A Decade of Design Excellence: Traversing Cultural Frontiers and Shaping Timeless Spaces with Saniya Kantawala

In the ever-evolving world of interior design, where trends come and go like shifting tides, there are those whose steadfast dedication to timeless principles and unwavering authenticity sets them apart. It is within this dynamic landscape that we find ourselves exploring the insights and experiences of a seasoned designer, Saniya Kantawala of SKD Studio, whose journey through diverse projects and cultural contexts has shaped not only their approach to design but also their perspective on the industry as a whole.

With over a decade of experience under its belt, this SKD has navigated the complexities of the design world with grace and finesse, establishing itself as a beacon of creativity and innovation. From residential spaces to commercial ventures, from the bustling streets of India to the cosmopolitan hubs of the UAE, they have left an indelible mark on the built environment, one project at a time. From Saniya’s approach to collaboration and client relations to their insights on staying true to one’s design ethos in a world driven by fleeting trends, there is much wisdom to be gleaned from their journey. 


Join us as we delve into the insights and experiences of seasoned designer Saniya Kantawala


Foyer (F): As the founder and principal designer of Saniya Kantawala Designs, what inspired you to establish a multifaceted, interdisciplinary design studio in India’s dynamic but saturated design industry?

Saniya Kantawala (SK): I began my career journey at a young age. At 15, I found myself teaching dance classes for children, and by 17, I started my first apprenticeship with architect Ashiesh Shah. At that point, interior design wasn’t even on my radar. I was on the path to becoming a chartered accountant, a career I wasn’t particularly passionate about. But then Ashiesh entered the scene. He took a chance on me, offering me an internship despite my lack of experience or software skills in the field. Over the next two years, I immersed myself in the work, trying to figure out if this was the right path for me. Eventually, I decided to enrol in design school to gain a practical understanding before committing further.

Next, I found myself working as a site coordinator for a real estate company. That’s where I really started to absorb knowledge. By the time I graduated, I had accumulated nearly five years of experience and felt confident in my abilities. Then came the opportunity when a friend offered me a small 200 sqft boutique in Juhu, Bombay. Despite my doubts, I decided to collaborate with two senior colleagues. We tackled several small-scale projects, primarily quick-service restaurants not exceeding 700 sqft each. After gaining confidence through these collaborations around 2014, I felt ready to strike out on my own. That’s when SKD was born. We started with hospitality projects and then expanded into residential ventures. Eventually, my personal life led me to the UAE through marriage.

Today, we proudly operate two offices, one in India and the other in the UAE. It’s been quite the journey, but I’m grateful for every step of it.


In the ever-evolving world of interior design, where trends ebb and flow like shifting tides, SKD Studio stands as a beacon of timeless principles and unwavering authenticity


F: Could you elaborate on the process of creating design solutions for boutique hotels and high-end retail outlets across India and the key principles guiding these projects?

SK: Even though our firm operates with a fluid approach, we maintain a strong structure. Certain processes are non-negotiable, where no one even gets a chance to question them. When we tackle a project, whether it’s residential, hospitality, retail, or commercial, the first step is crucial. For hospitality projects, understanding the brand is paramount, while for residential projects, knowing the client is key. These spaces hold significant importance for people, either as their livelihood or their homes.

Approaching a hospitality project requires delving deep into understanding the space. Whether it’s a restaurant, we need to grasp the cuisine, target audience, and the client’s vision. Sometimes clients have a clear idea of what they want, while other times, they need guidance. Through face-to-face interactions and a comprehensive questionnaire round, we gather vital information. The questionnaire consists of about 20 to 30 questions, covering aesthetics and technicalities. After the questionnaire stage, we proceed to space planning and mood boarding, adjusting based on project size and client feedback. Then comes the editing stage, where decisions are made and finalised. Only after everything is signed off on paper do we move forward with execution. This ensures clarity and adherence to timelines, preventing any deviations or uncertainties down the line.

