Design*Sponge · Mar 16, 2016

Comfort Zone: Azza Gallab

As a first-generation Sudanese-American, experience architect Azza Gallab grew up feeling like she didn’t quite fit in. She spent her childhood moving across America, living everywhere from Ohio to New York, so, as she puts it, “home has always been kind of an obscure concept.” but one thing her upbringing has taught her is that one’s perceptions about anything are largely made up of experiences and feelings.

Much like her childhood, after getting her degree in Africana Studies, she spent her early adulthood moving around various career fields, from the music industry and journalism to event production and styling for fashion brands such as Chanel, and through all of it, she’s learned that one’s perceptions are largely made up of experiences and feelings. Touch, smell, sound and sight are just the beginning, and this idea is exactly what inspired her to start her own line of luxury candles, Haremesque.

From her dreamy bedroom within her Brooklyn, NY apartment, Azza is joining us to share some insight into her personal life including what her childhood was like, why she runs toward discomfort, and what scares her. –Sabrina

Photography by Wyatt Gallery

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Azza Gallab and I’m an Experience Architect. I was born in Khartoum, Sudan and my family moved to the States when I was 4 years old. Growing up we moved around quite a bit. I’ve lived in Massachusetts, Utah, Ohio and now New York. Most of my extended family is back home in Sudan, so I go back about every other year to visit. I was a very active kid with a large imagination. In Utah, the mountains were my backyard, so I spent a lot of time outdoors. My friends and I would build forts, sled, ski, snowboard, hike, swim, you name it. When my family first moved to Ohio, I was pretty depressed for a while. The landscape was so flat and boring and the people?! Don’t even get me started. I hated everything about Ohio. Towards the end of my 8th grade year I learned about this new program called the Expeditionary Academy (Exped). Exped had a non-conventional approach of teaching students by combing the disciplines of advanced English, advanced social studies, physical education, health, community service and outdoor education. It was a very competitive application and interview process. Only 15 students were admitted into the program per year. But, I thought I’d give it a shot and apply anyway. So, I did and I got in! I spent my freshman and sophomore year of high school going on learning adventures not only inside the classroom, but in the wilderness as well. Exped was truly a one of a kind experience. From backpacking, indoor rock climbing whitewater rafting, to reading “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn and the Indian Epic the Ramayana, to writing literary responses essays, A LOT of literary response essays. It was exactly what I needed at the time. Exped taught me to explore the world in a new way and really challenged me intellectually and physically. It also made me kind of like Ohio, just a little bit.

I moved to NY about eight years ago. I had just graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in Africana Studies. I landed an internship at Wax Poetics Magazine and Cornerstone/The FADER. I was writing a lot then and thought I wanted to be a music journalist and eventually go on to be a children’s lit author. That changed pretty quickly — the music journalist part that is. I’m still working on children’s books. Interning at Cornerstone allowed me to travel and work big festivals such as Bonaroo, SXSW, Outside Lands and CMJ. I made a lot of connections and started freelancing and doing whatever creative gigs I could at the time, primarily as an event PA. Fast forward a bit, I landed a gig with the Wondaland Arts Society as an Experience Architect. I did everything from interior design, event production/design, and styling work. I went on to do that for about three years. Within the last year, I decided I’d like to start freelancing again, and it turned out to be a pretty big year for me. I had the privilege of working on the styling team for the Chanel Chance Eau Vive Campaign in Paris, which was shot and directed by the extraordinary creative force that is Jean-Paul Goude. I launched a live monthly music series called Molasses Monday’s with my good friends Saada Ahmed and Chef Roble. And last, but most certainly not least, what I am most proud of: I launched my very own luxury candle business, Haremesque!

What does home and this space mean to you? Describe it.

