“It is very important to be fearless and trust your instincts, not letting other’s fears of their own journey create blocks in your own success.”
When staying at the Ritz Carlton and the Park Hyatt, one can always appreciate the eye to detail and design the hotels possess. This is all thanks to designers like Sarah A. Abdallah, an interior designer who has created luxurious and modern living spaces. She is a world class designer, and someone who inspires with her career choices and decisions. Here is what she had to say about becoming an illustrious interior designer-
When did you first decide you wanted to be an interior designer? Were there any interior designers who inspired you growing up?
My career did not take a natural course. I came from two Egyptian parents who immigrated to New York in the 70s, young, hip and fearless as they are, they still had the same attitudes of parents who migrated before them. Due to this I have multi-disciplinary background. I started drawing at the age of 6 years old in school along with taking ballet classes and belly dancing at home. So you can say my early exposure to different parts of the “arts” inspired me to continue to explore. After being encouraged by my Art teacher who noticed my creative strength in drawing at the age of 6, we met again in high school where she recognized the teenager that student before her; as I used to spend my free lunch time in the Art Room to be creative with scraps left over from the class before. She encouraged me to take classes the next semester. I went on to earn a BFA in Fine Arts with concentration in Art and Technology and BA in Psychology with concentration in Art Therapy and gender studies. My love grew for understanding how people learn and create habits, behaviors and patterns in both subconscious and unconscious minds. My teachers and professors in school really inspired and pushed me to my potential, and without them I would not be the women I am today.
As I developed a deep love of learning, I continued to earn multiple degrees.
I earned a Masters in Higher Education and Psychology from NYU and an AAS Degree in Interior Design from Parsons School of Design. A certificate from CAMES (Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies) program at AUB (American University of Beirut) where I spent 6 months living in Hamra in advanced Arabic Language Program. I also took 5 for credit courses at FIT in Fashion for Women’s Apparel Learning Pattern Making, and refining my sewing skills. I continue to explore my love of learning by attending lectures on Art, Culture and Politics as I truly believe that Art is an ideal platform to open up the dialogue for Politics, and now we are seeing many lifestyle and fashion brands taking that role. For quite a while I spent nearly every week up at Columbia University as I had a handful of friends enrolled in the MESAAS Masters Program (Middle Easter, South Asian, and African Studies) so much that the other Masters students thought I was a full time student in program.
As an Freshman at University, I was trying to figure out how to make my interest in Fine Arts and psychology really come together as my father hounded me about how I would make a proper career that would make money. Rightfully, I saw he did leave Cairo to come to New York wanting more success for us and the family. So at the age of 18, deep in thought about what route I would take, I used to spend every semester decorating my door room. I had my own sewing machine and used to make custom window treatments, duvet covers and pillows. My Aunt, another women in my life who helped push my interest in creativity and the arts, had came to visit us one summer from Cairo and taught me how to make patterns and sew at the age of 8 years old. My peers at school use tell me really should look into interior design so I did and discovered then the divide in the industry and understood the difference between decoration and architecture. This when I first applied both to FIT and Parson for Interior Design programs, without my parents knowledge, and got in.
Your designs are not limited to living spaces and hotels; they also include restaurants and work spaces. What is it like working with so many different kinds of space?
I primarily work on Hospitality Spaces. I have been a home chef since I was 8 years old. I love cooking as I grew up in an Egyptian house hold where my parents loved to entertain and my mom spent her time preparing these lavish meals for their company and would stay up for all hours of the night entertaining. Hospitality is really a big part of Egyptian Culture and it was really easy for me to pick a niche in this discipline of architecture and design during my studies at Parsons, I got to really combine many of my loves together.
I have been fortunate to work with multitude of renowned Architectural and Design Firms such as Tony Chi and Associates and the Rockwell Group to name a few. I learned how to balance and transfer the skills from designing a hotel lobby like the Park Hyatt in D.C. with Tony Chi, to designing a condo buildings lobby in Hudson Yards while Consulting with Rockwell Group. The functionality is the same, and “wear and tear” and ADA compliances are similar in these public areas. With work space, or “work collectives,” with esteemed projects such as Neuehouse NY and LA, I embraced a hospitality approach along with residential components into the ethos of these particular spaces.
You’ve worked with some name brand spaces such as The Ritz Carlton, The Park Hyatt, Lincoln Center and others. That’s amazing! What was it like working with such prestigious organizations? It was an incredible experience working with such prestigious hospitality brands. I learned the ins and outs of how they operate as organizations, and the process is a little more streamlined and defined in how decisions and approvals are made. At times it makes it easier and clear, as many of the brands have their specific internal brand book on how they build their spaces. Though as designers we always like to challenge them, providing unique design solutions for them that create fresh experiences in hospitality. I never will recreate a hotel design from another property, I believe it is our responsibility to always be furthering the conversation around making people feel both elevated and at home around the world.