Understanding the narrative of each project is our guiding principle. Over our ten years of experience, we’ve learned to adapt our style to fit the narrative, embracing the evolution of design. The brief and narrative drive our projects, whether it’s hospitality or residential. Understanding the client’s lifestyle is especially crucial in residential projects, going beyond the basic brief to create spaces tailored to their needs. So, from crafting storyboards depicting a client’s day from sunrise to bedtime to drafting detailed questionnaires, we leave no stone unturned. Ultimately, every aspect of the space matters, and understanding the client’s needs is at the core of what we do.


Discover how Saniya Kantawala’s decade-long expertise has shaped the built environment, one project at a time


F: I mean, it is going to be the extension of who they are. So it has to resonate, definitely

SK: With over 100 projects completed globally and our recent expansion into Dubai and other tier-two cities, adapting our design approach to different cultural contexts while maintaining our signature aesthetic is a seamless process for us. This ability to adapt may just be one of our greatest strengths. For instance, we operate with two distinct teams; one based in India and the other in the UAE, with each team focusing on projects within their respective regions. In India, we have a larger team of around ten designers, whereas in Dubai, our boutique team consists of only four designers.

When it comes to incorporating cultural elements or symbolism specific to a particular region into our designs, our teams are well-versed and briefed accordingly. Whether it’s through formal education or practical experience, our designers possess a deep understanding of the cultural nuances inherent to their assigned projects. Take, for example, a recent project we undertook in Oman for a perfume brand. While the brand originated in India, it caters predominantly to the Middle Eastern audience, including the Sultan of Oman. This required us to integrate both Indian and Omani influences into the design, while also anchoring it to the essence of Dubai, where the brand’s back office is located. The fascinating aspect of this project was delving into the unique cultural tapestry of Oman. Despite being part of the Middle East, Oman’s cultural landscape differs significantly from its neighbouring countries. Upon closer examination, we discovered intriguing connections between Omani and Indian culture, such as the influence of Indian architecture on certain Omani landmarks. This exploration allowed us to craft a design narrative that seamlessly blended these diverse influences, resulting in a space that beautifully encapsulated the brand’s identity.

As we begin on projects in new regions, such as our upcoming endeavour in Doha, Qatar, our approach remains rooted in thorough research and cultural immersion. We aim to understand not only the aesthetic preferences but also the deeper cultural underpinnings that shape each locale. This involves studying local traditions, architectural styles, and even historical connections between regions. By leveraging this knowledge, we can create designs that resonate with the local community while retaining elements of our signature aesthetic. Ultimately, our design process is driven by a commitment to in-depth research and client collaboration. By investing time and effort into understanding the cultural context of each project, we can ensure that our designs not only meet but exceed our client’s expectations. It’s this dedication to research and cultural sensitivity that sets us apart and allows us to create truly impactful spaces that resonate with people on a profound level.


From the bustling streets of India to the cosmopolitan hubs of the UAE, SKD Studio leaves an indelible mark on the design world

F: What is this perfume brand that you’re talking about? I’d love to know what is the name of it.

SK: Shama Perfumes, a renowned brand originating from Oman with a significant presence in the UAE, has made its mark on the global stage. Interestingly, they established their first store in the iconic Oberoi Hotel on Marine Drive in Bombay around five years ago, and to this day, it remains a cherished landmark. Their office and quaint retail outlet continue to attract a diverse clientele, particularly those with a penchant for exquisite fragrances.

Initially renowned for their exceptional fragrance blends, particularly those infused with culinary delights, Shama Perfumes garnered a loyal following, drawing Middle Eastern visitors to India solely for their products. However, as times evolved, so did the brand’s reach, with stores now dotting the landscape across the Middle East. When in Bombay, a visit to the Oberoi Hotel to experience the essence of Shama Perfumes is undoubtedly a must-do on the itinerary. While we haven’t had the opportunity to design the Bombay store, we’ve had the privilege of lending our creative touch to their store in Oman. The space exudes a unique charm, characterised by the innovative use of fabrics and repurposed perfume decanters transformed into captivating light fixtures.