As a first-generation Sudanese-American who grew up feeling like I didn’t quite “fit in” anywhere most of my life, “home” has always been kind of an obscure concept. Growing up, I felt like a foreigner in the US and a foreigner in Sudan, which led me to feel like I didn’t really belong anywhere. That’s a very lonely “place” to be. As a result, I’m pretty nomadic by nature and traveling has been my therapy. When I’m not on the road, I still like to feel like I’m “moving”, which is funny because I LOVE lounging. I’m a walking oxymoron, haha. Anyway, that’s part of the reason why I love living in NY so much. There’s always a new part of the city to explore, endless diversity (you walk down one street, everyone’s speaking Spanish, down another, they’re speaking Arabic, down another, Wolof etc), the ease of transportation and you really don’t have to go far to be inspired or experience new things. But, it’s also tough living here: It’s expensive, the winters are dreadful and depressing, and depending on where you are in the city, the streets can get pretty filthy. But, that why I think NY is so beautiful. It’s a perfect imperfection. It was in NY that I finally was able to meet people with a similar story as mine. I never thought that would happen. And so, for that, I love this city and am happy to call it home, for now haha.

My room is a true reflection of me. Sudan is my muse. Aesthetically, there is a very strong and apparent Sudanese/Eastern influence and mystical aura. I work from home and also use this space as a visual and physical mood board for my projects. I really have invested a lot of time beautifying and cozying it up, aiming to create a magical experience for myself as well as my visitors. Apart from the obvious (sleeping and dreaming), it’s where I’m inspired to come up with most of my creative ideas, meditate, listen to music, concoct Haremesque potions and test burn candles, hang out with those near and dear to me, write and most importantly (which I mentioned earlier) LOUNGE. Many people describe me as a cat, I LOVE lounging in a nice, warm, relaxing environment. There’s a funny saying, “Sudanese people wake up from sleep to rest.” That’s totally me, haha.

What makes it so comfortable?

Physically, I would say nearly everything in my room is pretty comfortable. I’m a sucker for dreamy drapery, so I created my own canopy bed by installing silk ivory drapes around it. I probably have 5 tempur-pedic toppers on my mattress. Just kidding, I have one tempur-pedic topper and one goose-down topper. It’s like sleeping on top of a cloud. I’m a tropical girl, so naturally I had a hammock chair that I purchased in Mexico, installed near my window. It’s surrounded around a majesty palm and mass cane, which give off such a warm tropical vibe. I call this little nook Tuti Island, which is an island in Sudan where the White and Blue Nile Rivers unite, pretty romantic, right? I hate winter/the cold. This little nook is my eternal sunshine! I love my Persian rug. I have a no shoe rule, so I needed a cozy rug to put on top of the hardwood floors. I really enjoy how all the teal, ivory, brown, and reds in the rug complement each other and the rest of the room. My lamp, mirror, and bench are all antique items. I love one of a kind pieces. I’ve had this lamp since college and it’s like my baby! I actually get nervous when people get too close to it. When I first moved to NY, a couple of my friends were nice enough to drive it up from Ohio. I was a nervous wreck until they arrived, so dramatic haha.

All the items in my room are very personal. I have many different types of Sudanese pieces dispersed throughout the space. I love wooden antiques, particularly of elephants, my favorite animal, can you tell? I got this kissar (Nubian lyre) on a trip to the pyramids in Meroë, Sudan. I’m really into large sibah (prayer beads), similar to a rosary, and started collecting them a few years ago. I get them from a popular souk in Omdurman, Sudan. Vintage photography is one of my favorite things, ever. So, I have several old photographs of my parents, grandparents and some of my aunts. I also have an endless supply of perfumes, oils, bakhoor (incense) from all over the world. I can’t live without that stuff. I’m always burning a Haremesque candle or bakhoor in my room. Always. Books! I come from an academic family. My parents are both professors. So, I of course have their books along with a mixture of so many different types of genres: African literature (fiction, historical, non-fiction), spirituality, memoir, interior, art, graphic novel, children’s lit, poetry, etc. I look at “Vogue Living: Houses, Gardens, People” by Hamish Bowles, almost everyday. I also really love Dr. Seuss and Rumi! They are both my heroes. I love, love, love music. I have a record player and speakers that are always in use. While I’m working, I like to listen to instrumentals, particularly Jazz. I almost always have Mulatu Astatke, who’s known as the father of Ethio-Jazz, playing in the background. My grandfather was a very well known Sufi Sheikh in Sudan and had such a captivating voice. I have a few recordings of him reciting madih (praise poetry) that I play every so often in his memory. My brother, Ahmed followed in his footsteps and is an amazing musician with a fantastic band called Sinkane. My roommates and I are always jamming out to his stuff.

What makes you uncomfortable? What is your biggest fear?

