When she was young, Sandra Casparriello Murphy dreamed of becoming a nurse like her mom. Sandra grew up spending summers on Cape Cod and the rest of the year in the Philippines where her dad worked for Pan Am Airways. In Manila, she developed a taste for hand-crafted furnishings made with love. “My mom owned a handicraft business that operated out of a large factory we would visit regularly growing up. I was deeply inspired by the creative and manufacturing process,” Sandra gushes. “There were always shiny new objects to be dazzled by.” Sandra became a child model and somewhat of an island princess, who spent her days snorkeling at the family beach house at the Maya Maya resort and her nights sneaking out to the discotheque and ice cream sundae bar at the Peninsula Manilla.
Yet, Sandra also had first-hand knowledge of the many ways that island life could never be just a decadent, worry-free existence. “I was bred in this high-end, luxury life but we didn’t come from tons of money,” she explains. “That juxtaposition really resonated with me.” On the Cape, she waited tables, tended seasonal retail boutiques, and hung out with professional oyster shuckers and lobster fishermen. That duality is the key to Sandra. “If you’re a true islander, you appreciate that paradise isn’t totally perfect,” she explains. “You learn how to make do with the resources you have and take pride in being of service to others.”
Back in the states, Sandra attended nursing school in Boston until a chance encounter in 2003 with an interior designer at her aunt and uncle’s new home in Lake Forest, Illinois. Sandra was captivated by the designer’s process. “She pulled these amazing fabrics from her suitcase, listened to her clients, and somehow wove their stories into wonderful, creative ideas,” recalls Sandra. “I didn’t even know this job existed. I followed her around like a detective, obsessively watching her.” Within six months, Sandra dropped out of nursing school and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. “Everything changed for me that weekend,” she recalls. “The design gods had a plan for me.”
Sandra’s success as an interior designer rests with her exquisite taste, trained ear, and unending energy. It was these qualities that inspired a Lake Forest family to ask the young designer, who was redoing their kitchen at the time, to oversee the entire renovation of their private villa on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “This project in St. John has been my most challenging and rewarding one to date,” says Sandra. “I put my whole heart into it because it felt like home.”
When the project began in 2013, Sandra’s responsibilities took her to the island at least once a month. During her second pregnancy, the Zika virus scare was in full swing. At the request of her doctor, her clients, and her husband Kevin, she monitored the progress via her home office. (Their healthy daughter Siena is one, and son Dillon, four) “This house in the Caribbean is like my third baby,” Sandra exclaims.
When Hurricane Irma hit the island on September 6th just days before the completion of the project, Sandra was heartbroken. “Fortunately, everyone on the team persevered through the storm—St. Johnians are tough,” she reflects. “But there was major infrastructure damage, and not being able to regularly check on my team down there has been exasperating.”
Sandra coped as best she could. After some tearful SoulCycle sessions, she started to figure out the best ways to get financial aid to hurricane victims. “The need is so great that it is crucial donations be wisely directed,” she explains. “Two organizations that are doing great work are Love for Love City, a nonprofit founded by country music star Kenny Chesney, (loveforlovecity.org) and the St. John Community Foundation (stjohncommunityfoundation.org).” At the top of her agenda, however, was mapping out a plan to return to the island as soon as possible to get the renovation back on track.
Her two trips back to St. John since Hurricane Irma have been filled with emotional highs and lows. “It’s terrifying to drive around and see the damage,” she says. “People’s homes have been cut in half and the debris is higher than the Jeep I drive. But the people who live here have taught me more about resilience in the seven days I’ve been back on the island than I ever learned during the entire four years I worked on the project.” She’s determined to finish the job, no matter how long it takes. “I believe you finish what you start,” she says. “Only then can you feel that the world is your oyster.” Sounds like a true islander.