Project director at OBMI (Miami, FL), a leading global master planning, architecture, and design firm that has been creating timeless spaces for 85 years.
By Liisa Andreassen
With more than 12 years of international experience, Comoli provides hands-on leadership for architecture and interior design projects in large-scale developments, luxury hospitality, mixed-use urban environments, and cultural destinations.
“Early in my career, I thought I was too quiet and shy to be a good leader,” Comoli says. “Now, I realize that my ability to listen, reflect, and consider an idea allows me to build trust, develop a shared understanding, and express my intent more effectively. I don’t need to be the loudest in the room to make an impact.”
A conversation with Mauro Comoli.
The Zweig Letter: Your website says that “extraordinary design can awaken new possibilities.” Can you illustrate this with an example of how a design changed a client’s possibilities?
Mauro Comoli: Staying loyal to the character and culture of the places where we design lies at the core of who we are as a master planning, architecture, and design firm. This is particularly true in Bermuda, where OBMI has such a long and rich history designing cultural appropriate architectural designs. For the St. Regis, we were very much inspired by our founder, Wil Onions’ contribution to the traditional Bermudian vernacular with steeped and stark white roofs. The plans for the St. Regis Bermuda had challenges due to its slender location, sensitive surroundings, and proximity to a world UNESCO heritage site, Fort St. Catherine. They required meetings with the government to properly construct the buildings without damaging the location or surroundings. After more than 85 years of experience in the Caribbean, our designers were confident in their ability to realize the client’s dream.
The architects carefully applied design methods that would exceed the client’s expectations and respect the site. In the end, the project turned out to be a perfect mixture of the traditional Bermudian vernacular with the playfulness and allure of the St. Regis brand, all while celebrating Fort St. Catherine and the natural topography.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
MC: OBMI has devised an innovative workflow, with clearly identified stages, to ensure the project emerges through collaboration. We gain trust from our clients by listening to their wants and needs, being the design guardians of the project, and valuing client feedback. The driving force for our firm is to translate our clients’ dreams into three-dimensional forms, and I think the individuals, brands and developers can sense that. We want our projects to be timeless, and provide long-term value to the local community, site, and the clients.
TZL: Storytelling through design seems to be at the core of what OBMI does. Can you give me an example of this to demonstrate it in action?
MC: Every place has a unique story to tell. As designers and planners, we seek to discover the innate poetry of a destination. Our process is centered around storytelling, and it is the element that aligns us with the client’s vision and guides the design. We work with clients to develop a unique concept that considers future memories, business goals, the existing environment, natural topography, and cultural heritage of a specific location – threads of inspiration that eventually become the tapestry of design.
For the Royal Mansour, King Mohammed VI commissioned OBMI to capture and celebrate Morocco’s rich culture and beauty through a majestic hospitality palace. As guests journey through the storied property, we redefined luxury through grand displays of local craftsmanship, immersing them in the refined grace of traditional and royal Moroccan hospitality. Capturing the soul, spirit, and essence of the culture, the transformational design presents a timeless, unforgettable, and bespoke experience that will never be forgotten.
TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?
MC: OBMI works closely with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, the University of Miami, and Boston University, to name a few. Our firm is dedicated to educating the next generation of architects to design environmentally sensitive and incomparably unique destinations. Through our collaborations, we train OBMI staff in the most advanced design technologies and capture the attention of talented students who wish to join our firm as interns and, ultimately, employees.
TZL: OBMI+ is devoted to sustainable design. What’s an internal initiative that you’re currently working on?
MC: OBMI+ is our internal CSR program. Our firm has more than 85 years of experience designing in sensitive environments, globally. With this expertise, sustainability has become rooted in our philosophy and process. Preserving and celebrating a site’s natural surroundings, we design with intention and consciousness – highlighting the natural wonder of each location and minimizing impact to the environment. We empower our organization to advance the programs of the UNDP and U.S. Green Building Council, among others.
TZL: Who are you admiring right now in the AEC industry? Where do you see thought leadership and excellence?
MC: I think the entire AEC industry deserves admiration for their proactive efforts, adaptability, and innovative thinking as society faces the biggest environmental and health crises of our time.
