Today we are celebrating International Women’s Day 2023 and have chosen to highlight a wonderful selection of truly inspirational women who are vital members of the commercial interiors sector, each playing a different role. We spoke with Sarah Dabbs about being an inspiration to others, the women she celebrates, the advice she gives as a mentor and the potential impact of greater gender equality on her work.
Please could you introduce yourself and your role?
I’m Sarah Dabbs and I’m one of two Associate Directors at SpaceInvader in Manchester. My title is new for 2023, having formerly been an Associate at the company after first joining in 2019. SpaceInvader is one of the North of England’s leading dedicated interiors agencies and we work across the workspace and hospitality sectors, as well as in PRS and developer residential schemes, particularly on the amenity design aspect of new developments.
As well as leading projects, my new role involves client relations, the refinement of our internal processes and systems and taking responsibility for the best way to undertake reporting on sustainability, as a studio and for each individual project. Our commitment to sustainability includes how we specify both materials and our supply chain, as well as considering and measuring the wellbeing and biophilic aspects of our projects. We also seek to combat climate change through a whole-life approach to materials, maintenance and disassembly and to demonstrate a commitment to good ethics and equality in our work by representing the positive interests of all end-users on our schemes.
What does it feel like to be inspired by, and inspire, people around you?
Working in design is all about never-ending inspiration. It’s the nature of our work and it’s constant and comes to you from everyone and from every direction. It’s difficult for me to think of inspiration as an individual thing in an industry that’s all about collaboration. It would be lovely to think I could inspire others too, but that wouldn’t be for me to say!
I think the emotion that surrounds inspiration is one of openness. You certainly can’t design well without being open because you always need to be listening and seeking to broaden your exposure to new information, desires and intentions.
What does inspiration feel like? Well, it’s an immediate connection that then goes on to open new doors and to take you on different paths and in new directions. Really, inspiration is something that should change you and take you forward, even if it starts by first connecting with you in the here and now.
Which inspirational women do you celebrate?
The two inspirational women that I would choose to celebrate are both designers, though in different fields, and both are women whose determination is tangible and whose singular style is instantly recognisable.
The first is Eileen Gray, the Irish architect and furniture designer and one of the leading Modernist pioneers. Her iconic furniture designs have a unique style and I admire her for being at the forefront of design on so many levels, from moving to Paris to opening her own store there, in an industry that was very male-dominated in the interwar years when she did much of her work. As Zeev Aram said: ‘Eileen Gray’s designs are now as familiar as designs from the other important early 20th Century architects and designers such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer et al.’
The second is the late, great Vivienne Westwood. Again, you can always tell her clothes are hers because they couldn’t be anybody else’s. They are timeless because they represent her truth and that was always something that was way beyond any trends and fashions of the moment. She evolved constantly but her designs were always hers.
What three pieces of advice would you give to younger female colleagues?
The first piece advice I’d give to all younger colleagues, regardless of gender, is to find out what you love to do and then to do what you love.
For younger female colleagues particularly, I’d say to be prepared always to know your stuff in depth because you will have to try that bit harder still to be recognised. You will have to learn how to be taken seriously because it’s important that that’s the case.
Finally, I’d say to be aware that you might find your true self down the less obvious path. I started out in the very male-dominated architectural sector, for example and it taught me how to fight harder to be noticed and for my voice to be heard – like a kind of exposure therapy! It turned out that interior design was the right place for me, but I don’t regret starting on that path at all because it definitely made me stronger.
Would greater gender equality create a more sustainable future for our sector and what would that entail?
The interior design sector is in a good place when it comes to gender equality I think, with a notable number of female-owned and led companies. Architecture still has a lot further to go!
I think greater equality of all types – gender, ethnicity, orientation and class – makes things more sustainable because better representation means lived experience feeds into all the things we design, make and use. If they’re right and true, those voices are then clearly heard by their audience, which means the end product is received well and will have a longer life cycle.
On a global scale, the push for gender equality is clearly associated with sustainable development by the United Nations in its Sustainable Development Goals: ‘Gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls is not only an explicit goal under the 2030 Agenda but also a driver of sustainable development in all its dimensions, from ending poverty and hunger, promoting prosperity and inclusive growth and building peaceful, just and inclusive societies to securing the protection of the planet and its natural resources.’
You can’t really argue with that!