HELLO! gets a warm welcome at the fabulous Mumbai home of interior designer Sarah Sham and her husband, sports supremo Mustafa Ghouse.
Sarah Sham and Mustafa Ghouse make for beautiful pictures. What with their lovely South Mumbai home, cherubic child Sophia and their pet cat and dog, nearly resembling a perfect IKEA catalogue, showing all us mere mortals what a model life in suburbia is meant to look like. The two, however, are not your run-off-the-mill SoBo couple, juggling domestic life with extremely successful careers in their own chosen spheres.
Sarah, an accomplished interior designer and Instagram sensation, is the scion of the Essajee family, which has been into the production and manufacture of furniture for generations. Mustafa hails from the Ghouse family, which has succeeded both at professional tennis and in the field of corporate governance in India. HELLO! spent some quality time with the Ghouses, trying to decode how they manage to do it all.
HELLO!: Tell us how you founded Essajees Atelier.
Sarah Sham: “Starting Essajees Atelier was definitely not planned; it happened by accident. Interior design was the furthest thing from my mind. Honestly, I always thought of doing something in economics, finance or psychology.
In my 20s, when I was working with my father at Essajees, one of his clients was looking for some decorative lights. Dad asked me to go meet her, and I went into that meeting thinking I was going to sell the homeowner a couple of lights for a few lakhs. Instead, she sold me an idea. She liked my design aesthetics and suggestions so much that she suggested I do up her home. I had zero experience, and I didn’t even want to be an interior designer. Even though I told her that she was nuts for suggesting this, she was quite insistent. I ended up agreeing and started with her project, which was a beautiful 8,000 sqft home by Haji Ali in Mumbai.
At the age of 26, after studying art history at Duke and Oxford University and working for five years with Essajees, I decided to go back to school at Rachana Sansad, where I pursued a two-year course in interior design while working on her home. It was a crazy learning curve for me. Finally, in 2014, I started with Essajees Atelier.”
H!: Your family has a long legacy of producing some truly luxe products and projects. How much of your father’s work ethic and practices have you imbibed into your own?
SS: “To be honest, I didn’t even realise how much of my father and grandfather’s design ethos and eye for aesthetics really helped shape me into who I am today. I remember, when we were kids, my grandfather would take us to the store on weekends and show us so many different beautiful antiques. Later, Dad continued with that ritual, and I feel it all runs in my blood. Growing up around some of the most beautiful things in the world made me truly appreciate beauty in design.”
H!: What has it been like sprucing up your home and upgrading the interiors? Since you were the designer of your own space, was there more emotion attached to the process?
SS: “Designing my own home has always been a super interesting process. When it comes to my house, I always end up finding places that don’t look so great but have great potential for being turned into a beautiful space.
This is my second home with my husband. For my earlier space, I was really conscious while doing up the décor, as being an interior designer, I felt people would nitpick on every detail. So I had a lot of second thoughts and doubted myself a lot. But this time around, I ensured that I had fun, introducing and experimenting with everything that resonated with me and my family. I’m sure it shows.”
H!: Share some of your most challenging projects till date. Perhaps horror stories you’ve experienced while working for particularly trying clients…
SS: “There are many! But I think some of it was also because of my inability to deal with certain situations. With time and experience, you learn how to manage them. People often come, meet, take design ideas and never return; it’s really disappointing. Also, a lot of the time, people think just because they pay you a fee for your service, they have the right to be inappropriate and rude. I have stayed away from such clients over the past few years, and now, I’m happy with the set of clients I have. It’s been fabulous, and I’m truly grateful.”
H!: What was it like working with Ishaan Khatter on his home? Are celebrity clients more difficult to handle than common folk?
SS: “Oh, it was amazing! Ishaan was super cooperative and sweet through the entire process. I actually thought working with celebrities would be more difficult, and they’d be more temperamental given their erratic schedules, but it was an absolute pleasure to work with him. He’s the nicest person, very respectful and professional. He’s also a quick decision-maker and was super prompt and involved in the entire design process. Ishaan was truly very easy to work with. I’d surely love to work with him again!”
H!: Did the birth of your daughter Sophia affect your professional life?
SS: “I did think that with Sophia, my work schedule would become super hectic or difficult, but I’m glad I found a way to balance it all. I’m grateful for having my family around me. My mother and mum-in-law are super supportive and involved through the week with Sophia, which gives me the space to continue with my work.