We saw individuals, firms, institutions, and professional associations pull together to understand the shifting priorities and challenges relating to the built environment in response to climate change and the pandemic. Beyond finding urgent solutions to ensure individuals’ wellbeing and reduce disruption to normal life, the AEC industry continues to push craft and creativity to prepare for the long-term impacts we have yet to face from the dual crises by mitigating risk and building resilience.
From my vantage point, the firms that adapted their business models and further invested in their people and sustainable innovation have entered an exciting new era of cross-industry collaboration. Thought leaders across AEC showcase design excellence and creative thinking beyond the industry and are at the forefront of global innovation. It’s a wonderful time to be a designer.
TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that people get most excited about?
MC: Well, staff wellbeing is always the priority, so we offer a few benefits that get people’s attention immediately, from in-office corporate massages, subscriptions, and meditation platforms to work-from-home options.
One perk many young designers get excited about is the opportunity to design through our innovation lab, OBMI NU. They get to showcase their ideas and share their designs with principals and the public in a way that often doesn’t happen until later in their profession. It’s great to see them share their perspectives and showcase their skills.
However, I have found our “Career Coach” program has greatly benefited our staff and our office’s culture. Always aiming to grow with intent, we developed a mentoring program that pairs employees with a “Career Coach” who oversees their professional growth, offering guidance and strategic resources to plan and reach their professional goals. The coaches ensure their mentees take advantage of their personal and professional development funds. Often our staff attend conferences, training programs, or even cross-industry events that allow them to elevate their skill set or explore new opportunities.
TZL: Tell me more about OBMI NU. What does NU stand for? How do you determine who is going to be on the NU team? How does it operate?
MC: OBMI NU was born out of the inevitable shifts in the hospitality industry during the pandemic and the willingness to foster a culture of innovation focused on design excellence. We are confident our work showcases our talent and positions OBMI as competent innovators and passionate storytellers with the desire to meet the new needs of travelers. Habitare is an example of exploring a hospitality function that catered to the exploratory traveler more interested in being isolated in a unique environment most of the times not accessible by the traditional hospitality products. We wanted to create a portable, environmentally self-contained, zero footprint hotel room that meets the expectations of the ultra-luxury customer that typically visit our other projects.
The team is not limited to a particular group of employees; we invite everyone in the company to join in on brainstorming and continue to work their “innovation muscle.” We believe the collaboration of talented minds leads to conceptualizing revolutionary concepts that define design’s future.
TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice?
MC: Critical thinking, adaptability, and emotional intelligence. The ability to empathize, understand, and communicate effectively fosters genuine relationships and trust with employees.
TZL: What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
MC: Early in my career, I thought I was too quiet and shy to be a good leader. Now, I realize that my ability to listen, reflect, and consider an idea allows me to build trust, develop a shared understanding, and express my intent more effectively. I don’t need to be the loudest in the room to make an impact.
I also wish I had known that the best leaders don’t have to have all the answers and find comfort in that. You need to be curious. You will make mistakes and learn together along the way as a team.
TZL: What’s your number one concern/foreseen challenge about the future of architecture?
MC: Climate change and resiliency design pose a significant challenge in architecture and all industries. Our job as architects is to find solutions to mitigate the impact on our planet in construction and ongoing building operations. The OBMI team is focused on designing regenerative, resilient projects that improve the quality of the spaces where we live, work, and play. Great design makes our communities stronger, safer, and healthier while benefiting the environment.
TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.
MC: The mentorship program allows tenured employees to create relationships and share their knowledge with those newer in their careers, which gives a sense of responsibility to invest in and educate the next generation of designers.
Most recently, we created our own educational program solely focused on hospitality design. Led by OBMI, “Hotel University” offers resources on a full curriculum of subject matters related to design for hotels and resorts. As part of the program, we provide design teams exclusive access to in-person tours and conversations with experts in development, financing, wellness, and other industries. The firsthand experiences and knowledge shared with experts are invaluable. Hotel University’s courses have further allowed our designers to foster the next generation of architects through classes at the University of Miami, Boston University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I think this has provided our team with a real sense of fulfillment.