With her extensive education - from art and psychology to technology and gender studies - alongside her prolific aesthetic signature on iconic properties across the globe, interior architect Sarah A. Abdallah brings a fresh perspective to the industry.
Words by David Kauffman
Just over a decade ago, a few years before things we no longer want to speak of, knocked New York City to its feet, the ground-breaking private members club Neuehouse introduced new levels of elegance and exclusivity to a city with no shortage of either.
Tucked within a former auction house in Manhattan’s buzzy Flatiron District, Neuehouse set the standard for the clutch of private member’s clubs that have since followed — all clamoring to replicate Neuehouse’s inimitable sense of style, status, and sophistication.
Neuehouse owes much of this aesthetic sensibility to interior architect Sarah A. Abdallah, principal of the Manhattan-based design and architecture firm Functional Creative Design, which is housed a short stroll from Neuehouse. As a former member of iconic architect David Rockwell’s practice, Abdallah helped envision and execute the low-key luxe design for Neuehouse’s original identity at its New York and Los Angeles outposts. More recently — as head of her own practice — Abdallah has played a crucial role in giving the brand’s Madison Square flagship a refreshed look, feel, and purpose.
“Our overall approach [for this project] was rooted in answering the following: How do we create markers for individual psyches to recognize a feeling of community and reconnection to inner well-being,” she explains. “One major element we designed is a custom pop-up bar that allows for both safe, casual interactions with members and also acts as a standalone sculpture element in the gallery space.” Her team also recognized that the bathrooms had emerged as a key focal point of both aesthetics and human interaction. “We upgraded the original industrial details by using marble detailing custom mirrors and custom new stalls and other luxury touch points making one feel home away from home.”
Born in the US to Egyptian immigrant parents, Abdallah established her forward-thinking firm in 2014 as “a collaborative, multi-disciplinary studio based on the concept of “form+function=design that simultaneously integrates local artisans and sustainable methods.” A veteran of both Rockwell and revered minimalist interior designer Toni Chi, Abdallah focuses mostly on the world of hospitality, while drawing from her global education, outlook, and upbringing.
Abdallah’s expansive mindset allows her firm “to adapt to our clients,” rather than — as is common among many designers today — the other way around. “We create something unique and authentic for each of them,” Abdallah says of the creative-minded commissions she takes on. “We are passionate about intuitive and superior-functioning spaces that encourage healthy movement and a community mindset.”
Although she’s become intrinsically linked to some of New York’s most celebrated locations, Abdallah’s background is at once eclectic and cerebral. Her studies include a BFA with a concentration in art and technology, a BA in psychology with a focus on art therapy and gender studies – as well as an MA from New York University in higher education and psychology along with an AAS Degree in interior design from the Parson School of Design. If that were not enough, there are a handful of supplementary courses from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and Columbia University thrown in.
“My diverse academic background is my “secret sauce” to the design solutions that we create for our clients,” Abdallah says of her global and varied education. ”All those years learning and understanding humans through lenses of art, psychology, social justice, and leadership allows me a different viewing portal into the world of design.”
Perhaps most meaningfully, Abdallah obtained a certificate from the Advanced Arabic Language Program at the American University of Beirut, where the designer spent six months living in the boho Hamra district. “Beirut is a true haven for innovative interior designers and architects,” Abdallah has said of the Lebanese capital.
Abdallah describes herself as someone with a “hunger for knowledge that truly takes our projects the extra mile.” Those projects are as varied and worldly as Abdallah. Many, like Neuehouse, may be located in New York — such as Nomad’s Taralluccie E Vino NoMad restaurant, where Abdallah utilized materials ranging from concrete and wood to leather and hand-painted tiles. But Abdallah’s signature can also be found on projects ranging from intimate and boutique hotels, to large-scale residential developments across the globe.
In Washington, DC, for instance, Abdallah helped design the Park Hyatt hotel, which was a favorite “date-night” spot for Barack and Michelle Obama during the former president’s administration. Abdallah has also left her mark on properties such as the InterContinental Geneva, Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok, and Cairo’s Nile Ritz-Carlton in Egypt, her parents’ homelands.
Although she’s a Manhattan native through and through, Abdallah spent many holidays and vacations in 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,” she reminisces. Such memories have imbued within Abdallah a global mindset always eager to discover “new ways of understanding how people interact with spaces,” she explains. “The layers of my cultural background … coupled with my education and experiences … give me an edge and unique paradigm with which to view the whole world.”
This “big-picture” understanding of how people engage with architecture and design can clearly be found in far larger projects that have literally changed the face of a destination. In San Francisco, for instance, Abdallah’s was part of the team that overhauled the city’s bay-front Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture — a 13-acre complex of converted military facilities dating back to the 18th century. Even more ambitious is London’s massive, game-changing Battersea Power Station, on which Abdallah also collaborated. This 41-acre site along the River Thames was recently converted from a disused power plant into the city’s most exciting new neighborhood with more than 4,000 homes, 250 shops, and 18 acres of public parkland (all at a cost of a cool $15 billion.)
Beyond traditional architecture and interior design, Functional Creative Design has a well-established visual branding practice, which Abdallah says “is part of the interior language” of a project “that helps create an emotional connection with our clients and users.”
With her peripatetic travels and cosmopolitan mindset, the pandemic could have proven a particularly dispiriting time for a creative free spirit like Abdallah. But the period actually offered a much-needed moment for an artistic reset and recalibration. For instance, Abdallah worked with the executive coach Nephi Niven, whom she calls “truly transformational.” And much of this transformation can now be seen in upcoming projects, such as Carriage House, which recently opened in a renovated 1880s carriage house in the West Village.
“Working with Nephi during the pandemic was extremely impactful…and taught me to look at myself in a 360-view, just like I do fur our projects,” she explains. “ By looking back, we may look forward. Some of the things we explored are what bring me personal joy, what bring me comfort, how to acknowledge and communicate my boundaries.”
Along with a respect for history, Abdallah executes projects with a clear eye for sustainability, often manufacturing furnishings in New York City to avoid the environmental toll of shipping. Abdallah says she does not necessarily see architecture and design as political, but she does see them as a way to “open people’s minds…and create spaces that provide opportunities.” What else to expect from a talent like Abdallah — who counts everyone from Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. to hoteliers like Ian Schrager as mentors. “Each of these people has inspired me truly and soulfully in some way or another,” she says.
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