Q&A with Ursala Baig, Interior Designer at McKinley Burkart



It was a few years ago, when I first met Ursala, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that I got to know her better. Ursala is a talented Associate Interior Designer with the ever popular, McKinley Burkart design & architecture firm. Over drinks earlier this year, I learned about her family, Pakistani heritage and what brought them to Canada back in the early 90s. I was intrigued by our cultural differences and her passion for design that was aligned with mine. I also loved learning more about her role with McKinley Burkart and their never-ending drive to create innovative solutions for their clients through complimentary divisions such as their branding arm Little Sister, creative think tank and intelligence agency Black Chamber, and furniture and décor specialist sister company - Tableau Studios. Naturally, I wanted to explore all of these topics and ideas further to see how everything wove together with a Q&A.

What lead you to interior design? Did you go to the program at Mount Royal?
I’ve always been quite creative since I was a little kid, but it was my parents who lead me down this path. They instilled in me from a young age to value experiences above all else. Even if you can’t afford to dine lavishly at the top restaurant you still go there for a coffee just to experience it. I knew at 12 that I need to have a career where I get to create these places. Ideally destination places that people put on their list go see when they visit your city.

I did attend Mount Royal University, it’s a fantastic program. Some great designers have graduated from it.

Where did you work your first few years out of school?
When I graduated, I reached out to boutique firms where there is typically a lot more one on one mentorship and exposure to all phases of design. I worked for Connie Young Design for 5 years, previously known as ce de ce inc. Connie primarily focuses on hospitality which is where my passion lies. I then moved on to MartensGroup for 5 years which has recently been acquired by Kasian, a global architecture firm, that specialized in corporate office. The combination of these 2 firms gave me great experience and a diverse set of skills.

When did you start at McKinley Burkart? What drew you to work with that firm?
I always wanted to work for McKinley Burkart but felt I was a better fit as a senior having had project and life experience. I was drawn to our reputation of being out of the box thinkers, we’ve never done a project that looks the same and our firm has helped define Calgary’s design landscape. I appreciate how involved the partners, Mark and Walker, are in the creative process and the mentorship you get from them is unmatched in our industry. I was also drawn to our collaborative and hyper creative office spirit. With every project I’m excited to see what we’ll learn and come up with next. I knew my growth here would be exponential and I’ll never experience my biggest fear in my work – boredom.

How does your heritage influence your design process?
I lived in Pakistan until I was 12 so I have vivid memories of home which influences my way of thinking quite a bit. My culture’s history is deeply rooted in rituals and social gathering especially around food. I always reference that when I’m creating a restaurant experience, how do we bring people together? I also love how in my culture colours have meaning that trigger different emotions and memories. My love for complex detailing and creating custom lighting or objects for a space comes from my dad and my mutual love of custom jewelry which is a big part of our culture. Our McKinley Burkart custom solutions are so special because I love knowing we’ve created something no one can buy online.

What process do you take with new clients? How do you work with them to see their vision come to life?
Our creative process at a high level is consistent between all 3 arms yet varies based on which division of Mckinley Burkart you are working with and the project ask.

Our Black Chamber division which is our intelligence agency does a deep dive into researching and strategizing a fully vetted solution for our clients. Our Black Chamber clients come to us wanting to create a new concept whether it’s a restaurant or a new product, but they don’t know what kind or how it should it be positioned in the market etc. Once the project problem has been defined the Black Chamber team pulls global research, statistics and data around successful ventures to define the right approach for our clients. We have been recently partnering with developers who are creating new communities and towers and through Black Chamber we’ve been able to strategically guide them on what the right mix of retail, restaurant and lifestyle amenities should be based on their user group. Everything is based on data, and not on personal preference which is no longer a business driver. Layer in our design and visioning skills and we are able to take our ideas and clients to unexpected places.

Little Sister and Mckinley Burkart architecture and interior design teams use a similar analytical approach but add in the vision, details and coordination required to take a project from concept to completion. It’s a very collaborative process with our clients who value our expertise in the hospitality, retail, multi-family, and residential industries. We always start with defining the problem, identifying the brand and user values and then research and charrette to create a compelling concept and brand narrative. We strive to create experiences that strike an emotional chord; those tend to be the most memorable ones.

Do you have specific industries you like working with?
We are experts in single family residential, multi-family residential, restaurants and bars, hospitality, boutique office and retail. Our portfolio is quite diverse with projects that have varied budgets and user groups. We have also recently been successful in re-defining seniors living with our Section 23 client where we’ve brought our hospitality experience to create a new approach to retirement.

I personally love working on hospitality and retail projects, those projects tend to have more opportunities to be very sensory and experience forward which is where my strengths lie.

