Interview: Sura Malaga-Strachan
July 1, 2005
When asked about her design style, Sura Malaga-Strachan described herself as somewhat of a â€œchameleon,â€ since she has extensive experience with ornate designs as well as a more modern, minimalist aesthetic. During the 18 years that the interior designer has been in business, she has built a portfolio that showcases the diversity of her work. Although she primarily designs high-end estate homes today, Malaga-Strachan has also worked in the commercial sector - in particular, creating interior spaces for restaurants, hotels and healthcare facilities.
It was fashion that first peaked Malaga-Strachan's interest at an early age, and from there she pursued and developed her talent in interior design. Her schooling includes the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City as well as Parsons School of Design and Rider College in Lawrenceville, NJ. Driven by determination and a creative instinct, the designer operated her own business from the start of her career. She is founder and head of Design and Development Inc., which is headquartered in Holmdel, NJ, and recently opened a Manhattan studio, which she personally designed with Carrara White marble.
A common distinction among Malaga-Strachan's designs is the use of unique and cutting-edge materials, which keeps her work fresh and inspiring. Malaga-Strachan considers stone and tile integral components of each design. No matter what the style, she has the ability to find a suitable material to meet her clients' desired needs. Moreover, Malaga-Strachan keeps an eye out for new products entering the market, which further enhance the scope of her work.
Recently featured in â€œHome & Garden's Top Ten Master Builders Suitesâ€ as well as in a book published by Joan Kohn of HGTV, Malaga-Strachan's innovative designs have been the subject of articles in such national publications as Art & Antiques, Design Times and Interior Design. Additionally, her designs have also received the prestigious Gold and Bronze Awards for Excellence from the New Jersey Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers in the â€œResidential over 5,000 square feet categoryâ€ for 2001 and 2002.
Contemporary Stone & Tile Design recently had the opportunity to sit down with Malaga-Strachan to discuss design as well as the use of stone and tile in her work.
CSTD: When did you first develop an interest in design?
Malaga-Strachan: It started with fashion. It was my first love and forte. I designed clothes for my mom for different events, and when I was in my early teens I helped decorate my uncle's and aunt's house. So I developed a sense of style very early. Then when I married I designed my own home and enjoyed it so much that I decided to get a formal education in interior design. I feel that design has always come naturally to me.
CSTD: Did you go to Parsons School of Design?
Malaga-Strachan: I went to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City) and Parsons and Rider College [in Lawrenceville, NJ].
CSTD: Did you go right into your own business?
Malaga-Strachan: Yes, I did. I was a single parent at that time and there was a financial need. I did a lot of commercial work, including a breast cancer center and a cardiology office, as well as a number of projects for corporate agencies in New York City.
CSTD: Do you do more residential now?
Malaga-Strachan: Yes. As new home construction increased so drastically throughout the country - and especially in the Metropolitan New York area - I became very involved in architectural detailing. I think that came from my extensive background in commercial work. Attention to detail is vital in commercial work, and I have carried that over in my residential work.
CSTD: What are some of the stone and tile products you have recently seen introduced to the market?
Malaga-Strachan: The hard surface industry - tile and stone - has just boomed in the last 10 years. It's really amazing. Many products are now coming from China as well. A competition started between Italy and China, Argentina and Brazil. That competition had resulted in so many unique products for the home.
CSTD: What are some of the ways that you learn about the new products on the market?
Malaga-Strachan: I want to be different. I'm hired because I try to create a look that reflects the client's taste and lifestyle, but also has a â€œwowâ€ factor. I always do a lot of research. I think that is very important. So, when I start programming a project, I will do research on flooring materials - surfing the net. I attend a lot of trade shows. Design magazines and showrooms are some other ways that I keep up with new products. Recently, I opened an additional studio in New York City, which puts many showrooms of special interest to designers within easy commuting distance.
I like to introduce new products to my client. Often, the client is a bit wary of an unfamiliar project, so I must explain it in detail. Clients tend to be concerned about how well a product will wear. For example, I encountered a resistance towards using marble in high-traffic areas. So I mixed wood and marble. In one project, I used cutouts of marble inlays in the high-traffic areas. This way the client could pop out any granite that might get scratched in the future and insert a new piece. As a designer, you are always on a balancing beam. On one hand, you must pay attention to the client's taste. On the other hand, you can't compromise your creativity. And while every project has to be beautiful, it also has to function superbly.
CSTD: Do you find many of your clients have preconceptions about the designs they want for their homes, or do they follow your lead? How much time do you have to spend educating them?
Malaga-Strachan: I've been a designer for about 18 years. Early on, I would educate my client. I would say that over the last five to seven years - with the Internet becoming so important and with the myriad of showrooms - they are becoming highly educated. I still introduce the products, though.
CSTD: How often do you use stone and tile in your designs?
Malaga-Strachan: Every project. I would not do any project without stone, tile and wood. Those are the three areas of floor covering that I use. I try not to get involved with carpeting at all unless I have to - maybe commercial projects. My clients appreciate timeless elegance, and I feel that tile and stone are among the products that you can count on to provide such a look.
CSTD: When it comes to the selection process, what would you say is the most important piece of advice that you can offer to your clients?
Malaga-Strachan: I tell them not to be afraid of drama. Even a very refined and elegant interior needs to make a statement. I've been known to fight for a design statement that I've known was perfect for my clients. I remember a project where I specified a marble conglomerate. It was a contemporary project, and the conglomerate was a new product that I saw at the Builders Show.
CSTD: It seems like products such as glass and metal tile have become popular. Are you using these products more in your designs?
