30 Years and Counting: Sara Harraway Reflects on Three Decades at CPMG

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06 Mar 2024

In our newest Q&A, Sara reflects on three decades at CPMG, along with her highlights and advice for those just getting started in the industry.

1994 saw a new junior interior designer join CPMG (then James McArtney Architects), but since then Sara Harraway has risen through the ranks, growing our interior design and schools' teams, and now serving as a board director. Having gained broad experience in both interior design and architecture throughout the years, she has incredible insight and expertise to offer our clients today. In our newest Q&A, Sara reflects on three decades at CPMG, along with her highlights and advice for those just getting started in the industry.

How did you begin your career in interior design?

I was interested in buildings from as early as I can remember, choosing to do observations drawings of buildings and interior spaces – even designing my own room and decorating it, including papering ceilings at the age of 13. While I wasn’t aware at first there was an actual name for it, I had an affinity for what I eventually learned was actually called ‘interior design’.

I found myself evaluating buildings and the spaces within them, and considering how I would improve them. It was at 13 when I solidified my intention to be an interior designer, influenced by the increased potential to meet Simon Le Bon if I was operating in the luxury interior design market, working on hotels and yachts, etc.!

Sara's early days at CPMG

What has your journey with CPMG been like since you started in 1994?

It’s been so varied, but I’ve worked in the education sector throughout my career, in schools, and further and higher education establishments. Beginning in the traditional interior design role, I was eager to learn, grasp opportunities and rise to challenges. CPMG is a great practice to offer challenges and promote personal and professional growth and so I diversified into running new build projects and leading major competitions.

In 2001 (incidentally, the year we were first instructed by a client to correspond via email!), I was delighted to be promoted to associate director – the only senior professional female in the practice at that time. It wasn’t a move I was entirely comfortable with as I felt I was only just starting to become a good designer, and so I worried about the transition into a more managerial role. In 2006, three colleagues and I were promoted to Directors, taking our seats on the board until in 2011, we secured CPMG as our own, following a management buyout.

In 2013 I was awarded Nottingham Post’s Businesswoman of the Year, although I felt more a woman in business than a businesswoman. This caught the attention of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and I was invited, initially, as a co-optee to the Regional Council and later an elected Councillor, with a focus on people, skills, and wellbeing. Our managing director Richard Flisher has since been elected to the Council, but I continue my involvement in the people agenda.

A highlight has to be moving to our new office in Nottingham City Centre – ‘SPG’ as we fondly refer to it. It has transformed our business, the way we engage with each other and with our clients. It’s such a friendly and collaborative environment and I was absolutely thrilled that we secured a Regional BCO Award in recognition of its design quality. It’s a great party space too and with any excuse for a party, the team threw a surprise celebration for me to mark this milestone with photos from across the years, gifts, food and champagne! Such a treat, although a touch embarrassing!

Those thirty years have, in some respects, flown, but we’ve achieved so much in that time, and I’m very proud of the quality of our portfolio, the relationships we’ve built and the very talented team we’ve brought together and continue to nurture.

Sara's celebrations
Sara's Celebrations

What is your role in CPMG today?

No two days are the same. I can be on the front line of design project in either interior design or architecture, be leading stakeholder engagement or be immersed in one of the many working groups within the practice, where I carry the ‘portfolio for people’, their employment, professional growth and wellbeing.

At present, I’m heavily involved in school design at the early stakeholder engagement stage – an intensive 6-week programme of design development. We’re undertaking several workplace strategies for clients seeking to transform the way they work, involving an intense period of fact-finding, analysis and data crunching, and we’ve been appointed as architects and interior designers to what I can only refer to as a ‘career defining project’ – the Nottingham War Rooms. It’s so exciting!

What aspect of your job do you enjoy the most?

Engaging with people. Helping clients to achieve their business objectives and transform the environments in which they work, live, learn and play. We refer to it as ‘connecting people with place to shape positive human experiences’ as, after all, we believe that architecture is a social science and interior design is the science of people in space.

I thoroughly enjoy being in the studio too, working with and alongside colleagues, listening to and learning from them and hopefully being able to impart some of my own experience and learning.

How important is the relationship between interior and exterior designers?

The boundary is blurred. However, much depends upon the client, their brief and whether the project is a fit-out, refurbishment or a holistic new build. However, where the opportunity exists, we would always strive to collaborate and create a cohesive whole - a solution that successfully synthesises people, building envelope, internal space, brand identity and information graphics in our commitment to shape positive experience and promote wellbeing.

How has the landscape of the interior design industry changed since you started your career?

Of course, when I started, information was produced by hand. As a practice, we didn’t start to embrace CAD until around 1995 on a project for the University of Nottingham. I showed a colleague some visuals from around that time and they asked what package I had used to generate them! All by hand, perspective drawings and colouring in! When I’m designing now, I’ll still default to pen and paper, it feels more immediate, spontaneous and quicker to explore ideas. In fact, a few years ago, we noticed that colleagues would default to CAD to ‘sketch’ ideas and they weren’t confident to explore ideas ‘live’ with a client so we engaged a local artist to develop a 6 week programme of art lessons focused on boosting creativity, spontaneity and confidence - we even staged a Christmas exhibition of everyone’s work at the end of it.

It’s faster paced now; information flows quickly, is responded to quickly and demands attention quickly. But I like that, it’s good to be busy and engaged!

Fundamentally, there is much greater appreciation for design now. I used to struggle to get a client to see the benefits of investment in design quality. I used to joke that a client could spend millions on the building’s envelope without so much as flinching, but when it came to the colour of a pot of paint all hell could be unleashed! Now though, they are much more receptive to expert guidance and wise investment where it benefits their people, productivity and wellbeing and therefore business success.

Now also, there is such a rich palette of materials, furniture, lighting, etc., it’s like a tempting ‘sweet shop’ with a huge array of delicious delights!

What are your predictions for the future of the industry?

Our understanding of people, what motivates and engages them is shaping our environment and I believe that this will continue – the science of people in space. Homeworking is here to stay, whether workers are expressing a preference for their working environment and choosing to work from home, or because businesses are recognising its contribution to increased productivity, talent attraction and staff retention as a result. So, with choice, comes the expression of preference and people will choose environments that make them feel good doing what they’re doing – positive human experiences.

What advice can you give to those looking to get started in the interior design industry?

What you do within interior design is all about people, so put them at the centre of every decision you take and every mark you make. Be curious and analytical, be willing to share your experience but know when to stop, listen and understand. Ask questions of your colleagues, listen to what’s going on around you, collaborate and never stop learning. You’re opening a door beyond, which is a vast landscape of opportunities, possibilities, learning, discovery and fulfilment.

What do you do in your spare time?

I love food, cinema, art, furniture, walking and cold climates. Sailing and trekking in the arctic has be the stand-out experience so far! Next stop Svalbard, I hope! I adopted my first garden in 2015 after 20+ years of balcony gardening. That takes a fair amount of time too, although I’m not certain I’m good at it! This came with the house which is a bit of a long-term project and challenging in matching budget with aspiration!

"What you do within interior design is all about people, so put them at the centre of every decision you take and every mark you make. Be curious and analytical, be willing to share your experience but know when to stop, listen and understand."