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Meet the Minds Behind Restaurant Design – Kara Smith

Jul 1, 2014

Santa Barbara-based sfa design was established in 1996 by Sue Firestone, and has since built up a reputation as a premier design firm specializing in residential and hospitality projects in the U.S. and internationally, recently including the Hilton Windhoek in Namibia; Loews Don CeSar in St. Pete Beach, Florida; Villa Florence hotel in San Francisco; and the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. As president and partner of sfa design, Kara Smith’s success is based on a decade of experience in the design, fashion, and luxury worlds. Here, the travel lover discusses starting a company at just 18 years old, the importance of perseverance, and sfa’s upcoming projects.

                                                                     Photo by Kimberly Genevieve

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
From a young age I knew two things: I wanted to have a career and I thrived the most when I was being creative. Luckily, I have been able to combine the two with interior design.  Though, I first tried my hand at events and fashion before finding the designer role I was most passionate about.

What are some of your first memories of design?

Traveling around the world when I was young left a very outstanding impression on me. Visiting so many different—yet all extraordinary—places opened my eyes to diverse aesthetics and how broad design can be.

Did where you grew up influence your career path?
I grew up in Los Angeles, but when I was a teenager my family bought a second home in Santa Barbara. Ever since, I’ve split my time between LA and Santa Barbara. Spending so much of my time growing up in LA I became very submersed in current culture and fashion. It definitely influenced me career wise, and still influences me today.

                                                                                Bar Norcini

Give us a bit of your background: college, first jobs, early lessons learned?

I knew early on that I wanted to jump into the working world. So when I was 13, I made the decision to get my GED and pursue other ventures besides school. By the time I was 18, I had founded my own high-end events planning company, Platinum Circle. It was a great experience for me. It was a full-service company that really gave me an intimate knowledge of luxury living. I joined sfa design two years later as the operations manager, in charge of overseeing and developing the company’s operations and marketing processes, and shortly after was promoted to COO of the firm.

At the same time I began pursuing an after-hours interest, partnering with a lifelong friend and fashion designer to launch a high-end women’s fashion line—Karanina. It was probably the most exciting time in my career because it was very high energy and hard work with immediate gratification.

For three years, I split my time between Karanina and sfa before making the decision to focus my attention to the ever-evolving interior design industry.
If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that dedication and perseverance are the keys to success. And, you also need to understand your long term goals to accurately weigh opportunities.

What is your history with sfa design?
I joined sfa design when it was known as Sue Firestone Associates. I eventually became full partners with Sue, and SFA Design then became known as Smith/Firestone Associates. 

                                                                     Sea Porch, Loews Don CeSar Hotel

Can you discuss some of your recent projects?
We have been working on some amazing projects both in the residential and hospitality markets. I have been lucky enough to have aesthetically adventurous clients, who are willing to take risks with me and let me create unique, tailored identities for their spaces.   

Right now we are doing work with two landmark properties—the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa and La Quinta Resort & Club [in California]. It’s been such a great design experience working with these historic properties. We’ve been restoring their original essence and charm in a very current way.

We are also renovating the L’Ermitage Beverly Hills and are so excited about this project—it’s luxury at its finest. Can’t wait until we are able to share more information about it!

Other projects include the Montecito Inn; Encanto Spa at Catalina Island; and Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

                                                                    Bull & Bear, Waldorf Astoria Orlando

Is there a challenging project that you are especially proud of?

One of the most challenging projects I’ve lead to date was the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal (Abu Dhabi, UAE). It’s the largest Ritz-Carlton in the world. Four years and lots of traveling later we completed this Venice inspired hotel. However, halfway through the project, the hotel changed hands from JW Marriot to Ritz-Carlton. As the project grew and developed, the impressiveness of the design was more fitting of the Ritz-Carlton name and the tier of sophistication it’s associated with. The challenge of this situation was staying true to the original vision and design concept now that new decision makers were involved. With a little give and take, the overall design was executed while maintaining the integrity of our initial vision—and definitely well deserving of the Ritz-Carlton name.

                                                                        Kalabar, Hilton Windhoek

What are you looking forward to at your office?

We’ve recently had an influx of new design talent. The expertise of our senior design staff is broad and strong—we are more ready than ever to take one new projects, no matter the design style.

What do you find are the most challenging and exciting aspects of your job?

Every new project is exciting because it gives me the opportunity to create and expand my mind. However, every new project is also a challenge. First getting to know new clients and understanding their tastes and aesthetic inclinations, and then interpreting and expressing all of that in a fresh, spectacular design.

What is the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant—both in terms of branding and interiors?
Lighting and the ability to create the ambience you want. And great seating! The seats have to be perfectly comfortable and well suited for the type of eating you will be doing; they can completely change the whole vibe of a space.

Is there an architect or designer you most admire? Why?
I am a huge fan of Peter Marino. I love the edge he brings to his projects. He pushes design boundaries in a brilliant way.

                                                               Sir Harry's Lounge, Waldorf Astoria Orlando

What would be your dream project and why?
A hotel in Paris. I would love to create in that city. Between the rich history, architecture and romance, it’s just a magical place.

Where would you eat and what would you be having?

Pasta in Italy

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
I was born to create, so, if it wasn’t interiors it probably would be fashion. I do also love cooking and entertaining—so maybe even a restaurateur.

hdtalks: the interviews

During HD Expo 2014, Hospitality Design’s Michael Adams sat down with HBA’s Michael Bedner to talk about his half-century in the hospitality design industry. View the video.



Produced by: Emerald Expositions
Nielsen      Contract Design | Hospitality Design | K+BB | DDI

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