Maria Sharapova was just 14 years old when she became a professional tennis player. Her strong swings and impeccable hand-eye coordination made her a champion, but it was discipline and repetition that taught her a strong work ethic. In the eyes of athletes and entrepreneurs—especially women—she’s recognized for her titles, but more important, for her unapologetic desire for more.
Recently, we’ve spotted Sharapova at an array of art fairs and galleries, and we grew interested in discovering why. We learned that her interest in art and design dates back to her teenage years, starting with a painting by family friend Chris Gwaltney. Today, that interest is exemplified in her California home, which she designed—a Japanese-inspired space by the beach. Poured concrete walls, floating bleached-oak stairs, and a travertine floor create a minimal starting point. Accenting the walls and spaces are more design pieces than art, including chairs by Willy Guhl and George Nakashima, lighting pieces by Billy Cotton and Gareth Devonald Smith, furnishings by Boffi, an oak tripod stool by Jean Touret, and a rug by Lawrence of La Brea.
For our cover shoot, Whitewall met with Sharapova at the new Bonetti/Kozerski Architecture–designed Pace Gallery in New York to see how she moves in art spaces and to hear how, beyond sport and design, she’s pushing for more.
WHITEWALL: Let’s start by talking about your home. Can you walk us through it?
MARIA SHARAPOVA: I’ve always been drawn to live close to the water. I was born in Siberia, but when I was two years old we moved to Sochi by the Black Sea. Then I went to Florida and then California. When I was training so often in California and had the opportunity to build a house, it seemed like a no-brainer to create an oasis that resonated with my life.
It has a very minimal aesthetic. I don’t have a lot of possessions or feel the need to have a lot of knickknacks. I travel a lot and see a lot of things—and I see places that are overly designed—and sometimes you don’t notice the amazing things that happen underneath. I like a minimal aesthetic because of the spaces I’ve seen that were really cluttered.
I thought I would use a bunch of art on the walls, and then these concrete walls went up, and the art would have looked beautiful on them, but I was like, “This wall took two years to build!” I thought it was beautiful. I loved the look and feel of it and thought to make the space warmer because concrete tends to be colder. With natural light, the right texture, and furniture around it, I thought that would be my art piece.
There’s also no designated area for one thing. I like using spaces creatively and differently. There’s a dining room, but I use it for meetings. The living room is a part of the open kitchen. Everything is an open space.
I also love light. Light plays a big part in my house. That was the most important part of the house—understanding how light would feel in the morning, in the evening. I would go to the lot and sit there for hours and understand which spaces I would use and how the light would reflect that.
WW: Where did your interest in architecture and design start? What is your relationship like with those worlds now?
MS: It originally started because I would travel around the world, and as an athlete. Traveling as an athlete is far from traveling like a tourist or someone who’s curious to learn, because so much of your time goes into your craft and recovery. Recovery basically means you’re in your room getting physical therapy or getting ready for the next day. So when I had an opportunity to do something, instead of going shopping or something else, I would go to something like a photo exhibition.
I remember being in Stockholm when I was very young and playing an event there, and I had 45 minutes. We were staying next to a photography museum and I went to see an exhibition. I didn’t know anything about art at that point. Looking back, I saw a Paolo Roversi exhibition of these black-and-white photographs. At that time, it didn’t have any meaning or reference, but I saw the images and thought it portrayed these women in such a beautiful way. I left really interested. I didn’t go with a curator or someone that told me what that photo meant. So every time I traveled, I tried to choose an experience—like going to a museum or a theater—that made me curious to learn more. I feel like I have much more knowledge than I would have if I just stayed in my room.
WW: You mentioned you’ve always loved contemporary art because you couldn’t quite tell what it was. How do you feel about the contemporary art world today?
MS: Contemporary art opens dialogue. In today’s fast-paced world where we feel like we know everything, and instantly because of our phones, contemporary works really open up the dialogue for conversation. Yes, an artist is inspired by a certain thing, but the dialogue that I’m referring to is more, “How does it affect you? Impress you? Is this something you’d want in your home?” When we speak about experiences and experiential art—which I think exceeds the museum experience of paint being on a wall—that’s what I like about contemporary work. Even if there’s a plaque next to it, you’d still make your own conclusion.
