FEMtrepreneur: Tanya de Waal – Architect and Interior Design Expert

In what was traditionally a male-dominated field, architect and interior designer, Tanya Letaba de Waal has skilfully forged her own unique path. She’s assiduously built her business, Salt + Light Design, from the ground up and with each innovative brick, she’s laid a solid and well-structured foundation upon which her company has flourished. Based in Sandton, Johannesburg, Salt + Light Design is distinguished through personalised and emphatic design – both locally and overseas. Tanya intuitively and authentically connects a client’s emotions and personality to their dream space, and with more than ten years of experience at the helm of her company, this talented fashioner of interiors and design enlightens us on being a FEMtrepreneur in the interior architecture and design industry.

What inspired you to go into the architectural field?

For as long a can remember, designing, building ‘things’ and making a home has always been in my ‘blood’.

I grew up in a creative family; my dad published magazines on homes and gardens, and was always designing a new house on a serviette during lunch. I spent many hours at his side as we visited people’s homes and he photographed them. My mom was the artist, maker and creative visionary and was never afraid to get her hands dirty with the builder’s sand or on a large canvas of colour. I grew up in an old home that was always ‘under renovation’. Bricks, mortar and Saturday visits to the hardware store were a very familiar thing.

At the age of 11, my mum and I travelled to Italy and I fell in love with the buildings and structures. Many trips after that just further inspired my love for space and architecture.

After leaving school, I grappled with a career choice between psychology and architecture. Architecture won, but interestingly enough, understanding people’s psychology now plays the biggest role in my design process.

How did you start your own company?

Further to my studies, I interned as an architect for two years. I then went on to work for an amazing interior design company, Cecile and Boyd’s, where I developed a great love for holistic design. I learned that design should begin inside-out – with understanding people, their desires, lifestyle, values, etc., before designing the space they inhabit.

As a company, we created the overall lifestyle concept, then worked in collaboration with other architects, followed by completing the interior down to the finer details.

While I loved working with the affluent, I also loved working with the less privileged, as I volunteered at Habitat for Humanity – an NGO that builds homes in townships. I realised how design is a vital tool in impacting all areas of society, and that everyone deserves a home where they feel valued and secure. My desire was thus to create a company that could impact many areas of society, proving that architecture is not just about building spaces, but also about building people and communities.

In 2007, I decided to take the plunge and start my own company that would allow me the freedom to explore the combination of my passions.

Did you study in the field of your profession?

I spent six long years at the University of Cape Town attaining my Bachelor of Architecture degree, followed by a two-year architectural internship

In 2013 completed a ten-month program called ’10 000 Woman Entrepreneurs’ through GIBS (Gordon Institute of Business Science), sponsored by Goldman Sachs.

What was the very first project you handled?

The first projected I handled on my own was a large renovation for amazingly open-minded clients in Higgovale, Cape Town.

She was an artist, he an engineer, and their home was very closed in, dark and divided from her art studio. The brief was to bridge the buildings and open up the house to the beautiful surroundings and views of Table Mountain.

The end result was a cutting edge and brave design (for 2012) that the clients loved and it’s still one of my favourite projects to date.

What challenges have you faced as a FEMtrepreneur and how did you overcome them?

Being a woman in the building industry has never been an easy road. I often felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously and sadly, still come across men in the industry who don’t like taking instructions from a woman. On building sites, I found that I had to become quite a ‘hard-ass’ to get things done properly, which I didn’t enjoy the stress of.

This led me to review my strengths and weaknesses, and I decided to focus my energy on the architectural and interior design aspect of my company as this allows for more feminine strength, intuition and entrepreneurial opportunities. I prefer to work in collaboration with other architects and project managers whose strengths complement mine.

As a creative mind, I didn’t always feel confident with my business skills.

In 2013, I was privileged to be accepted as one of 300 women in South Africa for the ’10 000 Woman’ program which was fully sponsored by Goldman Sachs. The course aimed to provide 10 000 high-potential female entrepreneurs around the world with a business and management education, as they believed women were more likely to create opportunities for the employment of others, therefore growing the economy.

In South Africa, this was run by Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), the business school of the University of Pretoria. I found this course life-changing, as it made me question every aspect of my business, and where I needed to grow or change but ultimately, I felt far better equipped to run my business and more confident in my decision-making abilities.

Being an entrepreneur is fraught with challenges and I will always be learning and seeking ways to overcome them.

What makes your company unique?

Salt + Light is an interior architecture and design studio that specialises in creating beautifully crafted and personalised spaces through empathic design.

We intuitively understand and illuminate the emotional relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit. This means we seek to know and understand who you are as an individual or company, and determine how to integrate your unique story, as well as emotional and physical needs and wants into a spatial reality. 