Unlock the secrets of successful collaboration with SKD Studio. Join us as we uncover the art of balancing client preferences with design integrity


F: Moving on, Saniya, can you provide insights into the upcoming projects of SKD and the design philosophy that will be emphasised in these ventures?

SK: In India, we’re currently in the process of handing over several exciting projects. One of these is a 6000 sqft textile office located in Bilwara, Rajasthan, which holds a special significance as it marks a full circle moment for us. Interestingly, our very first client from a decade ago, whose 200 sqft boutique I mentioned earlier, came back to us and we were entrusted with transforming his office space in Rajasthan. It’s located about two hours away from Udaipur and has been a fascinating endeavour for our team.

Additionally, we’re wrapping up work on a joint family residence in South Bombay, a project that has been both challenging and immensely rewarding. Collaborating with joint families always presents its unique set of challenges, but it’s precisely these complexities that make the project so enriching. In parallel, we’re also engaged with Isprava on a project involving the design of several villas in Goa, a task that allows us to explore different design sensibilities within the realm of luxury residential spaces. Moving to the UAE, our focus shifts towards commercial projects. We’re currently in the process of converting a 5,000 sqft villa in Jumeirah into a sprawling 10,000 sqft restaurant, a project that demands a seamless fusion of functionality and aesthetic appeal. Additionally, we’re nearing completion of a 10,000 sqft lounge at the Hilton Haptur Palace, another testament to our prowess in crafting immersive hospitality experiences.

Further afield, we’re venturing into international territories with projects like Shama Perfumes in Qatar and a penthouse in London. The penthouse, nestled right on the banks of the River Thames, presented a unique set of design challenges and opportunities, which we successfully navigated to create a space that captivates and inspires. Back in Dubai, we’re overseeing the design of a villa, adding to the diverse portfolio of projects we’re involved in. It’s a mix of residential, retail, commercial, and hospitality ventures, each presenting its own set of complexities and joys.

Despite the demanding nature of juggling projects across different geographies and design typologies, I find immense fulfilment in the work we do. The constant back-and-forth between India and the UAE, coupled with the distinct design sensibilities of each region, keeps me on my toes. Yet, it’s precisely this dynamic nature of the job that fuels my passion and drives me to excel in every project we undertake.


Experience the magic of SKD Studio as we navigate through diverse projects across different geographies. Join us as we uncover the challenges and triumphs of designing in India, the UAE, and beyond

F: I do have a follow-up question here, though. You said you’re doing a project, you did a penthouse in London, you’re doing projects in Dubai, you’re doing projects in Del, in Bombay, and then also in Goa. How do you know, one thing is designing these projects, but how do you handle the execution? Because that’s something that, I mean, just, I’m like, it’s a big question, like, how do you do it?

SK: Being the wife of a pilot certainly adds a layer of convenience to my life, but it’s just one small aspect of the bigger picture. When it comes down to execution, especially when dealing with projects in different cities where we may not have established teams, we rely heavily on the expertise of our execution team. Typically, we prefer our clients to bring in their own team, which we then thoroughly vet. However, if that’s not possible, the design industry, particularly in India, is incredibly interconnected, making it easy to tap into our network to identify the best professionals for the job.

Inevitably, things don’t always go according to plan. This is especially true in India, where we often work with craftsmen and artisans who may not have the same level of formal education as us. When you’re dealing with manual craftsmanship, there are bound to be hiccups along the way. It’s important to set realistic expectations with our clients from the outset, educating them about the unpredictable nature of the industry. To streamline our operations and maintain transparency, we leverage various software tools like Zoho and ClickUp. These platforms allow us to keep track of project progress, identify any bottlenecks, and ensure everyone is on the same page. Regular alignment meetings, held on Mondays and Fridays, provide an opportunity for us to touch base with the team, address any issues, and realign priorities.

While managing projects can be challenging and occasionally hair-raising, having a strong foundation laid out on paper makes it easier to address issues as they arise. Clients appreciate having clear solutions presented to them, rather than getting bogged down in the details of why things went awry. Over the years, we’ve refined our approach to project management, focusing on solutions rather than dwelling on problems. Ultimately, having a proactive mindset and a structured approach to project management allows us to navigate the inevitable ups and downs of the industry with confidence. By presenting clients with viable solutions and demonstrating our competency in handling challenges, we build trust and ensure smooth project execution, even when things veer off course.