Oh my God, so many things make me uncomfortable! Is that bad? Where do I start? Excessively loud and obnoxious people make me extremely uncomfortable. Any form of prejudice or intolerance: racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance etc. Condescending or pretentious behavior makes me cringe. Disappointing my loved ones, especially my parents! Violence. Public speaking. I get very uncomfortable talking in front of large groups of people. Although I do well one on one or in small groups, I’m naturally quiet/an observer, so that always freaks me out. I also don’t like being forced to do anything.

My biggest fear is losing those I’m closest to early in life. I lost my cousin and one of my best friends and both were extremely tragic circumstances. I know many people, but there are only a select few that I’m very close to. I just don’t want to go through that type of pain again. But, we don’t control these types of things. Life is very unpredictable. So, I try to live it to the fullest and celebrate the memory of those I’ve lost while I’m still here.

Have you ever thrown caution to the wind and departed from your comfort zone? What happened as a result?

I love this Rumi quote: “Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.”

Definitely. Going back to being a first generation Sudanese-American, there was a point where I felt like every time I left my house I was stepping outside of my comfort zone in one way or another. In Utah, I was one of the only non-Mormons in my school. My brother, sister and I were the only Africans. In Ohio I was “too white acting” for most of the black kids and “black, but not like those other black kids” to the white kids. Now, let’s add being Muslim on top of all those things. That’s a recipe for being extremely uncomfortable, all the time. Even among the Muslim community there was a lot of racism. When I’d go back to Sudan I was teased about my “English” accent when speaking Arabic, and although we would frequently visit, it was always a culture shock for me then. I couldn’t really escape being uncomfortable. I was always uncomfortable no matter where I was.

Starting my own business also took me outside of my comfort zone. But, by the time I launched this past December I had been so used to it that it didn’t really feel that way anymore. It’s an everyday part of my life. I try, as much as possible, to find excitement in the unknown.

I see all my past uncomfortable experiences as a blessing. Life isn’t supposed to be easy. Those experiences have built a lot of character. I’ve learned not to take everything so seriously and am able to laugh at many of those awkward moments now. In all honesty, there are a lot more positive things in life to focus on. Like, how gorgeous of a State Utah is and how lucky I was to have the Rocky Mountains at my disposal. That if it weren’t for moving to Ohio, I would have never been able to experience Exped. How amazing it is to be from Sudan, even with its imperfections, a beautiful nation with such a rich and majestic history nonetheless. How lucky I am to have such wonderful, loving, supportive friends and family! How awesome it is to have my very own business. I wouldn’t change a thing about my past and I really don’t mind being “weird” and/or “different” to some people. I think it’s cool.

What would you do if you had a day, a week and a month all to yourself?

Hmmm…I’d definitely travel.

A day: I’d probably fly to Treasure Beach in Jamaica and just swim and eat all day.

A week: I’d go to the Maldives and soak up the culture, food, beaches and sun.

A month: I would split my time between visiting Trancoso and Caraiva, Brazil, Mauritius and Socotra Island.
What have you learned as an adult that you wish you knew when you were younger?

I would tell the younger me that being different is OK, happiness comes from within, to let go of any negative people before they burn you out, always go with your gut feeling, and to never stop running track, because trying to get back in shape later in life is a bitch.

How do you unplug, recharge and unwind?

I love going to the beach! Making candles is also very therapeutic. We have a really cute terrace with grass and a hammock. I like laying in the grass or hammock and staring at the clouds or reading on a nice warm day. I also love reading on the hammock in my room. All that and meditating, laying in bed and watching silent films or foreign films with no subtitles on my laptop, listening to music, going to the park and people watching, or just hanging out with my closest friends.

Have you ever experienced burnout? How do you get back on your feet and stay inspired?

I’m a pretty calm person in general and typically deal with stress well. I also really work hard not to over-commit myself. Luckily, with Haremesque and as I just mentioned, candle making is extremely therapeutic. Whenever I feel the slightest bit overwhelmed with anything business related, I make candles and the stress magically disappears. If it’s too much, I take a step back, analyze the situation and deal with it accordingly. It doesn’t take much for me to snap back. I like to stay positive and the only way to stay positive is to keep a positive mindset.

What do you think the world could use less of, and more of?

Less intolerance. More magic.

What’s one question you wish you had the answer to?

Can someone find me a really good dream interpreter?

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