Even if you have never met Sarah A. Abdallah, you will feel like you know her after stepping inside one of the interiors she has designed for the hospitality industry. The 40-year-old founder of Functional Creative Design in New York City infuses lobbies, restaurants and lounges with elements from her personal history (she is the child of Egyptian immigrants who spent summers in Cairo); academic pursuits (in addition to interior design and architecture, she studied psychology, fine arts, art therapy, fashion and Arabic); and travels (to about 20 countries). Her work, including projects with celebrated architecture firms Tony Chi & Associates and the Rockwell Group, has allowed her to traipse around the globe. Over the years, she has left her aesthetic print on the James Hotel in New York, the Park Hyatt Washington in the District, the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok, InterContinental Geneva, the Battersea Power Station in London, Shangri-la at the Fort in Manila and the Nile Ritz-Carlton in Cairo. To learn more about her global influences and inspirations, we reached out to Abdallah shortly after she returned from a wedding in Turkey and before she set off for Australia and Bali, where she picked up more than a few new ideas.
Q. How does travel influence your designs?
A. Fashion designer Paul Smith once said, “Look around, open your eyes, there is inspiration all around you.” This statement resonates with me. Travel provides me with endless inspiration, from the details in nature, such as ripples in the water, to perusing local textiles and speaking with craftspeople and artisans. In my recent project, VNYL, a supper club in the East Village, my annual visits to Palm Beach inspired the Champagne Garden. I created a cedar-wrapped room with custom screens featuring palm leaves. I found serene wallpaper by FlavorPaper, a wallcovering company in Brooklyn, that abstracted the palm shape. I took the 1970s-inspired luxury you usually find only in this area of Florida and relocated it to the heart of Manhattan.
Q. What are your favorite travel destinations and hotels?
A. I love Tulum, Mexico. I stayed at a blissful eco-friendly hotel called Sanara, which means “to heal” in Spanish. Each morning, I enjoyed yoga with a view at Amansala, a nearby yoga retreat, and nourished myself with the gluten-free, plant-based cuisine at the Real Coconut. At dinner, I joined in-the-know travelers for locally sourced ingredients at Hartwood and topped my nights off with dancing and cocktails at Cenzontle Jardin Secreto. The best shopping is at Daria, which has clothing, accessories and all-natural souvenirs.
I recently attended a wedding in Semlimiye, a picturesque fishing village on Turkey’s Bozburun Peninsula. Upon arrival at the Beyazguvercin Butik Otel hotel, I could feel my cares melting away. Standout details included wooden piers dotted with symmetrical wooden umbrellas and set against the crystalline water; Turkish tiles on the restaurant floors; and an inspiring landscaping with natural woods and a stunning backdrop speckled with mountain goats. In the morning, I enjoyed a proper Turkish breakfast with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, eggs and baked bread with orange-and-lemon honey.
I love Beirut for its beach life and beautiful mountains, both of which are reachable within an hour. The city is a true haven for innovative interior designers and architects. Local firms are leading a movement that embraces contemporary interior design in historic settings. In the Beirut Central District, Bernard Khoury, one of my favorite architects, designed the nightlife destination, B018. He fused art, architecture and politics. The nightclub was inspired by Lebanon’s civil war, and he designed it as a bomb shelter, including tables that are made like coffins. A futuristic retractable roof opens to reveal the sky and stars.
Geneva is a small city but offers a high dose of luxury at every turn. To feel inspired, I shop around Place du Molard and explore the boutiques of local fashion designers and the stores with handmade foods, especially coffee and chocolate.
Q. What are some other influences that have shaped your design aesthetic?
A. I grew up traveling between New York and my parents’ homeland of Egypt. I have fond childhood memories of running through the markets in the summertime and checking out the metalsmiths behind the Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo. I also find inspiration from historical research and fashion. Fashion designers are way ahead of interior designers in terms of setting trends. I used to visit estate sales with my father and pick up antique pieces. Though I never loved the aesthetic, I appreciated the handmade details. I’m also a fervent runner; it is my moving meditation.
Q. Who are you creative heroes?
A. I really resonate with Ai Weiwei, the Chinese architect and artist who never shies away from political statements. I saw his recent exhibit in Istanbul, where he shattered a traditional Chinese vase for a piece titled “Fragments of Blue-and-White Dragon Bowl.” He transformed an antiquity into a new form, challenging notions of value and preservation. Innovative developer Ian Schrager really inspires me with his use of exploration. The Public Hotel in New York is one of my favorite spaces for its space-age escalator, farm-to-table cafe by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and unconventional lobby upstairs. It resembles a co-working space more than a traditional hotel lobby.
Q. What is your design philosophy?
A. I studied psychology and art therapy before studying interior design, so I am passionate about how environments can create community. In a new project for the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture in San Francisco, I am thrilled to work on community spaces where San Franciscans can gather to support more than two dozen nonprofit and arts organizations in residence and the San Francisco tech community and other corporations can gather to share knowledge. My aim is to create an environment that can be activated as an art gallery one day, a product launch the next day and a community gathering space in the same week.
Q. How do you incorporate sustainable principles into your designs?
A. I try to educate clients on working with local craftspeople. This way, they get the finest quality woodwork, metalwork and architectural materials that pay homage to the local culture. Employing local artisans can also save hoteliers money by not relying on shipping goods from around the world. For Neuehouse New York, which I worked on with the Rockwell Group, we had custom furniture made in Long Island City. Many times, people outsource to China, but we had everything locally handmade, from the upholstered furniture to the lighting fixtures.
Q. What is the future of interior design?
A. Everything is changing at the speed of light. Face recognition apps are on the market. Hotels and restaurants may sync with the technology adopted by the iPhone 8 in the near future. Imagine no longer having to ask someone for their name, age or residence. This may affect how developers and designers approach hotel and residence design, restaurants and nightlife. Another area to watch is robotics — imagine a robot bringing you room service — and using customization to create unparalleled comfort for repeat travelers. Luxury hotels have always differentiated themselves by remembering guests’ preferences. Embracing technology will keep them at the top of frequent travelers’ lists.
I love this quote by Claus Sendlinger, chief executive officer and founder of Design Hotels: “The fluid traveler of the future is going to be swapping expensive surroundings for great experiences.” The new generations wants less things and more experiences that take them outside themselves.
Q. What are the biggest design mistakes?
A. The industrial design aesthetic is overdone. It was innovative 15 years ago, but the industry has shifted away from those details to something casual and timeless. I find it offensive when a designer doesn’t push boundaries. Design need to be functional. People are evolving in how they want to live and work, so we need to respond to their needs.
Q. What is your dream project?
A. To design a high-end luxury boutique hotel in Turkey and a Four Seasons or Park Hyatt hotel. I want to create community spaces that will appeal to a youthful mind-set as well as to the property’s established clientele.
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