Discover the art of project execution with SKD Studio. Join us as we uncover the strategies behind managing projects across different cities and geographies


F: But then that’s the collaborative process. When it comes to working with different types of clients, some will understand, some might not.

SK: Absolutely, collaboration is the cornerstone of success, particularly in the dynamic design landscape of both India and the UAE. With an abundance of talent in both regions, attempting to handle everything in-house can often lead to overwhelm and inefficiency. That’s why collaborating with specialists in their respective fields is paramount. By partnering with product designers who excel in their craft, we’re able to harness their expertise and focus on what we do best—designing the larger picture. These specialists bring a level of mastery and precision to their work that complements our vision seamlessly. When we source products from them, we can trust that they’ll be of the highest quality because it’s their area of specialisation. It’s about recognising that no one person or entity can excel at everything, and by pooling our talents and resources, we can achieve more together than we ever could alone.

F: It’s like a good amalgam of all the experts coming together for the bigger picture.

SK: Yeah.


Uncover the nuances of designing for high-profile clients with SKD Studio. Join us as we delve into the delicate balance between meeting client demands and maintaining design integrity


F: Okay, so with clients like Dy Patil, Sushmita Sen and Aditya Thackeray, amongst others, how do you balance the demands of high-profile clients with maintaining the design integrity of each project?

SK: When we talk about high-profile clients, it is a fascinating landscape, characterised by swift decision-making and demanding schedules. Their knack for quick choices simplifies our design process—it’s often a clear yes or no without much grey area. While this directness is a blessing, it also means we must be flexible and sometimes let go of our rigid design ideals.

Design, being subjective, presents a challenge when clients come with a plethora of references and ideas, some of which are non-negotiable. Initially, this can be tricky as they may not always be open to our input. However, as they witness the quality of our work and our ability to bring their vision to life, their trust in us grows, leading to more collaborative relationships.

Consider clients like DY Patil, Aditya Thakreyi, and Sushmita Sen. Each brings a unique approach—some are quick decision-makers, while others prefer a more thorough examination of every detail. Designing a weekend home for Sushmita Pasayan and her family involved navigating through a myriad of preferences and opinions, which could sometimes slow down the decision-making process. However, understanding our clients on a deeper level is crucial. By delving into their preferences, personalities, and familial dynamics, we can tailor our approach accordingly. Whether they’re quick decision-makers or more methodical, our goal remains the same—to create spaces that resonate with them personally.

Ultimately, every design project is a journey of understanding and collaboration. By grasping the intricacies of our clients’ thought processes and preferences, we can navigate any challenges and deliver outcomes that exceed their expectations. It’s about building trust and forging connections that endure beyond the completion of the project.


Unravel the design process with SKD Studio as we uncover the journey from inspiration to execution


F:  Without understanding the crux of that human, you can’t actually make something for them to live in for a longer time.

SK: Sometimes, conveying this concept to clients can be a challenge because they might not fully grasp the distinction between what they like and what truly reflects their character and personality. In today’s world, with an abundance of inspiration readily available, clients often encounter numerous styles and designs that catch their eye. However, the crux of the matter lies in whether those aesthetics truly align with their essence.

Communicating this discrepancy can be a delicate task. Clients may express admiration for certain styles, but it’s essential to discern whether those choices authentically represent who they are. The challenge for us lies in guiding them towards this realisation and helping them understand the importance of selecting elements that resonate with their true identity. Once this distinction is understood, the design process becomes more streamlined. We can then focus on curating a space that not only reflects their aesthetic preferences but also serves as a genuine extension of their personality. It’s about guiding them towards choices that speak to their authentic self, rather than simply following trends or fleeting preferences.