On weekends, I completely take over all mommy duties. The most difficult part is the travel that comes with my work, which takes me away from my daughter. It’s challenging also because when I return, I’m exhausted but have to tackle pending office work and spend time with Sophia, which I really want to.”
H!: Your advice for those looking for a designer for their home.
SS: “A lot of people onboard designers based on their fee structure or budget. But it’s really important that the designer’s energy matches yours. The designer will be creating every single corner of your home and add his energy into your space. So it’s absolutely vital that you take this into consideration, prioritising it even over figures around rupees per square foot. This is the most common mistake people make.”
HELLO!: Tell us about your work with JSW Sports. How has the journey been so far?
Mustafa Ghouse: “I just completed a decade at JSW Sports — that’s indication enough of how fulfilling this journey has been so far! It was all so new back then, being tasked with building a high-performance Olympic training facility that was to win India medals, or putting together a football club with a bunch of players without contracts with other clubs. But the journey has been nothing short of fantastic. The medals came in, as did the trophies, and we went on to grow, adding more teams, facilities, athletes and experiences.
Putting together and running Bengaluru FC seemed like a massive ask, till we took on the behemoth that was Delhi Capitals and the Indian Premier League. We entered unchartered territory but stood our ground and have only grown. Then there was more to learn by taking on a team in the Pro-Kabaddi League.
On the Olympic side of our efforts, Sakshi Malik’s bronze at Rio reiterated our belief that we were capable of producing champions. Four years later, we had our hand in what is arguably India’s greatest sporting accomplishment, when Neeraj Chopra flung his way to gold in Tokyo.
The best thing about it all is that we wake up every day and feel we’ve only just scratched the surface. I’ve been so fortunate to have a fantastic team around me who are all pushing and pulling in the same direction.”
H!: Do you miss playing professional tennis? How often do you take time out for your own physical fitness?
MG: “I’ve always believed in the adage, ‘Once a tennis player, always a tennis player’. That makes me miss the sport just that little less. There are days when I miss being on the circuit, but I have enough reasons to remind myself that my playing days are past me. I do make the time to work out or indulge in the odd hit about at a court. That’s the upside of working in sports — you’re never short on access or inspiration to train and stay fit.”
H!: How did you and Sarah meet? What’s married life been like?
MG: “There’s a tennis connect to this story! Sarah’s cousin and I played on the circuit, and it was through him that I knew her. But it was just that. I then met her in Boston at the same cousin’s wedding; that was when we actually hit it off. While it sounds seamless, I must admit it took some solid convincing from my side to move things and for her to say yes.
It’s been a very special journey, the five years of marriage and a couple of years of dating and getting to know each other better. We’re both very driven when it comes to our careers and family. We complement each other well, singing from the same song sheet most times.”
H!: Among all your sporting clients, who would you say is your favourite and why?
MG: “That’s like asking me to choose my favourite child! I’ve had very special memories with every team and athlete I’ve worked with. There are some we’ve built from scratch, and those stories are the ones that always stay with you. I’ve learnt something from every team and athlete. Fortunately for me, most of them have medals and trophies to show for, which makes the association that much sweeter.”
H!: Who’s more hands on with bringing up baby Sophia, you or Sarah?
MG: “I’d like to say we’re a tag team on this one, with Sarah doing most of the heavy lifting. We’re both on the move often, and that also means we get our time with her together and otherwise. By default, Sophia, the sporty kid, is my doing. We hit the tennis court, swimming pool and gymnastics centre together. But given how often you’d find Sophia at Sarah’s office, I won’t be surprised if she has an employee ID already!”
H!: What are some of your favourite destinations to holiday as a couple?
MG: “Last summer, we made a trip to Switzerland with Sophia in tow, and it was quite the holiday. The country is so child-friendly, which was a key factor in deciding our destination. We soaked in all that the Swiss had to offer — the mountains, the waterside, the landscapes that resembled postcards, and the beautiful weather. The food was delightful, and needless to say, we threw the ‘must not eat’ book out the window. We’ve been to a fair few countries and cities, but this one has a special place in the album.”
H!: You have family in Hyderabad, as well. Do you manage to maintain a connect with the city?
MG: “I have a lot of family in Hyderabad. It’s always been a city I’ve never needed a reason to head to, while growing up. I spent time there even through my tennis career. I’ve always enjoyed the city, and that hasn’t changed at all.”
Photos: Ryan Martis; Fashion Editor: Sonam Poladia; Junior Stylist: Anushree Sardesai; Hair & Makeup: Sandhya Agarwal
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in HELLO! India’s January 2023 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!