Meet Sabrina Alfin, LEED GA Principal Designer
Photography, Dean J. Birinyi
Q: How did you get started as a Designer?
SA: Interior design is my second career. I spent 25 years in client-facing roles at ad agencies in NYC, Boston, and San Francisco working on both brand and digital campaigns for large national and global companies, most recently in the tech sector. Towards the end I was getting antsy about my career path; the ad business was a grind and I really wanted to express myself more creatively—not just be the go-between from the creative department to the clients. The business radically changed during the course of my tenure—the strategic component I always found most gratifying was quickly overtaken by data analytics. I found that clients were less and less inclined to take strategic risks, making the work rote and not particularly inventive. It just wasn’t all that fun anymore. At least not for me.
In 2009 after having completed a successful remodel on my own home, I decided to get real design training and went back to school full time at Canada College in Redwood City for two years. Got my interior design credentials, interned for other designers, and passed my IDEX exam. I’m now fully certified in California and have memberships in both ASID and NKBA. I was able to hit the ground running with my own business since so much of my previous client service experience was directly transferable.
Q: Can you describe to our readers a description of your business?
SA: My company, Sabrina Alfin Interiors, has been recognized as a San Francisco Bay Area Best of Houzz residential interior design studio for three years running. We pride ourselves on happily marrying luxury and social responsibility in our work whenever possible. Our commitment to quality customer service and our obsession with the details results in beautiful spaces and delighted clients.
We do this with a flexible staffing model in that I bring in who I need when I need them, based on workload. Most of the time this means collaborating remotely with check-ins at the SF Design Center or other shared workspaces. The benefit to clients is that they’re not paying for a lot of overhead they may not need for their specific project. And their point of contact will always be me as the leader of their design vision.
Q: Please tell us what being a business owner means to you and why you became an entrepreneur in the first place?
SA: I wanted control over who I worked with and what kinds of projects I took on. The only way to do that was to be my own boss. Life is too short to work for, and with, people who don’t appreciate what you can bring to the party! Most of my business comes from referrals by previous clients which means that I’ve been lucky to work with really good people. My goal isn’t to create a design empire, but rather to help people realize their design dreams for their own homes, whether those dreams are for a kitchen remodel or a whole house re-do. If that ultimately leads to big things, great! But in the end, I do this for personal satisfaction for a job well done and knowing my clients are thrilled with the outcome.
Q: What one thing have you learned as a small business owner that has served you well over the years?
SA: A successful project is built on trust. If clients don’t trust you have their best interests at heart, they will always be suspicious that your recommendations are self-serving. I try to be very upfront and transparent about the process and the costs. On the flip side, clients have to also recognize you can’t sustain a business without making a profit. Educating clients and setting expectations is key.
Q: What are some of the challenges you feel women face today?
SA: Well, as the mother of a 20-year-old daughter who will be starting her own career in a couple of years, I’m saddened and frustrated that so many of the sexism battles I waged at her age are still so entrenched in today’s workplaces, even in our liberal Bay Area. It shouldn’t be so hard to be judged on the merits of one’s work instead of through a female filter. It’s like when I was a kid playing baseball with the boys and would often be told, “you’ve got a great arm—for a girl”. Actually, I had a better arm than many of the boys I played with, but it was always discounted because of my gender. Similarly, I read an article on Dezeen about an architect who refused to be referred to as a “female architect”. I agree! She’s an architect—what does her gender have to do with her work? I guess in some ways I feel lucky that interior design is very friendly to women, and that I’m not faced with the kind of barriers I once had to deal with in my former career.
Q: What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?
SA: I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you have to ask for what you want and don’t wait for someone to bestow it upon you. You may get shot down, but then you at least know where you stand and can plan your next moves, accordingly. Why continue to work in a place that won’t get you where you want to go at the value you know you’re worth?
Q: What would you say is your greatest professional accomplishment thus far?
SA: I’ve won a number of ASID and NKBA design awards within a couple of years of hanging out my own shingle. It’s great when you are recognized by your professional peers, and that recognition confirmed for me that my career change decision was a good one.
Q: Can you tell us how you manage your work-life balance?
SA: It’s not as much of an issue for me anymore now that I’m an empty-nester. My husband and I have a lot more freedom these days for work, travel, and leisure time. But back when my kids were still in school I was a big proponent of saying “no”. Working moms are often guilted into taking on more than they can justifiably handle. It’s OK to outsource some stuff and to not volunteer at your children’s schools if you have a job outside the home. Figure out what’s important to you and your family and let the rest go.
Q: When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
SA: Wow! Let’s see. I think I wanted to be a scientist or an actor. (I know, opposite ends of the spectrum!) Then later I wanted to write. Initially, in college, I thought I was going to be a journalist.
Five Things About Sabrina Alfin
Q: If you could talk to one person from history, who would it be and why?
SA: I think I’d love to have tea with Jane Austen. She was such a ground-breaker for her time. It’s amazing to me how relevant her struggles with being an independent woman still are today.
Q: What do you like the most about living in the Bay Area?
SA: I love the easy access to nature and beauty here. It’s incredibly inspiring for design work. Also love how vibrant the food scene is here. Really difficult to find a bad restaurant, no matter what cuisine or price range you’re after.
Q: What place have you always dreamed about visiting?
SA: We just crossed Barcelona and Lisbon off our travel bucket list this past September. Loved both cities for their architecture, culture, and history. I think Amsterdam and Copenhagen might be our next trip abroad. We’ve also taken up fly-fishing and are looking forward to seeing some of the wilder places in our own country.
Q: What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?
SA: Perfectionism is overrated. It tends to paralyze you instead of allowing you to learn from your mistakes and move forward.
Q: Is there something else you would like to accomplish?
SA: Someday I’d like to be one of the designers chosen for the San Francisco Decorator Showcase. I go every year as a visitor to be inspired and I think it would be great fun! Got too many projects on my plate at the moment, so I don’t see it happening this year.
72 Townsend St., Ste. 611
San Francisco, CA 94107