Join us as we uncover the advice and insights that have propelled SKD to the forefront of the industry

F: As a designer with a penchant for exploring limitless design possibilities, how do you navigate the balance between experimentation and one hand and practicality? On one hand, in all the projects you do, irrespective of them being like.

SK: The approach varies greatly from project to project, and it’s heavily influenced by the nature of the endeavour. In the realm of commercial and hospitality ventures, there often exists a greater leeway for experimentation. Since these spaces aren’t inherently personal, clients may be more open to approving unconventional ideas however, when it comes to personal spaces, such as residences, the dynamics shift.

Understanding the client is paramount. If there’s a strong alignment and rapport between the client and the designer, there’s usually more freedom to explore innovative concepts. Yet, if a client comes in with a clear vision and specific aesthetic preferences for their personal space, it’s often wise to respect their wishes rather than imposing one’s own design philosophy. After all, it’s the client who will ultimately inhabit the space, not the designer. Our role is to guide them through the process, offering insights and suggestions along the way. While collaboration is key, it’s essential to strike a balance between offering guidance and respecting the client’s preferences.

Through open and constructive dialogue, clients often come to trust the designer’s expertise more deeply as the project unfolds. This mutual trust fosters an environment where clients become more receptive to suggestions and adjustments, leading to a harmonious fusion of their initial vision and the designer’s input. It’s a dynamic process where both parties evolve and refine their ideas together, resulting in spaces that truly reflect the client’s personality and lifestyle.

F: So again, it, at the end of the day, just understanding clients that can gel, I think experimentation, creativity, all of it comes with that.

SK: Let me explain with a quick example. We had the pleasure of working on a project last year for a fashion designer whom we’ve collaborated with extensively over the years. After designing her boutique and several other projects for her family, she approached us for her own apartment in Bombay. Knowing her aesthetic preferences well, we aimed to seamlessly integrate her unique style into her living space.

One striking feature of the design was a custom-made embroidered light fixture above her dining table. Unlike a traditional chandelier, this fixture was embedded into the ceiling, appearing as though it belonged there from the start. The intricate embroidery, crafted by her artisans, added a personal touch that truly reflected her creative flair. This collaboration was a perfect fusion of her artistic vision and our design expertise. We provided guidance and suggestions on how to incorporate her embroidery into the space, resulting in a truly harmonious blend of her craftsmanship and our curation. Despite not having an extravagant budget, this project remains one of our favourites. It exemplifies the power of collaboration and innovation in design. From the embroidered motifs on her breakfast counter to the meticulously crafted details throughout the space, every element was thoughtfully curated to reflect her personality and style.

Such projects showcase the magic that happens when clients and design firms come together with a shared vision. It’s not just about creating a beautiful space; it’s about crafting an environment that feels uniquely tailored to the individual, where creativity flourishes, and authenticity shines through.


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F: Well, good clients do make good projects.

SK: Absolutely.

F: So for the designer, it was like the home of an individual, whereas Sushmita Sen’s holiday home was like a multi-generational home. So how so? Like, when you design these two completely different spaces, what does the process look like?

SK: Balancing the inputs of multiple stakeholders in a project can indeed be a complex task and also a recipe for disaster. When you have numerous individuals with varying tastes and preferences all contributing their ideas, harmonising these inputs becomes paramount. This challenge becomes particularly pronounced in common spaces where everyone’s input needs to be considered.

For us, the key lies in maintaining the integrity of the overall design concept while accommodating individual preferences. When it comes to personal spaces like bedrooms, we’re more flexible, allowing room for personalisation according to each individual’s taste. However, in common areas, such as living rooms or shared spaces in joint family residences, a structured approach is essential. Over time, we’ve developed strategies to navigate such scenarios effectively. One fundamental principle is to establish clear lines of communication and designate a single point of contact from the client’s end. This individual acts as the liaison between the design team and the other stakeholders, streamlining the decision-making process and minimising potential conflicts.

By adhering to this approach, we ensure that the project remains focused and cohesive, avoiding the pitfalls of conflicting ideas and divergent preferences. Ultimately, it’s about striking a balance between accommodating individual desires and maintaining the overarching vision of the project.


