Functional Creative Design

Sarah A. Abdallah, Owner

From brand positioning and functionality to publicity and marketing, Functional Creative Design owner Sarah A. Abdallah takes a truly holistic approach to design. The hospitality designer gave us her expert take on today’s top design industry trends and technologies, and how her company is using them to push beyond boundaries. 

What does your company do and for whom?

Focused on the hospitality industry, Functional Creative Design is a collaborative multi- disciplinary studio based on the concept of ‘form + function = design’ that simultaneously integrates local artisans and sustainable methods. Our philosophy is to push beyond the norms of interior architecture and design, helping create unique experiences and stories and we are passionate about intuitive and superior functioning spaces that encourage healthy movement and a community mindset.

How did you come to launch your business?

After many years of working with notable firms and studios and learning from the best, I realized that we all approach design and architecture through whatever paradigm we are taught. For me, I felt as if there was a missing approach to viewing design and architecture through well-being in the personal and psychological aspects as humans that utilize spaces. After all, hospitality spaces are beautiful places where we formulate relationships and long-lasting connections. Additionally, I think I pride myself on producing different types of studio work so we can adapt different clientele and their lifestyle brands. Unlike many other designers, we have special aesthetics that we adapt to for our clients, allowing us to create something specific for each lifestyle brand.

Were there mentors or people who inspired you?

That is a difficult question. There are so many people I know who inspire me. My first mentor and teacher in the industry, with whom I worked for 3 years, was Tony Chi of Tony Chi and Associates, who really taught me everything I need to know and really inspired me. He and his executive team, Johnny, Bill, and Nelson really paved the way for me to look at the design through the eyes of care and hospitality while also having attention to detail. From matching team uniform design, branding, table top designing, I learned to look at designs with careful and functional details.

In addition, Ben Pundole, who is the VP of Brand Experience and Editor-in Chief of AHotelLife, and his mentor, Ian Schrager, the Hotelier and Real Estate Developer, also inspire me, for their lifestyle brand building capability really push boundaries to create 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 is always inspirational to me in how they create this special atmosphere that draws guests in to both the 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 to 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.

How do you differentiate from the other companies in your field?

Our unique and holistic approach to design. Everyone has all sorts of different recipes on how to create a brand story, and we have our own distinct one. We work with innovative projects to push barriers and we are at the cutting edge of new trends in new technologies. We understand human behavior and how it affects the architecture and interior design of space. Clients nowadays want the experiences to be local in their home land and global when they travel. Understanding the lifestyle brands and balancing between the concepts is extremely important for us to help build upon the client’s existing brand story. In addition, we focus on functionality, thinking beyond the rules to create impact on the individual or group interaction and to create movement in the environment for people to have unique experiences.

How does a hospitality designer work with publicists and marketers to tell a story about a project?

Publicity and marketing is extremely essential in telling a story about a finished project. We love to approach this in various ways. One way is by coming up with a list of publications that speak and resonate with our brand and our client’s brand. This is essential to be able to tell both our approach and the design concept that we created for our clients. For example,we differentiate between a hospitality space that is either restaurant or nightlife. For nightlife spaces, we approach interview magazines more geared toward lifestyle, while for a restaurant, we will look at culinary magazines; such as: bon appetit Magazine, Gather Journal.

How does brand positioning come into play with your approach to design?

Brand positioning and branding is essential to our design approach. We first try to understand if there is an existing brand the client has and is continuing to develop or if they have a brand that they are trying to rebrand. Once we have a greater understanding of this, we work collaboratively with the client to come up with solutions for brand positioning and brand language to help in the developments leading up to the details of the design.

What are the top design industry trends and technologies and how do they affect the work you are currently doing in the market?

In general, technology give clients feedback on their clientele and this proves to be extremely helpful. Integrated technology in restaurants and hotels is now a must to be competitive in the market and is rapidly becoming the new norm. Many restaurant guests use technology to give feedback on delicious food and design. What is equally critical is to create a greater experience. A restaurant’s brand story and target audience can be reinforced with interactive digital menus that enable customization that account for allergies. Beautifully designed techonology can elevate a guest’s experience. For the back of the house, they can ensure food orders while making sure that key ingredients are not out of stock.

For example, Developer Eruza now offers a cloud based system that can help quick-serve restaruatns and cage operators to order the right amount ot food at the ideal time.

