How the West is Winning

The Appetizing World of Sarah Ward Interiors

Sarah Ward inside Donna Mac, part of the bustling Beltline neighbourhood in Calgary. Photo by Brett Gilmour Photography


The Calgary design scene is widely acknowledged as punching well above its weight class for a mid-sized Canadian city. The city’s fortunes have long been closely tied to the oil and gas industry, and the population skews to highly educated, internationally savvy and often younger-than-average citizens, with singularly cosmopolitan tastes and palates. For restaurateurs, design can make or break your fortune as much as the cuisine.

“There’s a real entrepreneurial culture here,” observes Sarah Ward, whose eponymous firm specializes in this competitive niche. “It’s not just people who are starting new businesses, but who are willing to embrace new ideas. They’re well-travelled and very sophisticated, and they want to live in a city that reflects that.”

From skyscrapers and condos to all manner of retail and food establishments—even small-scale cafes and sandwich places—design is a major presence all though the city. “Everyone here is highly invested in design, to set themselves apart. And there are a number of really talented [designers] working in this city, and we all work together, so it’s created this interesting kind of design explosion.”

Born in Saskatoon, Ward moved to Calgary with her family as a young teen when her father, a technical designer in the mining industry, was transferred. “I was always interested in art, always creating things and thinking about design,” she recalls. She earned her degree from Mount Royal University’s interior design program, known for its practicums and gruelling curriculum. Ward thrived in the academic trial-by-fire atmosphere, however; among her undergrad projects was a men’s store design that still stands up. (“If anyone is thinking of opening a men’s store, get in touch with me,” she laughs.)

Her first job, with Siebenga Interior Design, focused primarily in corporate and office work. From there, she moved on to Ingenium Design, specialists in multi-family and hospitality, where she got her first taste, so to speak, of restaurant design. One of her initial projects was an Italian bistro called Olives in the downtown Arriva Tower, near the Stampede grounds. “The client had a healthy budget and a wide-open space to work in, so it gave us the opportunity to try some new things. He loved high-end Italian furnishings and products like Bisazza glass mosaic tiles.” Especially given both the budget and the creative freedom that project afforded, she says, her passion for resto design was born.

Next came a stint at one of Calgary’s leading hospitality design firms, McKinley Burkart. Ward rose to become director of design, a position she held for the next three years, working on mostly large-scale projects such as Craft Beer Market. But over time, she began to feel restless. “I began to realize that what I loved most was working one-on-one with clients; as my role became more and more supervisory, I found myself feeling secretly envious of the team members who were able to do that. I learned a great deal there, but I began to dream about starting my own firm.”

In 2013 she launched Sarah Ward Interiors, naturally assuming it would take time to build the kind of clientele she’d had at her previous firms. Somewhat to her surprise, the new company took off almost immediately. Almost as soon as she hung out her shingle, her first major project arrived: Nash, set in a turn-of-the-20th-century former hotel and speakeasy, with, some say, a chequered past. “We looked through city archives for old pictures of the building and the area, and came across old mug shots, some of which are now framed and hung on the walls; these are people who could have been in that room years ago.”

Nash was an early example of the conceptual approach Ward and her team take to their projects. “Restaurant design is different from every other type of design, because these are highly theatrical, experiential spaces. It’s about manipulating people’s emotions when they are in the space. At the same time, it’s a very technical type of design, which makes it a great marriage for me, because I love the nitty-gritty of getting into the finer details.”

Starting from a client’s initial ideas, which may be as rich as the Nash project, or simply a cuisine or a mood, the team will begin a comprehensive research phase, gathering material from a wide variety of sources and inspirations, adding to ongoing research in au courant food, design and general trends, essential to getting on the radar in a town like Calgary.

Two Penny Chinese was a little harder to pin down, since Chinese food, even the more sophisticated kind, is really a wide-open field. Working with the client, they created an homage to Shanghai Art Deco. “In the time period following World War I, there was a boom in building in the city, with many of these jewel-like Art Deco buildings,” which are distinctly different from the European or North American versions of the style, Ward explains. “The colour scheme of dusty terra cotta, seafoam green, and the use of strong pattern, such as the mosaic tile floor and green and navy wallpaper in the foyer, was emblematic of the period. But we didn’t want it to be too strong, so we used more understated patterns elsewhere, such as combed plaster fans on the wall, or the moulded concrete arches on the bar front.”

Oxbow was a contemporary update to Ward’s own former design for the lounge and restaurant within the Kensington Riverside Inn, with its breathtaking view of the Bow River. Drawing on the natural colours and textures beyond the windows, and retaining the room’s stately Georgian details without letting them weigh down the design, the team focused on a clean grey/stone/wood palette with monochromatic, toned-down mouldings and stripped-down columns. The mustard-yellow mohair banquettes might represent wheat fields, this being the Prairies, but they also add zip to the otherwise laid-back scheme.

The owners of Donna Mac wanted a design that was clean, approachable and comfortable, in keeping with its chef-driven, artisanal takes on familiar favourites like mac-n-cheese. Ward focused on interesting surfaces like hickory wood, cold-rolled steel panels above the counter, and a cork ceiling, which has the practical advantage of reducing sound transfer as well as softening the look of the high ceilings.

One of the firm’s newer openings is Alumni Sandwiches, set in a renovated former Subway fast-food joint. “We had to achieve something pretty great on a tight budget and tight timeline, so we stuck with inexpensive but high-impact materials: vinyl composite tiles; leatherette stools and banquettes; slatted wood booths; pendant lighting and cute little sconces. It has lots of inspiration from old-fashioned luncheonettes and dining cars, but still pretty slick and cool.”

One of the challenges of a speciality like hospitality design is that with each new assignment, you’re basically starting from scratch. Beyond the barest broad strokes, such as seating capacity or kitchen ventilation, you’re generally making an entire self-contained world from an empty shell. But the very tabula-rasa nature of the category is exactly what drives Ward and her associates forward.

“In a restaurant, we want you to feel a certain way, take you away from your familiar life right from the time you walk in the door,” she muses. “It’s an immersive experience; that’s what makes it fun and imaginative. I really love the people we get to work with and the projects we get to work on. I have a bigger team now than before as the company has grown, so we can offer a wider variety of design. But actually, we are happy to continue what we are doing.”

Photography by:

  • John Gaucher (The Nash)
  • Phil Crozier (Two Penny / Oxbow / Donna Mac / Alumni Sandwiches)
  • Jamie Anholt (Analog)