Sarah Daniel: I Studied Law But My Heart Is with Interior Design

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Foremost interior designer and Managing Director of SD Interiors Limited, Sarah Daniel, is style personified. Trained at the prestigious KLC school of Design, London, she began her design firm in 1991 for a roster of local and international clients. In January 2016, she alongside her billionaire spouse, opened House of Splendor; a seven-room Boutique, Hotel and Spa, in the heart of Lagos, an oyster located in G.R.A Ikeja, Lagos. The affable and delectable Daniel shares with Adedayo Adejobi what stands her out amongst a host of designers in Nigeria and overseas. Daniel also gives an insight into her personality, fashion and her husband • I Don’t Follow Trends to Make Interior Designs • I Depend on God to Create Appealing Concepts to Clients • I Handle Interior Design Not As a Business But Ministry…

What influences your style?

My first influence is my upbringing. My dad was a very classic person whose music, interiors and lifestyle reflected his personality. Growing up in such a home clearly influenced my style of designing today. I love timeless interiors. The trends and patterns of today have also influenced me. As a result, my works have become quite eclectic. Being an African has its influence as well. I am at ease designing African themed interiors as much as neo-classic or eclectic interiors. The various countries I have visited at one time or the other have also influenced my interiors. I fuse these in some of my spaces.

Does every client you handle always buy into your design style?

When you come into this profession, you must be able to carve out a niche for yourself and that is what we have tried to do. Our clients come to us primarily because of our design style. They know who we are and what we do best.

Interior designs have special sentiment for themes. Are there some themes that influence your work? Theme is simply the combination of components and elements of designs, while style is a preset idea. I work in varied styles: Neo-classic, Baroque, Rococo, Eclecticism, Fusion and African. I like transitional, Art Deco and art nouveau interiors too. But I have not come across clients to express that; a bit of modernism. At the end of the day, the clients’ tastes dictate the concept we come up with – concept being style and theme.

Share the experience of how you cut your teeth in the interior design sphere of influence? I started out training myself. I bought several interior design books. I trained myself before going on a formal course abroad. Interior designing for me is a natural calling for which I have passion, notwithstanding my earlier training in Law. When you discover your gift, aligning the same with passion and honing your skills for distinctive service delivery, nothing can be better or easier. Every designer has a DNA of the creative juice flowing in them. What drives your creative energy? It’s God. Then, my dad like I said earlier. I know this is my God-given talent or gift – my own calling. And, I treat what I do as not just a business but a ministry.

How is it a ministry and why the spiritual dimension it?

It is a ministry. As a Christian I know that whatever God gives you to do is a platform to minister (to) Christ. We do not know our clients. But God who created them knows them all. Therefore, we depend on Him to give us the concepts that will be appealing to each of our clients. We ask Him and He shows us. We depend on Him every step of the way until the project is concluded. In the course of carrying out projects, there are challenges and conflicts, both within our team and on the sites with other professionals – even with the client sometimes. I try as much as possible to listen to the voice of the Lord in handling such crisis when and if they arise. My co-designers in the office have come to appreciate bringing Christ into our business and ministering (to) Him.

So when situations arise, the question for me is always, ‘what would Jesus have me do?’

I am always open to the Lord to show me who to share the good news with, when I am on a project. I have also by His grace brought couples back together in the course of executing a project and have also been able to give the women a voice in homes where their opinion or input did not matter. All these make me a minister of Christ through my practice. At the end of each project, what people see and admire is the glory and beauty of the Lord. When we present a project He has given to us to Him for direction, we are only making ourselves available as channels for Him to pass through to show forth His creativity. He is the master.

With a creative but spiritually-driven business template, you have a workforce that aligns with your shared values or spiritual inclinations. How do you work around that?

I have never advertised for designers who are Christians. But God sends them to me. It’s simply amazing. It is awesome when you are all of the same mind and judgment. When I say no to a project, they understand. And more often than not, the perception will be the same. They understand the principles of the company and the need to execute the business to please God. We are happy and content with what we are doing and that is why it’s a ministry.

What’s the trend for 2017?

We don’t follow trends. We design timeless interiors. And if you are a spiritual person you don’t follow trends. Every client that we have is not one in a million but one in creation. Allowing the Lord to be the master designer, we are able to please our clients all the time at the end of each project. What does it cost on the average to furnish a luxury room or apartment like the one you have in your seven-roomed boutique hotel? We cannot give a price; as each space, style or products determine what goes into each costing. We are known for fine bespoke furniture. We produce furniture to meet requirements of individual space we design. A lot goes in before we can determine costs. We follow the design process. No compromises.

What is your definition of luxury?

Luxury is not about what you do, it’s about how you feel.

Can you tell us some of your strengths that really helped you on the interior in the business?