Also, ALTA by TengWirth, is a technology company that focuses on ROI for the hospitality industry. We agree with the thinking of this firm that the future of technology in the industry will be in the following areas:

1. Data collection to understand guest preferences and behaviors
2. Accommodating guest preferences and behaviors
3. Presenting available products and services in an attractive digital format that will raise the bottom line
4. Giving employees an effective, immediate medium to receive, record and respond to customer requests

For the front of the bouse, voice-driven content and interation can accommodate to services like as music and temperature. Such voice-driven technology include BLE powered space/Bluetooth: low energy techonology within your smart phone you can drop to people for entry and exit (ex. Checking in and out of a hotel room). As a LEED-certified designer, I’m also passionate about working with hoteliers to use technology to reduce energy expenditure.

Who are the new, upcoming influencers in the hospitality industry that we may not know of?

Humble Riot and its founder, Anthony Demby, provide bespoke solutions for partners and clients by creating dynamic experiences and telling compelling stories through the lens of music creation, cultural programming, and branding + creative social impact.

MyÜberLife Consulting Group is a management consulting firm that specializes in cultural insight while also shaping and keeping track of cultural trends in what they call the dynamic of business culture. They utilize their knowledge in music, fashion, and art to craft marketing and development strategies for their clients.

Nikki Kynard aka Niks is a singer, songwriter, and international DJ who has performed on tour with Lil Wayne for audiences that included icons such as Beyonce, Chris Brown, and more. She has been recognized for her unique style, both writing and singing on Lil Wayne’s platinum “Carter II” album where she contributed on tracks “Weezy Baby” and “Get Over.”She now follows her passion in curating music for private events and clientele and lives in New York, while also circling herself around women empowerment. She is the founder of 10 Chairs, an organization that connects women in the creative and hospitality industries over a curated, private dinner that features food by a local private chef in a private residence. Nikki works closely with new hotel brands to influence the market.

We are seeing more brands in general, though fashion and hospitality brands especially, taking a stance in what they believe in in regards to social and political issues. As professionals in hospitality, PR, and marketing, these are truly the issues we need to start paying more attention to.

Do you see any challenges as a woman business owner?

Yes—the truth is, as humans, we are 100% visual. In general, the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. As a woman of color going into a room filled with men, I am aware that the initial reaction focuses on my visual and physical appearances of who I am. In some situations, it takes a moment for those who I am interacting with to shift their initial, direct impressions of me. It is not until I start speaking when they see there is more of me and my intelligence that I bring to the table than my exterior counterpart. I find that some clients prefer to work with women as they want different perspectives and a feminine touch to a project aside from the intelligence that we provide. As women, we live through a different paradigm and each one of us, as humans, look through different lenses and this helps us create different perspectives. In the end, that helps curate the way we approach any work that we do.

What have been some career highlights thus far?

There are two distinct turning points in my Architecture and Interior Design career. While I was a senior consultant for David Rockwell’s Rockwell Group, I led the design for Neuehouse NY and LA, a project that lasted 10 months. Then, I was called to lead the team on the design side to help bridge the gap between the concept and end product. In 2016, Contract Magazine awarded the Rockwell Group with the Large Office Award for Neuehouse NY. I had the pleasure to stand in front of more than 600 world-renowned professionals to receive the award alongside David and the team, and this was one of my most rewarding moments. However, my final project, the Waterline Square Project, for the Rockwell Group in leading a team of 6 people for the Rockwell Group’s Amenities Center Design made me realize that it was time for me to finally take off on my own.

The second major turnaround in my career came in June 2017 when I was invited by the founder of the American Restaurants and Bar Awards to send our projects to be considered for a prize. Soon after, I discovered that we have been Shortlisted for Restaurant & Bar DesignAwards American Bar Category for our project “VNYL for July 2017.” This has proved to be a great milestone for me and the company.

What would be some dream projects you’d like to take on?

My dream projects includes an all-inclusive wellness-focused Hotel and Spa in a warmer climate and in the Mediterranean, Turkey, Cairo, Lebanon or in the UAE, as I can most resonate with this area.

In addition, to design a high-end luxury boutique hotel in Turkey and a Four Seasons would be another dream project. I want to create community spaces within these luxury environments that appeal to a youthful mind-set as well as to the property’s established clientele.

For more information about Sarah and Functional Creative Design, visit

Photo courtesy of 
Ball and Albanese Photography


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