As a boy growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, Mark Zeff slipped out of the house one morning and took a train to the ocean. “My mother woke up and couldn’t find me,” the Interior Design Hall of Fame member and Markzeff principal recalls. “A friend and I had gone on a mission to collect sea creatures.” Armed with jam jars and formalin, they spent the day gathering specimens like anemones and brought them back home. “I was punished heavily, but my mother also encouraged me to do it again,” Zeff says. He’s gravitated to the sea ever since, scavenging, surfing, and scuba diving around the world.
In 2018, Zeff evoked this history in a pitch to design the Alila Marea Beach Resort—the locale of Interior Design‘s 2023 Giant Ideas conference—in Encinitas, a beach city in San Diego County. The dramatic site sits atop sandy bluffs facing the Pacific Ocean to the north and west, and the developers originally envisioned hiring a local who knew the coast. Though based in New York, Zeff proved that his firm belonged on the project. “We won the contract because I put together a visual essay of how I’ve been personally connected to the ocean all my life,” the designer says. As outsiders, he and Stacie Meador—Markzeff director of hospitality design and an avid diver herself—brought a fresh take on SoCal style, creating warm, pared-down interiors that channel the power of the sea.