WW: Design also opens dialogue. In your home you have a number of design elements from varying cultures and countries, like a Balinese bench, an antique French wooden chair, and a Japanese door as a table. What draws you to design pieces?
MS: I think pieces can be used as different things. I use furniture not just as something to shape a home. It’s like a soup—you’re trying to put together all these different ingredients that have to work with one another, and the finished project has to come to life in the way you imagined it to.
In design, and even things that I wear, I love proportion. And layering is a big part of interior design—understanding shape and form and feeling how they work next to each other.
WW: Tell us about your other design-forward projects, primarily working with graphic design and branding elements, like the launch of your candy label, Sugarpova.
MS: When I founded Sugarpova in 2012, I was far from business savvy, but I was very curious and definitely a worker. I had worked with a lot of amazing brands that educated me on marketing and advertisement, although I certainly wasn’t as curious or knowledgeable as I am now. But because I was an athlete, I had this competitive mindset that I wanted to do well with the business that I’m in.
When I was 21 years old and had shoulder surgery, it made me realize that I couldn’t play forever, and I wanted to do something on my own. Candy was my passion from a young age, and something that I wanted to receive from my parents if I did really well in a tournament.
The first thing that I worked on was the branding, the packaging, and the name, and I was so much more knowledgeable about that—or at least the creative parts as a designer—than I was thinking of distribution or how to make money. That was my first real shot at consumer-goods design. This was really my baby.
WW: You’ve also worked on fashion collections with brands like Cole Haan and Nike. How does your personal style infiltrate the collections that you co-produce?
MS: Our lives are so complicated in general, outside of design. I don’t like to overcomplicate things. Whether it’s fashion or design, everything has a purpose. That’s where the Japanese minimalism comes into play in a lot of the things that I wear and design. Something doesn’t need to be overly decorated and full of pattern to be strong.
It’s how I see the Nike Cortez shoe that I’ve designed for a few seasons for Nike. In today’s sneaker world, you have sneakers that are that are hip and cool, and people are going to stand in line for, but are they going to be standing in their closet for the next 365 days getting that shoe out? The Cortez style is classic—I’ve worn them for years, ever since I was a young girl—and I still get them out of the closet and feel really cool wearing them.
WW: All these kinds of business ventures have been very personal, but you recently filmed to be on the next season of Shark Tank—a bit more public, while helping others. Tell us about that.
MS: I’ve watched every episode and season. When I started Sharapova, Shark Tank was a perfect avenue—entertainment, and you learned a little bit about business. I always thought, “What would I say if I was pitching them Sugarpova?”
I was also surprised at how real everything and everyone felt. There was no script. All the judges invest their own money, so the show doesn’t pay for any of those deals at all. I loved the whole experience.
WW: On this thread of entrepreneurial business, you also recently mentored seven female business owners with the National Association of Women Business Owners. What did this entail?
MS: I wanted to help others get away from some of the mistakes I had made—particularly if it was a consumer good. If it had something to do with distribution or retail, clients or venture capital, I wanted to connect with them on a personal level.
When I have conversations with people that are in different businesses, I usually come out of those feeling so inspired, with a completely new perspective to either continue what I was doing or pivot. I wanted to create a space in which I could guide them in current situations. I gave them access to my business and PR teams, but it was mostly to create a group of women that came from very different experiences and fields and to try to help one another.
WW: What they all have in common, though, is work ethic. Where do you think your work ethic came from?
MS: It began with my sport. Discipline and repetition go hand in hand. You have to be disciplined to repeat something that you might not necessarily like, which is a lot tougher than repeating something that you absolutely love. But that practice becomes so natural to you, and it becomes second nature. I think that when we go through moments of uncertainty—depending on the way you handle them and the attitude you have—those moments ultimately help you for the rest of anything you do. The way you go about it, the attitude that you have. When something happens in business, you’re automatically going to apply all those skills that at that time you really had to force yourself to do mentally. It comes back. If something hits the fan, and you handle it with the right attitude, the next time that something happens you’re going to get through it because that experience is going to guide you.