What new opportunities have been presented to you along this journey?
I feel extremely blessed to have some great conversations with investors and developers working with big brands such as the Four Seasons and Hyatt International. I was extremely excited to have been asked personally by the Founder of the Restaurant and Awards in London to submit our projects from last year to be considered for Awards, including the German Design Awards Council. I have also have had some great meetings with smaller developers based in New York City, LA and Chicago along with some internal opportunities in Sweden, Cairo other parts of Europe, Asian and Mediterranean.
When designing a space, where do you look for inspiration? Who in the industry has inspired you the most and why?
There so much I draw my inspiration from. I grew up traveling between NYC and Cairo and formulated an innate habit and love for traveling. While exploring the globe I find inspiration all around me. I also am a fine artist by training and have been drawing and making things by hand beginning at the age of 6 so this process of being tactile and exploring and making things by hand also provides inspiration. I also get inspired by doing historical research. To be able to deconstruct community & culture and draw inspiration from this you need to understand the essence and details of each first. I also draw inspiration from fashion as the fashion industry is way ahead of us in trend setting. A love of traditional jewelry, trying new health & wellness trends, and my background in psychology give me other avenues for inspiration in my approach. Over the years I have really developed my own way to help create new concepts into the market.
There are so many people that I meet that inspire me, my first mentor and teacher in the Industry who I worked with for 3 years was Tony Chi of Tony Chi and Associates, who really taught me everything I know and has truly inspired me. He and his executive team really carved the way for me to look at design with a careful eye and look a hospitality design with all the small details including branding, table top design, staff uniform design, creating everything with function and careful detail. They are all perfectionists and extremely meticulous and we share that in common.
Ian Schrager, the Hotelier and Real Estate Developer, and his Mentor Ben Pundole, who is the VP of Brand Experience and Editor-in Chief of AHotelLife; also inspire me, for their lifestyle brand building capability and really pushing boundaries to creative different types of public versus private activation points in the hotel experience. I also just love their attitude and their sense of being experimental. Creating that balance is not easy so it always inspirational to me, how they create this special atmosphere that draws guests in to both hotel and nightlife spaces. Being in hospitality you need to really understand more than just creating beautiful interiors, these are operating businesses that really need be in the forefront of their own industries to be successful enough to generate cash flow and also create a buzz. With social media being one of the largest platforms of advertising, you need to be innovative to stay competitive.
What was it like working with Tony Chi and Associates?
It was the most incredible experience to date! Though I never said it was easy, as Tony expects the very best from every one on the team. He comes from a military background so he has a very specific way of teaching those who are part of the design family. Through working at Tony Chi and Associates for 3 plus years I traveled the globe working on some really fantastic projects and brands with the team: the InterContinental Geneva, InterContinental Cairo Semiramis Hotel in Cairo and Park Hyatt Washington D.C.; I learned how to design, space plan and create architectural details from the very best “dream team” As Tony had his right hand team Bill, Nelson and Johnny; each one taught the studio their special skill set; that’s if you where lucky to be able to work with all four. I was one of those lucky ones.
Where do you see yourself and your solo career in the future?
With the way things are shifting in the way we work as society this will really dictate the way I see my boutique bespoke studio growing and how my role will grow and shift as Owner and Principal. Also, because I have such great passion for Women’s Issues and Education, having been an activist since I was a teenager, I see a greater need to fuse my design studio with giving back to these causes and having my
work be a platform for helping little boys and girls pursue creative arts. I want to influence commercial clients globally to create community driven spaces in which young people have safe spaces to learn and grow about the arts in all forms.
What are the core values of the company?
With all our projects we want to push beyond the norms of Interior Architecture and Design, helping create unique experiences and stories for all that pass through the space. We are passionate about intuitive and superior functioning spaces for both the users and staff operating within; a marriage of form + function being signature to every experience. We are also committed to designing spaces that encourage healthy movement and a community mindset. We want to make a large impact on individual interaction and group experience with how we design our spaces.
If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting what would it be?
I would tell someone “Believe in yourself no matter what!” It is very important to be fearless and trust your instincts, not letting other’s fears of their own journey create blocks in your own success. When you have a gut feeling you have grown beyond the existing parameters of where ever you are, you need to take the leap of faith to take the next step in your career.