I believe I have eye for details, given to processes, pursuit of excellence and daring with experimentation. What do you think is the best service an interior designer can provide to a customer? It’s customer satisfaction.

What was your memorable mistake and what lesson did you learn from it?

Thinking I could allow artisans to work without much supervision or fail to oversee instructions carried out by superintendents simply because we have spent time to train, correcting over and over again. It is presumptive working that way in Nigeria of today. Even our college graduates do not prove their mettle these days. Some years ago, I went to inspect a site in Abuja where our interior architect was supervising. When I got there, the quality of the work was so bad I didn’t know when I started weeping on site. I called my husband while weeping miserably. We lost a lot of money. I cannot stand mediocrity. Another lesson I learnt was coming to terms with the fact that the male members of our team are better off as architects than interior designers. They simply do not have eyes for details. They do not have the ability to supervise and coordinate interior projects properly. What is your most outstanding achievement so far? It is the House of Splendor Boutique Hotel and Spa. Who has impacted you most in interior designing and how? My dad; he loved interiors. I remember when I was growing up, people used to come to his house in the village for sight-seeing. It was very beautiful. Each space was distinct. It was simply amazing. Though he had a legal background, (just like me), interior designs were his passion. What is your greatest achievement outside of interior designing? Standing by my husband through his years of adjusting to a new way of living after an accident that left him paralysed. What do you do in your spare time? I enjoy reading, listening to music, and watching good, meaningful films.

What has been the most challenging moment in your job so far?

It is trying to educate our people on the interior designers’ services. It was most challenging when I started. The profession was largely unknown in this part of the world then. It was very challenging getting clients to pay for our services; again primarily because we are a people who do not understand the need to pay for such services. Another challenging moment for me had been seeing our people claiming that a job that was clearly done by us was done by foreigners. I just couldn’t understand it at first. But sadly, through the years, I came to realise that we are a people that prefer the white skin to ours – colonial mentality – even when we are clearly doing better. I mean ‘oyinbos’ see my work and cringe. It is the same with my colleagues outside the country..

I remember designing a window treatment for a client’s residence (who today is my very good friend). He took the design to Harrods in London for execution. It was their reaction to my work that validated me in his estimation, so much so that he invited and gave me freer hand in his new office complex. Well, I guess this saying is right; that a prophet has no honour in his own place. But I must also admit, we are evolving as a nation and a people. We are better appreciated and recognised today than 20 years ago. But largely I guess we, as a company, (SD Interiors Ltd) have proved who we are. Can you name some of your favourite interior designers and explain why they are? I love quite a number of designers’ works both at home and abroad, irrespective of their style because of their distinctive tastes and excellence in executions. I wouldn’t want to mention any specific names.

What do you find the most frustrating aspect of interior designing?

At the beginning, these were my frustrations: clients thinking that you shouldn’t charge for your services or that you are too expensive. Meanwhile, ever so willing and ready to pay for foreigners’ services that are not half as good as you are. In fact, they will attest to your work in astonishment. But their charges are in some cases five times higher than yours. Secondly, our people are not given to processes; so there are cases some clients think your attention to procedures are too much. Increasingly, our clients appreciate our processes and are willing to pay for our services.

What would you say to a young person who wants to go into interior designing profession? Having a talent for it is a good start. Just ensure that you have passion for it because it is painstaking. Training is key and exposure is a big deal. I mean travel around the world; it’s an advantage. Seek to improve yourself all the time. Go for as many interior design fairs as you can afford. Fairs expose you to what is going on worldwide in the industry. You have a penchant for fashion. Who would you say is your number one fashion inspiration? Fashion?

I like to dress comfortably. The older I have got, the less focus and time I give to fashion. I don’t have any fashion inspiration. I dress to please myself and I don’t care about what is in vogue. What five things would you not be caught without? My Bible – I have it on all my gadgets; my lip-gloss. Also, I need my glasses because I must see. My phone and iPad – that’s all. Which foot wear do you like – heels or flats? Flats now, especially after a fall I had two years ago when I fractured my ankle and had to go for surgery.

I haven’t yet fully healed. What is your favourite TV show?

Hush. What is your favourite quote?

‘Do unto others what you will like others to do unto you.’ What five books have you read that have transformed you?

There are many books that have impacted on me. Let me mention a few not in any particular order: ‘Love Not The World’ by Watchman Nee; ‘Marketplace Christianity’ by Bob Fraser; ‘From Third World to First’ by Lee Kuan Yew; ‘Beauty for Ashes’ by Zack Poonen; and ‘In His Steps’ by Charles M Sheldon. What is one thing readers would be surprised to hear?

Maybe they would be surprised to hear that I don’t know anything about Instagram and most of the social media. I am learning deliberately now those I believe will make my life and work easier. But then again, most people of my age aren’t social media savvy so they shouldn’t be surprised (laughter).