Malaga-Strachan: I used glass tile in the project where I used the marble conglomerate. I find that today, glass [tile] makes more of a contemporary statement, plus it suits modernism so well. Modernism - the design movement of the early and mid-1900s - is so important again. Furnishings from that era are classics and the new antiques, and glass tiles suit this look perfectly.
I use a lot of metal for backsplashes in kitchens. I just finished a project where I designed a metal tile backsplash, and I also used this material as a border inlay on the floor. It is an interesting project.
CSTD: When you work with some of these new products, such as the smaller glass tiles or the metal tiles, are you finding that tile installers are able to work well with these new shapes and dimensions?
Malaga-Strachan: You really need to get an excellent craftsman to install any tile, whether it is marble, glass or metal. That's very important, because it is difficult. Obviously, the more intricate the design, the more complicated it is to install it.
I've been doing a lot of waterjet-cut designs. I can pick any marble combination I want and send a pattern [to the fabricator], and it is put together almost like a mosaic. It's not quite as intricate as a mosaic, but you can form various designs.
I did a few projects back in the '90s with the waterjet, and it was very expensive. But now, it isn't quite as costly. It enables you to inlay glass with a marble or any type of stone in metal. It makes such beautiful patterns.
CSTD: Do you have to spend a lot of time supervising the installation process?
Malaga-Strachan: All the time. You have to really be there. I'm not there every day, but if there's a good installer, we talk about it before. We'll meet before the project begins and lay everything out. They will have a drawing of what has to be done, and everything is labeled, but you always get phone calls. Preparing the project prior to installation is the best way to handle any phase of construction.
CSTD: What are some of the most common issues that come up when installing stone or tile?
Malaga-Strachan: One important issue is the grouting. The grout can really make or break the project. It's a small detail, so a lot of designers will let the installer select the grout color, but you need to follow through all the way.
CSTD: Can you recall any memorable positive or negative experiences that you have encountered when using stone or tile?
Malaga-Strachan: A lot of things are coming out of places like Israel and other countries, and there is a big breakage problem. So, when you order a product - especially a custom hand-painted tile - you need to allow for breakage because you'll never get the same dye lot again. I just completed a project where that was an issue, and I was lucky because the installer put in an extra 10%. But we went down to the wire with it. I would say you need an extra 10 to 20%, depending on the product you are ordering.
CSTD: Your designs encompass a broad range of project types, including commercial, residential and hospitality. You had mentioned that commercial used to be your favorite type of design. Has this changed?
Malaga-Strachan: I do a lot of estate homes, but I also like commercial projects of many types, including restaurants, hotels and even healthcare facilities. Each commercial establishment comes with its own set of challenges, because the design has to help it meet its marketing objectives. Whether it is commercial or residential, there is a buzzword â€œform and function.â€ Well, it's form and function in residential design as well as commercial, but it became a commercial buzzword. And, you really need to understand the space, the architectural details involved and the materials you are using. A residential project should be specified just like a commercial project - every detail should be covered. If that is done from the beginning, a much smoother project will happen in residential as well.
As I said, I did like commercial design better when I first started out. I did a lot of restaurants, and I used to love to combine the name, menu and the design to create a distinct identity that would pull people in. I have adapted that aspect of design to my residential projects. So when someone walks into his or her house, every aspect is considered and covered, including color, design and architectural elements. So yes, I really enjoy residential projects as well now. I don't know which I like better, but I can't get away from residential work. That's what I'm known for now - high-end estate homes and turnkey projects.
CSTD: Having been in the business for 18 years, how often are you surprised as to what can be done with stone and tile?
Malaga-Strachan: I created a whole mosaic fireplace, which came out much better than I imagined. It was a two-story mosaic fireplace. That was really something special. When I first started to use porcelain tile, I did a house of all white porcelain. It was very stark, and I was amazed at how warm the house looked. It was immensely interesting. That was early on, and it led me to use more marble in large spaces, creating a warmer look with the furnishings and furniture. I like that look. It's very European. Clients love it. And porcelain, because of its quality of durability, has become very prevalent.
CSTD: How about on the other side of the equation? Have you ever done something with stone or tile where you looked back and thought, â€œI'll never try that againâ€?
Malaga-Strachan: I used a Mexican tile and it was surface dyed. It was a custom color, which was kind of greenish. It started wearing terribly, but it actually aged the tile and it looked better. It was the funniest thing. I had done the client's restaurant as well. In the beginning she was getting upset, and I finally had to go and research it and show her some of the architecture by Luis BarragÃ¡n, and talk her into keeping it.
CSTD: What are some other trends you have noted?
Malaga-Strachan: Carved glass tile for backsplashes. Also, the hand-painted concrete tile from Israel is beautiful. I'm using a lot of slate - not just in 18- x 18-inch tiles, but in herringbone patterns. It has gone back to a basic Old World feeling with marbles and granites. Granite especially has taken a big turn for countertops. There are so many unusual granites out today. It's just amazing. I just completed a job where the granite actually looked like trees. I believe it was a product from Brazil.
CSTD: Are you involved with specifying for maintenance?
Malaga-Strachan: Usually I go with the manufacturer's recommendations. I'll sell the product, tell them the do's and don'ts, and let them make a decision. Then I'll give them the manufacturer's recommendations for cleaning and wearability.
CSTD: What advice would you offer to young designers who are just embarking on their careers?
Malaga-Strachan: The main advice I would give a designer is to go with their first instinct; not to second-guess themself. Your creativity comes from within - usually it's an intuition and instinct - and you need to go with that and try to hold on to that. Also, find a firm that will let you be creative, where you are not just hand-stamping the same design. If you feel that you have that creativity, you should find a firm that is avant-garde and will let you grow. Don't compromise your design, but also learn. Try to be an intern. It's very important to do internships, and get yourself a mentor to help you through the process.