Do clients need to have a large budget to work with you?
Absolutely not we’ve done projects with very small budgets like Banded Peak brewing when they first started out to big budgets like our work with Anheuser Busch for their global brew pub rollout. With that thought we are still quite transparent with our clients early on who have limited budgets on how much it can stretch. You can’t get a Porche on a Toyota budget no matter how creative and resourceful we may be. In those cases, we collaborate with the client to redefine the project ask and priorities to ensure the quality of the experience isn’t compromised.

What are some common trends you are seeing in your industry?
From a global perspective the trends we are seeing is that successful brands are shifting their strategy based on consumer behaviour data. Social media and social engagement are key business drivers and successful brands are using these platforms to create brand engagement. We live in a new world where companies like Glossier became extremely successful on an ecommerce platform. When they did eventually create flagship stores, they made them a destination by creating hyper sensory instagramable experiences. Consumers today are bombarded with so much information daily that companies must be creative on how to stand out. Ultimately, it comes down to creating a great experience.

What is the purpose of McKinley Burkart’s other companies? Why were they introduced? What need do they fill?
Our process is quite holistic, and we realized that on almost all our projects we were already doing some of these things; so, it was quite an organic process and integration. Tableau Studios is a team of furniture, fixturing and art specialists who help us create custom solutions for our projects that truly help our spaces stand out. For example: Wednesday Room, all furniture and lighting were custom to help bring that brand story to life. They have vast knowledge with vendors and manufacturers with multiple budget levels to help achieve our vision. Similarly, Little Sister our branding agency developed the name, brand identity and collateral to create the Wednesday Room’s brand vision. The result is a series of iconic custom illustrations the hint at the project concept inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  

What advice do you give to your friends when they ask you for help with interior design? Any fun/quick tips
My biggest advice is to really think about how you live in your space. What things are no longer serving you, what do you want to feel when you enter your space whether its your home or office. You can follow trends and do multiple pinterest searches on what the latest trends are, but it all falls on gut instinct, what feels right to you. As well to create a timeless shell, your taste changes with you and things like furniture, art and accessories are easy to switch around.

 What are your favourite hobbies/things to do/places to travel?
I love to travel especially to Europe and experiencing places that have hundreds of years of history. I love going to a brand-new city and walking around and getting lost, eating and drinking the local food and wine, visiting art galleries, checking out museums and sketching. I’ve also been on a recent fitness bender for the last 3 years, I think for creative thinkers its so important to go to the gym and clearing your head. If I’m stuck on a project after a workout, I always seem to have fresh ideas on how to solve it.

What architects and designers to you admire most and why?
I tend to be drawn more to architects and designers who have a more artful approach to their work. My favourite studio in the world is Heatherwick Studio out of London. They create these incredible experiences that have changed the conversation on how buildings should be. Their work is never static, and I love that they have a maker mentality where they prototype and explore multiple avenues until they arrive to the final one. There is romance in their work.

I am also inspired by fashion and primarily fashion shows. Designers have a limited area and amount of time to express their inspiration, those runways must be quite detailed for guests to immerse themselves in their vision. TV shows and movies are a big inspiration to me as well I love the time and care that goes into creating a set and the overall vision. If one element is off the illusion is gone.  

What is the most memorable project you’ve worked on?
I love a few for different reasons. I loved working on Undrcard at Mckinley Burkart and the community it has become; and of course, the awards its won are icing on the cake. Goose Island Brew Pub global rollout was another noteworthy project for me; I got to live my dream of doing global work. I also still can’t believe that we created the global retail rollout strategy for Budweiser. Overall, I tend to love the projects where I’ve created something I’ve never done before.

What qualities do you value most in your clients/vendors/partners?
It all boils down to trust and collaborative spirit. We love visionary clients who trust our global expertise in guiding them into creating a unique vision. We love partnering with clients who are not afraid to go down the rabbit hole with us.

What are some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned thus far?
It takes a village to help a project come to life, its not just you. It’s the client, the consultants, the contractor and trades who bring it together. By sharing your vision early on and collaborating with them it becomes a collective vision. Each team member strives to achieve the project’s mutual success.

Never become stale, always be thinking about the next thing. Its so important to be well researched and up to date on what’s going on in the local and global market. It’s a very powerful and unique ability to help shape the physical world, something I am very proud to be a part of.

What are your big lofty goals for the future?
I am currently enrolled in the AAA Licenced Interior Designers program. There are only a handful of licensed designers in Alberta and its important to me to continue to support my profession and mentor others to do so in the future as well. Other lofty goals of mine are to continue doing global work and expanding Mckinley Burkart to other cities; who knows someday we might be in Hong Kong, Seoul, New York?! The skies the limit.

qaShannon HewlkoComment