“Here, we celebrate everything,” Emilio Olabarrieta says of Puerto Rico, where he and partner Julio Cintrón have spent 17 years building Emilio Olabarrieta Event Atelier into a preeminent event design firm. The business originated “almost by mistake,” says Olabarrieta, explaining how open houses he hosted at the completion of decorative interior painting jobs sparked requests. “From the very first moment,” non-native flowers and unusual elements made these parties “very different from what people had seen.” Suddenly, “everyone wanted us to do parties,” he remembers.

“Everyone” included singer Marc Anthony, the Smithsonian, and recently, Cartier—all intrigued by Emilio Olabarrieta Event Atelier escalating reputation for transforming spaces. Puerto Rico’s limited number of venues challenges the design duo’s creativity. Olabarrieta explains: “We need to redo the space, so people feel they’ve entered into another experience.” And while their high-profile clients are admittedly “very hard to surprise,” Olabarrieta asserts, “I know we will always surprise them.”

Passion, common sense and attention to detail are hallmarks of Emilio Olabarrieta Event Atelier design philosophy. “You don’t have to be big,” says Olabarrieta of their tendency to “concentrate on one little thing. From that little element,” he says, “you can make a very strong statement. You can find a twist in the simplicity; great ideas are in the details.” As an event unfolds, guests recognize the effort invested. “I like people to be interactive with the décor,” whether they “discover things” or consume edible centerpieces, Olabarrieta shares, “we try to see the possibilities.” A glass isn’t for wine, or champagne, or water. “A glass can be anything you want it to be. It has to be unexpected.”

Overwhelmed with ideas from the internet, brides sometimes need convincing that simplicity is best. But while he laments the Facebook effect on design requests, Olabarietta cherishes his work’s preservation in digital form. “When we began, I used to do everything. I had to tear down all of the events; I was crying over the hours of thought and concentration and hard work,” he remembers. Now, he says, “I am trying to see my projects as an art installation: modern art.”

Inspiration is everywhere. “I don’t carry a notebook; I have this memory chip in my brain,” says Olabarietta. “Every time we travel,” people notice their renewed energy, he says. He also loves surreptitiously observing guest’s reactions: “their manners, how they move, how they laugh. That sensation for me is like, ‘Wow!’” he says. “You are working with beauty, with live things, with flowers, with emotions. You have to feel lucky to make other people happy.” He realizes, too: from that moment on, “you are going to be part of their family history.”

When a wedding at The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort went on, even though the brave bride’s father died unexpectedly hours before, it was a poignant reminder: “You never know when will be your end. You are surrounded by a lot of problems—by daily life, economic problems, political problems, wars,” Olabarietta reflects. “It’s very important to celebrate. If you have the opportunity to do it: Do it. Give life meaning. Celebrate life!”