Sandra Nam Cioffi
Founding Principal, Ink Landscape Architects, PLLC
Education: MLA Virginia Tech Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, BA University of Chicago
Sandra Nam Cioffi is the Founding Principal of Ink Landscape Architects, PLLC (INK), a small minority woman-owned business entity, whose portfolio of work is defined by the art of craft, deep cultural research, regional ecology, and elevating the human experience in the built environment.
After working at two great firms on some world-class projects, and with an early career as a marketing manager at the Nature Conservancy and in New York City’s fragrance industry, Sandra launched INK to push the boundaries of landscape architecture and to help redefine how we approach the art of convening people and designing meaningful landscapes.
During the 2020 global pandemic and amidst social upheaval, Sandra created and launched the CUT|FILL uconference series to make space for critical and participatory discourse in landscape architecture.
Sandra is also COO at QiqoChat, Trustee at the Ecological Landscape Alliance, Streetscapes Steering Committee member for NYC’s Public Design Commission, and volunteer for Green Schoolyards America.
What is YOUR story? What led you to a career in landscape architecture? When did you realize you wanted to become a Landscape Architect?
I feel like my story is like countless others; a journey that is still being written and plotted with daily challenges. After college, I landed my first job in New York City’s fine fragrance industry working with perfumers to design the next fragrance launch for major brands at L’Oreal, Unilever, and Avon. It was a fast-paced global marketplace that was fascinating to be in at such a young age. While I first thought it was going to be my life-long career, after a few years I started to sense within myself that I wanted to do something more creative. I also sensed that it just wasn’t the space for me. I didn’t know at the time what kind of creative work I wanted to pursue, but I was reaching a plateau in terms of how many animated PowerPoint presentations I could make for sales teams and global offices. It definitely took a job loss and the 2008 economic crash for me to start searching for my next steps. I have to thank Google search for helping me to discover the programs at George Washington University and Virginia Tech, and to show me that there was something in between environmental science and design. So this New Yorker took a big leap of faith and moved to DC for a career change. I think it’s been working out for me so far. I’ll have to stay tuned to know for sure.
What project or work that you have done at any point in your career are you most proud of and why?
This question is definitely relative to time. A few years ago, I was most proud of being a major part of the research and design of the Aga Khan Garden in Edmonton, Canada, while working at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects’ office in Charlottesville, Virginia. Today, I am most proud of creating the first CUT|FILL Open Space unConference in collaboration with The Urban Studio. Everyday, I am most proud of getting my two children fed, out the door, in the door, fed, and then in bed.
What is your favorite outdoor space in the greater NYC area and why?
My favorite outdoor space in the greater NYC area is the entire Hudson Valley. It’s a never ending beauty that I grew up with, and I treasure seeing its changing landscape each day. I have a special place for visiting the Military Academy at West Point, Cold Spring, and Hudson, all places that I revisit with my family whenever we can. There’s no doubt that New York’s landscape has an emotional place in my heart, and after living in DC and Virginia for nine years, I had to move back for the pizza, bagels, and black and white cookies, all made with New York’s finest watershed.
What do you do to de-stress, relax or escape?
I check on my garden and then start weeding. Maybe it’s the stress of knowing that the weeds are winning, and then the de-stressing occurs after I see an enormous pile of them after having broken a sweat. Does this count?
Everyday is a constant hustle with raising kids while managing projects and responsibilities for different companies. I dream of escaping to a remote island often, but what counts for now are the little and authentic moments while spending time with close friends and family. I am intentional in being present with them and conscientious of our time and conversations together without phones or devices to distract us. Things change as I grow each year, but I recognize that I relax when I work on surrounding myself with great people.
Where do you go for inspiration or what do you find inspiring?
I am inspired by my children when they come home and show me a drawing they made or when they are learning how to tread water at swim class. My life right now is very family-oriented, so most things will reflect what’s in front of me, which is two little ones. It feels like these are boring things to others, but when you finally break through with your own child’s struggles and see them challenging themselves to do new things…. that’s inspiring. Because you know, it feels impossible with adults.
What landscape do you feel is unknown or underrepresented? Describe this landscape.
The undeveloped and abandoned commercial lots in suburbia. Commerce is changing and many spots near where I live are vacant. It seems like an opportunity to rethink it all.