do you think is the most underappreciated design idea? 

Lighting. Many clients just want to know where the lighting cans are going in the ceiling, but there are so many missed opportunities for great lighting, especially in a kitchen. You can add a sconce or a table lamp that sits on the counter so that you have multiple sources of light to create ambience. I’m obsessed with vintage lighting, so I love any opportunity to use an interesting fixture, both for its aesthetic value and the lighting it provides. 

What design accomplishment are you most proud of?

Referrals! I love it when happy clients refer me to their friends. I’m also very proud of my repeat clients. For example, I was matched with Issa Rae on a promotional project for her house in Los Angeles. She was so happy with what I did that she hired me to do her production offices. That’s very gratifying!

What sets you apart? What do you do differently or better than anyone else?

Although I can take on any kind of project, I work really well with families. I have a little one of my own, and I’m a nester myself. Home is very important for me, and I think that translates into my work with clients.

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