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My Design Journey: Saudah Saleem On the Signature Philosophy

Saudah Saleem headshot.

Antar Hanif

A mother of five, Saudah Saleem knows the importance of functionality and practicality yet doesn’t hold back from bringing the fun. As part of our series, My Design Journey, we spoke with the Baltimore-based designer about her signature design philosophy, a love of fashion, and passion for eclectic details. 

On Her Entry Into the Design Field 

As a child, Saleem was always aesthetically inclined, even though she didn’t pursue design from the get-go. “My mother likes to share stories of how I would reorganize displays at the grocery store while she was shopping or how insisted on redecorating my bedroom with wallpaper borders when I was in the seventh grade,” Saleem shares.

When it came time for college, though, Saleem decided to pursue her other passion, writing, and received a degree in journalism. While she was a student, Saleem got married and enjoyed decorating the home she and her husband shared in Baltimore.

“As a newlywed in a new city, new apartment, and new environment, I saw my space as a blank canvas,” Saleem says. “I’d constantly bring in new pieces, take pieces out, paint, and reconfigure the layout of the space.” 

It was during this period that Saleem also began to recognize her natural design talent. “I became acutely aware of my ability to focus on the details,” she notes. “I made impactful changes in my space and loved it. The rush that came along with initiating and completing projects was both exciting and fulfilling.”

Saleem also discovered the transformative power of design. She says, “I also really enjoyed essentially creating something from nothing. The idea that I could take an unassuming space and completely transform it into a work of art was exhilarating to me.” 

Soon, Saleem began to help friends with their own design projects. She truly enjoyed the challenge of creating beautiful spaces that were livable, affordable, and reflective of the client. But by day, Saleem was also juggling a corporate job and raising a family.

“Having the support of my family as I pursued my ‘side dream’ and learned the ins and outs of the business was extremely helpful,” Saleem says about her journey into the design world. “Through word of mouth, I began receiving more and more referrals for more projects. Eventually, my client list grew.” 

After enrolling in evening design classes and dedicating herself to her craft, Saleem was able to launch her own business. “I immersed myself in all things design and learned everything I could about the industry,” she reflects. “I was committed to developing a business that would allow me to share my passion for design with others.” 

On Her Design Philosophy

Saleem notes on her website that her design work combines the "excitement, energy, and diversity of the city with the practicality of everyday life.”

She explains her philosophy further for us. “This stems from both my personal history and design mantra which is, ‘Why sacrifice style for function when you can create a space that has both?’" she notes. "Don’t limit yourself when it comes to creating the space you want at home. Find the look you love and recreate it in a way that’s practical and functional for you and your family. We all like and want nice things. We want our homes to be what we envision in our dreams but we also need it to be functional.” 

Why sacrifice style for function when you can create a space that has both? Don’t limit yourself when it comes to creating the space you want at home.

Essentially, the philosophy is that one’s space can be both functional and aspirational at the same time. “Find ways to incorporate elements of the lifestyle you desire, while adapting them in a way that makes them practical and accessible to your needs,” Saleem adds. “Not able to travel, but dream of far off places? Incorporate design elements from various cultures for a curated look that is inspiring.” 

But, this outlook has even deeper personal meaning for Saleem. “The philosophy also reflects my roots,” she adds. “Growing up in New York, authentic style, culture, and self-expression were celebrated. My appreciation for style spans various cultures and periods was definitely cultivated during my time in New York. Cookie-cutter looks, be it in fashion or interiors, were a no-go.” 

On Her Own Design Style and Designing Her Family’s Home 

“My design infuses a mix of classic and eclectic design elements to create an aesthetic that is sophisticated and curated, yet approachable and livable,” Saleem says. “I design in layers, so I typically start with a traditional base and then add in eclectic design elements.” 

Vintage items are something that Saleem considers especially key. “There is always at least one vintage piece of furnishing in every space I design,” she explains. 