Experience the transformative power of design with SKD Studio. Join us as we journey through their portfolio of projects, each a testament to the enduring impact of thoughtful, intentional design


F: In addition to that, how do you see SKD studio’s contribution to the evolving landscape of interior design?

SK: At the core of our design philosophy lies a commitment to timeless principles and materials that transcend fleeting trends. While trends may come and go, our dedication to understanding our client’s needs and delivering exceptional design remains constant. For us, it’s about staying true to our approach, ensuring that every project is approached with the same level of care and attention to detail.

We believe that design is not just about creating visually appealing spaces, but about crafting environments that resonate with the people who inhabit them. As long as we remain focused on this principle, we believe that our firm will continue to thrive. Our goal is not just to meet expectations but to exceed them, and to leave a lasting impact on the design landscape and the industry as a whole. With a presence in both India and the UAE, and experience working in various cities, we are privileged to have a diverse perspective that enriches our work. Moving forward, we are committed to further expanding our reach and continuing to push the boundaries of design excellence.

Ultimately, our success is built on a foundation of hard work, dedication, and a deep understanding of our clients’ needs. By staying true to our values and focusing on delivering exceptional results, we believe that we can continue to make meaningful contributions to the world of design.


Step into the world of SKD Studio, where each project is a canvas for creativity and innovation. Join us as we unravel the design philosophy that sets them apart in the ever-changing landscape of interior design

F: And based on what you said, we’re quite confident SKD is here to stay. The last question is, what advice would you offer to aspiring designers who seek to establish themselves in the industry and make a meaningful impact through their work?

SK: It’s understandable how easy it is to get caught up in the constant stream of information and inspiration that social media offers. In today’s age, we’re bombarded with images of stunning interiors and design trends, and it’s natural to want to emulate those we admire. However, amidst this sea of influence, it’s crucial for aspiring interior designers to pause and reflect on their motivations.

Are they drawn to interior design because they have a genuine passion for creating meaningful spaces, or are they simply seeking recognition and validation? It’s a question that requires honest introspection. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with aspiring to be like the designers we admire, it’s important to stay true to oneself and approach design projects with authenticity and integrity. For those starting out in the field, it can be challenging to establish oneself and secure projects. The temptation to leverage social media as a platform for exposure is strong, and indeed, it can be a valuable tool for showcasing one’s work and connecting with potential clients. However, it’s essential not to let the pursuit of likes and followers overshadow the fundamental goal of delivering exceptional design.

Instead, I would encourage aspiring designers to focus on honing their craft and mastering their skills. Let the quality of their work speak for itself. By dedicating themselves wholeheartedly to each project and striving for excellence, they will naturally attract recognition and opportunities for growth. Social media can come later, once they’ve established a strong foundation and a portfolio of impressive projects to showcase. So, while social media can be a valuable tool for exposure, it should never be a substitute for genuine talent, passion, and hard work. Ultimately, success in the field of interior design comes down to one’s dedication to their craft and their ability to create spaces that resonate with clients on a deep and meaningful level.


As we bid farewell to our journey through the world of interior design, we leave with a profound appreciation for the passion and dedication of SKD Studio. Join us as we look forward to the next chapter in their remarkable journey

As we draw the curtains on our journey through the realm of interior design with Saniya Kantawala, we are left with a profound appreciation for the artistry and dedication that underpin her work. From her meticulous attention to detail to her unwavering commitment to client satisfaction, her approach to design is an ode to the enduring power of creativity and collaboration. Through the highs and lows of their journey, she has remained steadfast in their pursuit of excellence, finding inspiration in the rich tapestry of cultures and contexts that shape our world. As we reflect on the insights shared and the lessons learned, it becomes clear that beyond the glossy facades and stylish interiors lies a deeper narrative of passion, perseverance, and the timeless allure of design.

As they continue to chart new territories and redefine the boundaries of design, we are left eagerly anticipating the next chapter in her remarkable journey—a journey fueled by creativity, guided by integrity, and inspired by the boundless possibilities of the human imagination.

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