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Sara Malek Barney seamlessly navigated her way through a transition from entertainment industry executive to well-respected interior designer with more projects on the horizon than she can count. Equipped with a keen knack for design, the now-designer tackled small projects for herself, friends and family and continued to pursue design as a side interest; she enrolled in school to earn her degree in interior design and clients quickly took their place in line to work with her. Burning the candles at both ends, as she puts it, and raising two daughters, she decided to focus on design full time. “I felt the urge to create something my daughters could be proud of and inspired by for their own futures. They needed to know they could forge their own paths,” she tells us of finally trading in her first career for something better suited for her (and her family). “It became much more important for me to create a career I felt was meaningful so I could show them the strength we have as moms, women and entrepreneurs.”

Now, 3-year-old Austin-based BANDD DESIGN, led by Sara, is enjoying enormous success and gearing up to kick off its 80th project as a full-service interior design firm. Sara’s diverse background helps her understand the ins and outs of running a business, and she is a businesswoman first — and a designer second. Self-described as laidback and easy to work with, Sara has established a reputation for delivering designs that meet her clients’ needs, wants and likes. Plus, the designs are cool and livable. You’ll quickly see why she’s our latest interior designer crush …

Sara Malek Barney

Interior designer Sara Malek Barney ventured into the field of design after a 15-year career in the entertainment industry. She tells us: “I strongly feel this is the business I should have always been in, but I definitely needed the path I took to get here. If I had done it any other way, it would have been a disaster. I am certain of that.”

How did you begin to define your signature aesthetic?

I design for real life, regardless of what that means in terms of a style. I never want my designs to feel stuffy, unapproachable or, worse, unlivable. I love an aesthetic that feels classic, clean, uncluttered, and is loaded with texture. We have become known to use quite a bit of color in our designs, and, also, we are not averse to mixing patterns on the regular. I think if you asked my staff, they’d laugh at the amount of wallpaper we use in our projects … it’s an addiction really. I’ve had other designer friends tell me our look is transitional and very palatable. Ha! I have no idea what that really means, but I follow my gut based on the client’s wants and needs and the architecture of their homes.

What tricks can homeowners use to facilitate beauty and purpose in their living spaces?

Pick pieces you love or that speak to who you are as a person or family. I always tell clients, I strive to make sure their homes don’t just feel like any home, but their home. I want their family and friends to come in and know they live there and can feel their personalities in the space. Also, don’t just design a room based on what you saw on Pinterest. It’s great to use inspiration photos in helping shape what you want, but don’t copy and paste. Give it a little personality!

White and gray kitchen

“At the end of the day, their project is not about my vision wholly but also their needs and wants. I want them to know we are listening to their likes and dislikes and not just trying to bulldoze over their desires,” Sara explains.

Dining area designed by Sara Malek Barney

Through her Austin-based interior design firm, Sara and a team of six employees, deliver livable designs. Austin’s growth is attracting families from larger markets, including New York, California and Chicago, so the market is extremely attractive to designers.

Luxury kitchen with blue accents

“It’s far less formal than its Houston or Dallas counterparts, and if you know me, you know I am not a formal person at all, so it suits my design point of view perfectly in that regard,” the designer says of working and living in her hometown of Austin, TX.

Bedroom designed by Sara Malek Barney

Sara tells us not to underestimate the value that accessories, window treatments and finishing pieces can bring into a room. She calls these pieces “the jewelry on the outfit that helps complete the look” and firmly believes the small touches can be just as important as the larger items.

Are there any new design trends you are eager to incorporate this year?

So many! I honestly don’t know what’s a ‘trend’ vs. what am I vibing on at the moment. I am dying to do more textured drapery that adds in special elements like beading or trim run in interesting directions. I’d love to do a floor to ceiling upholstered wall or headboard. And in that same vein, I am pretty over accent walls, but I could change my mind for an accent wall clad in a fun material like leather strips. I am really down with giant, oversized lighting and sconces just about anywhere. Also, I am planning a remodel in my own home right now, which includes a new master bathroom, and I am full-on planning to put a refrigeration drawer in my vanity for face masks, almond milk, and other random stuff. Oddly, that little design element is giving me life to even pull the trigger on the remodel.

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What are you currently working on?

2020 has been amazing to us as a company so far. We’ve got around 12 to 14 projects currently running at the moment that vary in size and scale — some small and some large, with long timelines. Our sweet spot is eight to 12 projects at a time so, clearly, we are stretched thin at the moment. We’re looking to add a designer to our team in the coming months. We’ve got about 30 projects in the pipeline, and not all of them will become anything, but even if 20% of them stick, we need to be prepared for that.

I’m also planning out my home remodel. We are planning to turn our current playroom into the master suite of my dreams, and we are so pumped for it — my girls especially because it means they will get new rooms, too. They are very into design and draw up floor plans for me all the time.

Also, a big goal for the business is to grow beyond just client work. We are working on securing our first real estate investment in Austin as a flip project. We are constantly chatting with brands to partner with them. If you’re looking at any business model I’d be down to emulate, look at Jeff Lewis. Regardless of whether you love or hate him, his business model is so inspirational to me.

Bathroom with patterned wallpaper

A wallpaper addiction, something Sara admittedly has, means wallpaper is likely to be included in each of her designs. Here, wallpaper with an approachable pattern and color palette softens the clean lines of the small powder room and pairs well with many materials.

Living space designed by Sara Malek Barney

Sara has come a long way since her first interior design project. During her first paid project, the freshman designer learned about every element of design and the business of design. “I realized that I hadn’t been clear to her that this was a business and even though I was new to it, my time was still valuable. Gosh, I am so happy those very early learning days are past me.”

Dining room with floral wallpaper

Again, wallpaper makes a meaningful impact on this informal, but still sophisticated, dining space. Sara does not shy away from pattern nor color in her designs.

Neutral-colored dining space

Sara’s top tip when hosting is to make sure everyone feels welcome and at ease: “It takes a lot of work, but if you enable your guests to help themselves, it makes them instantly feel comfortable and eases your workload a little bit. That said, don’t expect a lot from your guests. Let them relax and just enjoy it.”

If you could design one person’s home, who would it be?

OMG. Such a loaded question. Probably Paul McCartney. If for no other reason than to say I designed a home for a freaking Beatle!

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Who or what is currently inspiring you?

Honestly, I find so much of my inspiration on Instagram. I am a pretty organized, Type A person, but on Instagram, if I see something or someone I love, I just save it as a visual memory for me to recall later. From a furnishing standpoint, I am drawn towards the beautiful wood pieces I’ve seen coming from vendors in Europe. My staff knows I am beyond obsessed and inspired by the work from De La Espada. I literally cannot shut up about it. I am also very into designing cabinetry these days. It’s an architectural element that is so often glazed over because it’s expensive, but it can make such a bold statement.

Learn more about Sara Malek Barney and BANDD DESIGN here.

All photography by Molly Culver Photography

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