As a mother of five, resilient and multi-functional pieces are of the utmost importance when it comes to Saleem’s own space. That means prioritizing storage, wipeable fabrics, and durability. 

On Combining Her Love of Fashion With Design

“To be honest, fashion was probably my first love,” Saleem says. “My interest in fashion can be traced back to my roots and the need to create my own modest looks.” As a Muslim woman, Saleem struggled to find ready-to-wear options that were conservative yet chic. “Garments were either too short or too tight,” she says. “I’ve always been very resourceful and refused to allow the lack of options act as a barrier to being stylish.” 

Saleem and her mother would travel to New York City’s Garment District, where they would look at fabrics and trims. “This was to create an outfit I’d imagined in my head,” she reflects. “It may sound tedious, but I actually enjoyed the process. I fully embraced the challenge of coming up with looks that were modest, yet never lackluster.” 

Taking fashion design into one’s own hands was quite common within Saleem’s circle. “Many of the women became tailors, making clothes for themselves and the community,” she explains. “This was also probably my first encounter with entrepreneurship, and more importantly, women-owned businesses. I believe seeing this at a young age inspired me in many ways.” 

Now, working as a designer, Saleem notices a strong overlap between décor and fashion. “The relationship between what’s trending on the runway and what’s hot in home design is undeniable,” she notes. “My use of unexpected color combinations and pattern is a nod to my love of fashion.”

And the joy of creating a masterpiece from scratch has also remained salient for Saleem. “There is something so liberating and inspiring about recognizing the unseen potential in a space and creating an authentic masterpiece,” she explains. “The same can be said about fashion and my early experience with modest styling. I’ve always been drawn to the details and what makes a piece unique. I truly enjoy creating trademark looks for myself and the spaces I design.” 

On Her Proudest Moments Thus Far

Saleem has been recognized in a variety of national and international media outlets, was named one of Traditional Home magazine’s “New Trads,” has collaborated with Home Goods, West Elm, and much more. “I can honestly say it's been a whirlwind,” she reflects. “But, I wouldn’t want it any other way.” 

Saleem is proud to pave the way for other minorities within the design field, too. “What excites me most about the career highlights is knowing the impact these successes have beyond myself,” she adds. “I am visibly Muslim, visibly female, and visibly Black. What I am doing is changing the way people see African-Americans, Muslims, and women. The fact that society is learning about my faith, Black women, motherhood, and entrepreneurship through my presence, actions, and accolades is huge and humbling.” 

The fact that society is learning about my faith, Black women, motherhood, and entrepreneurship through my presence, actions, and accolades is huge and humbling.

On Her Role as a West Elm Insider  

“It is always nice to be recognized for your eye for design and even nicer to be recognized by an industry leader in global, stylish, and sustainable design,” Saleem says, who is one of West Elm’s inaugural Insiders. “As an Insider, I get to share my design aesthetic, provide inspiration, and share product selections for stylish living in a fun and creative way.”

On the West Elm site, it’s easy to browse Saleem’s curations and purchase designer-endorsed picks. Adds Saleem, “Through this ongoing partnership, I’ll be sharing my favorite products, some of which I have in my own home, and helping my online audience find the best items to create a space at home that they’ll love.” 

On What’s Coming Next 

Saleem looks forward to the projects and collaborations that lie ahead. “Most of my new projects and clients are families with a desire to create a space that looks amazing and is unique to them and their needs,” she says.

When working with clients, Saleem is eager to bring the wow factor. “I love being resourceful and thinking outside of the box when it comes to design,” she notes. “My greatest joy is surprising clients with ways to achieve their goal in a space they didn’t think was possible, essentially helping them see the unseen potential in the space.” 

In terms of the design industry as a whole, Saleem sees a shift away from trends. “People are gravitating toward buying and investing in what they love and what resonates with their personal style over what's trending,” she explains. “Unique furnishings, meaningful accents, and textiles  that tell a story and provide a warm, comforting aesthetic will be big this year.”