We create a visual story that is holistic and authentic to each client from the overall architectural vision, down to the fine sensory details. We design beautiful indoor and outdoor spaces that are timeless with contemporary clean lines, classic proportions and attention to detail. Our distinctive feature lies in how we pair local and international design styles with comfortable luxury; layering natural and honest materials, handcrafted furniture, beautiful fabrics and artwork with previously-loved goods.

What drives and inspires you each day?

Creativity is in my blood, along with my desire to leave the world a better place for having been in it. I love finding creative ways to impact people’s lives and let them feel ‘seen’- whether it’s through a small random act of kindness, making a lovely meal or changing an entire house.

I am learning to try living slower in order to notice the small things. As E.B. White says: “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” The more I keep my eyes open, the more I notice God’s incredible creativity around me – that’s my inspiration.

What has been the most effective way of marketing your business?

Over the past ten years, I’ve been incredibly blessed that all of my business has been derived by word of mouth or repeat clients. I think the most effective way of marketing is to do your job well and let your work speak for itself.

What is the most courageous thing you’ve done as a FEMtrepreneur?

Turning down a large project, temporarily closing my business and taking an eight-month sabbatical for a period of much-needed rest, reassessment and rejuvenation.

Describe yourself in three words:

Creative. Intuitive. Generous.

What do you love most about your job?

I love seeing a creative vision and design come alive, as well as a client’s face when they see that their dream has become a reality.

Is there anything you dislike about your job?

Admin, admin, admin – not my first love! I really don’t appreciate that many people think if you’re creative, that you should want to give them design advice for free.

I also really dislike dishonesty and bad workmanship.

What have you learnt about entrepreneurship on the road to success?

I’ve had to learn to be uncomfortable with the instability that being an entrepreneur brings since it’s often a rollercoaster journey of too much work, or not enough work! When I consider a safe day-job’, I’m reminded that I have freedom in my blood and working in an office all day would kill me.

If someone told me ten years ago how challenging being an entrepreneur would be, I may have never ventured into it. But when I look back, I see how much I’ve learnt and grown as a person and how much courage I’ve gained. I’ve learnt that having and finding support is essential (which isn’t always there). I have to believe in what I do or no one else will.

What has been your greatest career achievement thus far?

Salt + Light turning ten this year!

Any career goals you would still like to reach?

I have many 😉

I’d love to partner with other great South African architects and designers to form an even stronger design offering, as I believe so much more can be achieved through collaboration.

I would also like to create a consultancy business that workshops creativity and innovation within corporates.

How difficult is it for females to get into and work in the architectural/design industry?

I think it’s easier for women to get into the industry than stay in the industry, as it’s a very demanding career. Worldwide, there are far fewer well-known women than men in the architectural industry, but women like the late Zaha Hadid (British-Iraqi architect) broke many of those norms and was a phenomenal architect. I think the design industry as a whole is very open to women because we bring in unique qualities that men can’t and vice versa.

What advice would you give to other young female entrepreneurs?

Some of the best advice I was given before I started was to “spend as little as possible for as long as possible”. Spending or growing too fast can cause issues.

Many entrepreneurs start a company with a skill that they have, but don’t necessarily have the business acumen to run it. I would say it’s vital to learn all aspects of your business (even the areas that you feel weak in) and not just hand this part over to someone else without understanding it first.

Don’t compare your journey to someone else’s or you may give up too quickly, as each person or company’s journey is different. It’s good to do your due diligence and work on your own goals. Find support for different aspects of your business – even a wise friend is always helpful!

Fun facts about Tanya

Favourite business tool:

My pen

My personal style is…

Elegant

Heels or flats?

Flats. I’m 6ft tall so I don’t own any heels

All-time favourite project:

My architectural thesis: ‘How your childhood experience of a home affects your adult perception of space.’

I unwind and relax by:

Spending time with friends and painting.

Favourite shade of lipstick:

Ravishing red

Book recommendation:

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandburg.

My design approach:

Brings different styles together to create something familiar, yet completely original.

Favourite coffee haunt:

The Grind in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg.

Current favourite design trend:

Creating outdoor rooms

No home is complete without:

A cat – preferably two.

Dream destination:

I love Bali!

The one thing required for success is…

Self-care

Tanya’s anthology of remarkable designs has us tempted to renovate our own living spaces. Her philosophy of ‘making homes that nurture the soul’ leaves a sentimental impression on each of her clients as she creates sophisticated spaces that are as beautiful as they are functional. Tanya’s personal experience assisting NGOs with social development and community-based building projects further adds to her exemplary portfolio of work.

Need to uplift your interior or revamp your residence?

For more information, send an email to tanya@saltandlight.co.za or visit their website

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *