Sarah Barnard: “Lead With Empathy”

Lead With Empathy: Empathy is the foundation of our studio’s practice. Being able to meet our clients where they are and create environments that support them in living their best lives is the heart of what we do. Sarah Barnard, WELL AP + LEED AP is a leading interior designer specializing in creating environments that support […]

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Lead With Empathy: Empathy is the foundation of our studio’s practice. Being able to meet our clients where they are and create environments that support them in living their best lives is the heart of what we do.

Sarah Barnard, WELL AP + LEED AP is a leading interior designer specializing in creating environments that support mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. She designs highly personalized, restorative spaces that are deeply connected to art and the preservation of the environment. An advocate for consciousness, inclusivity, and compassion in the creative process, Sarah has been quoted by Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Vouge, HGTV and many other publications. In 2017 Sarah was recognized as a “Ones to Watch” Scholar by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Growing up in historic Los Angeles homes exposed me to the restoration and renovation of these spaces. As a result, I gained an understanding of environmental responsibility, the value of wellness-focused design, and the importance of spending time in nature. My professional practice as an interior designer influenced my decision to pursue a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) credential in 2007 and a WELL Accredited Professional credential eleven years later.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

In light of COVID-19, there has been an increasing interest in home spaces dedicated to health and wellbeing. We create a safe space for our clients to share their unique needs by approaching each project with empathy. For some clients, a wellness space means an empty room save for floor cushions, cozy blankets, and a view of the outdoors. We often employ soundproofing techniques to create a space that feels far from the hum of household noises or adjacent chatter. A recent client requested a wellness room that includes an indoor-outdoor saltwater pool, a brilliant way to float the stressors of life away. I’ve found that personalized rooms devoted to wellness help us prioritize our physical and mental health, whether it manifests as a space for meditation, making art, or even simply a place of rest.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In my earliest gardens, I often attempted to collect and care for flowering plants that weren’t entirely well suited to California’s climate. I was inspired by many visits to local gardens like Descanso, the Huntington, and the South Bay Botanical Gardens. I wanted to enjoy the beauty of plants from faraway places just as those magical gardens had done. Over time, I’ve grown to understand the importance of California native plants in supporting wildlife and minimizing water usage. Today my garden incorporates an ever-expanding collection of beautiful, California native plants. Some of my favorites are; Matilija Poppy, Penstemon, all varieties of Mallow, Columbine, CA Wild Rose, Bush Anemone, Bush Poppy, CA Buckeye, Toyon, and countless others, including native strawberries, blackberries, and grapes. Our studio’s Kale Tree, nature-inspired wallcovering, textile, and area rug designs are born from well-loved plants grown in my garden, like Abutilon and those seen in my visits to the California desert, like Cholla cactus. You can shop all of Kale Tree’s home design products at

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Mary ‘May’ Morris is a trailblazing textile designer from the late 1800s/early 1900s. Though living in her father’s William Morris’s shadow, May designed nature-inspired wallpapers and fabrics and headed the embroidery department for her family’s company Morris & Co. She was also a staunch feminist and co-founder of the Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907. May’s talents and actions blazed a trail that many other female interior designers and artists would follow.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

I design wellness-focused environments employing an empathetic, trauma-informed approach. Designing spaces that consider overlapping sensitivities can benefit everyone. Compassionate and mindful considerations can contribute to healing and restorative spaces that improve collective wellbeing.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

Nourish Social Connections

The loneliness many experienced in the last year has highlighted how important our time with others is. Creating spaces that encourage social connection can be a mood-lifting factor in healthy home design. For example, eliminating distractions in gathering areas such as the dining room, living room, or outdoor patios can facilitate an experience where conversation and connection happen with ease.

Make Art

I find joy in watercolor painting. It has become a relaxing time for me, as it is much different from the creative interior design work I do during the day. I approach each watercolor as an exploration free of judgment. Often, when I invite a friend or family member to paint with me, their first response is hesitation. However, I encourage them to give it a go anyway, explaining that the outcome is less important than the experience. Most folks, even those who have never held a brush before, enjoy painting tremendously once they get started.


It is no secret that I am an avid birdwatcher. While not everyone may share this passion for birdwatching, taking a pause to listen to the sound of a bird singing or letting your attention shift from the computer screen to the actions of a bird outside your window can be a calming and mindful experience. Observing nature is a pleasurable way to become grounded in the present moment.

Honor Your Need for Restorative Space

Create an environment that provides an opportunity to rest and regenerate. Depending on what your wellness practice looks and feels like, this could be a quiet, dark space for looking inward or an open area that encourages company and conversation. Creating a designated area to reset can be restorative on an emotional, physical, and spiritual level.

Focus On the Present Moment

Spaces that limit distractions while encouraging mindfulness can prompt us to be more present in any given moment. We design quiet environments that encourage us to allow ourselves a moment of peaceful retreat with thoughtful home additions such as folding screens, room darkening drapery, and noise-reducing insulation.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would love to see an adaption of universal labeling on home products. We make informed choices about what we put in our bodies because of food ingredient labels, but less easily can we understand the ingredients in the items we live with and touch every day. Without the assistance of a wellness-focused designer, many folks face challenges locating healthy materials that align with their aesthetic sensibility and ethos. Transparency in building materials and home interiors materials ingredients could dramatically increase the accessibility of healthy home products.

What are your “ 3 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

I recognize the tremendous value of mentorship and collective support. Throughout the years, I have had the opportunity to mentor many students. I have had the privilege to speak to students at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), California State University Northridge (CSUN), and at the National Student Summit for American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), among others. While I always emphasize that our paths to success will be as unique as we are, there are a few tips that I have found to be a universally successful recipe for a happy and healthy interior design career.

Prioritize Work-Life Balance: It is essential to find time to do things that bring you joy in a culture that prioritizes work. For example, making space for restoration helps us return to work feeling energized and happy.

Collaborate: I believe collaboration plays a huge role in success. I prioritize collaboration with my team, local artisans, and artists to cross-pollinate ideas and achieve a shared vision. When we collectively support each other, we are better equipped to reach our goals.

Lead With Empathy: Empathy is the foundation of our studio’s practice. Being able to meet our clients where they are and create environments that support them in living their best lives is the heart of what we do.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

While I value and prioritize each of these topics, I firmly believe in focusing on mental health first. When we feel supported and energized, we may have more bandwidth to make a positive difference in the world through engaging in sustainable practices, supporting animal welfare, and joining in efforts with community members.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Readers can discover more photos of my wellness-focused interior design work and follow our interior design studio’s blog at

Kale Tree Shop is our online marketplace that offers a curated selection of home goods inspired by the intersection of art, design, and nature. and on Instagram @kaletreeshop

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

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