There is no gain saying the fact that Pakistan has a humongous amount of young talented interior designers. They are not only changing the landscape of conceptualisation in design, but also know how to create a balance between sustainability and market value. Moreover, the new lot of designers believes in making a place not just aesthetically beautiful but also relevant to the modern consumers. Zahra Taha Ali is a visionary architect and interior designer who calls herself an artist and a product of environment. Hailing from Karachi and currently based in Toronto, Zahra loves to work with fair face concrete, rustic ambiance, light, and shadow. “I am a minimalist at heart but also swing towards eclectic aesthetics. All design styles are beautiful but rustic, traditional vintage spaces with a bit of clean aesthetics would be me,” she shares.
This week You! features Zahra Taha Ali, who talks about her Pakistani projects, design philosophy and what 2021 has in store for us in terms of interior design and architecture…
An artist is born when s/he recognises their true passion while pursuing art. This is what Zahra did to embark on a journey of architecture and interior designing. “It’s a long shot. My dad wanted me to be an architect. He always found me very creative and innovative, but I always scored great in Math and Science too and had a passion for World History. He figured Architecture would be a good fit. Throughout the five years of my architecture school, I found myself more interested in spatial experience through colours and materiality than in forms and structures,” reminisces Zahra.
The scribe asked the designer, at what point did her career took off, for which she replies, “For my final year thesis project, I worked on a recreation centre for youth that explored the idea of multi-sensory spaces – I think I was a passionate interior designer way before I knew it. Assisting with the principal Naveed Mashoqullah on the Atrium Cinema project sealed the deal for me in 2010.”
For her professional courses, Zahra studied Interior Design as a subject in Architecture at the NED University. According to her, “Architecture and Interiors are closely intertwined, and you cannot practice one without the other.”
While talking about catering to the niche Pakistani art and design, she strongly believes that Pakistan offers opportunity for a lot of custom furniture and design, but her forte is in creating rustic spaces with a tinge of modern elements. And it is great that Pakistan’s landscape of interior and design encourages her insight. Zahra takes great pride in the works she did for Pakistani consumers and explains, “I have had the opportunity to work in three countries and multiple cities around the world. The one thing common, except for my Canadian portfolio, would be working for Pakistanis. I have worked on a lot of restaurants and it’s the most dramatic form of interiors. I have worked with graphic artists, graffiti artists, ropes, live plants, etcetera. At ‘Meat the Cheese’, we have a wall mural conceptualised and executed by a lot of talented professionals. At ‘Firefly’, we used men from ship breaking to create a whole three-dimensional experience of ropes in interchanging colours as a secondary ceiling. It is a whole play of colours, light and shadow and uses local craft and expertise.”
The new age designer believes in getting enormously invested in each design and its execution and that is why she is very selective with what projects she takes on. “If you were to ask my clients, they would tell you how I control everything in a project; even the last to the final hardware on the bathroom door… How it ends up looking in the end might be a very important part of my job, but it doesn’t dictate how I feel about the project. The journey is always such a story of hit and miss. I love ‘Theatre’ though, it’s an illusion I dreamt of that turned into a reality.”
Sharing her point of view on whether design is an art or a science, Zahra reflects, “Art can only take you so far. A space that must be inhabited by real people living a life or running a restaurant, for that matter, need functionality above everything, if that’s where science comes in. Art can only survive if function follows it. They are dependent on each other.”
Following the same vein, she also believes in the notion that functionality of a design and its appeal are directly proportional to each other. “They go hand in hand. It’s like a pretty dress that doesn’t fit you or a dress that fits you but is not flattering. There is no design without functionality and appeal. Also, a truly functional space that is at a place where not a single thing can be further added or subtracted from it is at its height of appeal.”
Sustainable design is a way to go in the current world. When asked if her work involves use of sustainable products and designs, Zahra tells, “Sustainability be it in design or living is the need of the world. Using natural materials and responsible space planning can reduce the carbon footprint of any architecture. From solutions for parking/walkable spaces, to indigenous solutions to increase air circulation and reduce mechanical heating and cooling, all adds into making a building green. Natural materials, inclusion of plants and a recyclable living all begins at the stage of design.”
Regarding her projects – while keeping sustainability in mind – she elucidates, “Sustainability is always at the back of your mind while designing spaces. I try to think up of solutions that require minimal maintenance, like using fair face concrete or natural saw cut wood to the inclusion of plants. The architecture I do (yes, I have made quite a few residences) are always aiming to be well-lit with a good air circulation. We still have a long way to go in terms of sustainable materials and zero carbon footprints but for whoever is interested, passive housing is a remarkable phenomenon and if explored can work well in Pakistan.”
The first project, to any interior designer, is always memorable as it is supposed to be the learning curve as well as one’s career milestone. Zahra feels nostalgic while sharing hers, “My first independent project was residential interiors for a guest house. I remember using the best of knowledge and ability at that stage to create a luxury residential experience, all the while keeping in a tight budget. When I look back at it, I am filled with gratitude at the people who trusted in me and gave me the opportunity. I am also extremely proud of myself to have shown the confidence and taking it up. It was about 10 years ago and I can still see myself walking those wooden floors and using those comfortable plush sofas. I remember creating a space for them to stock their Fine China and cutlery in between the dining and the kitchen area to avoid having to run around during entertaining. It’s called a servery – I now know – but I can imagine whoever inhibits that space today to be very happy.”
In a world with an ongoing pandemic, everything is making a shift from the usual to a new phase. The parameters have changed, and certain new meanings have been adapted in a different way... Similarly, the parameters of design and concept have also taken a new turn. While talking about the design philosophy in 2021 and current projects, Zahra concludes, “Interior design is seeing a shift world over with post Covid-19 ideas. In Pakistan, it is a ripe blossoming profession where people finally realise the importance of hiring a professional. I see a lot of opportunities for myself and many others. On a professional front, I am working for a firm here in Canada that does beautiful luxury residential, along with that I am working on restaurants and corporate projects in Karachi, Dubai and here in Canada.”