India Mahdavi

India Mahdavi

After a relaxing holiday hiatus, we dive into our 2009 interview series with our long-time friend, architect and interior designer India Mahdavi. We first met India in Paris almost a decade ago and have since collaborated on projects for Jonathan Morr and more recently, NetJets. As recent articles in the New York Times “T” and Departures will attest, India is very much a part of a highly accomplished “next generation” who will leave their mark on the world of design.

Base: Did your parents work in creative fields?

India Mahdavi: No, not at all. My father is more of an academic, my mother is mother of five, which is a pretty full time job. Neither were in creative fields.

Condesa Patio

The patio of the Condesa Hotel in Mexico City, a project Mahdavi realized with Jonathan Morr. Condesa photos by U. Prohl.

B: Your brothers and sisters, too?

IM: I’m the middle child. Most of my siblings are doing banking and law, so I’m the only creative one. One can be creative without “being in a creative world.” For example, my brother is a creative person, but he didn’t apply his creativity to an artistic environment. One can apply it to law, etc. Know what I mean?

Condesa Bar area

The bar at the Condesa hotel

B: As a child you traveled often with your family. Did these travels influence your work?

IM: Yes. They did because my work is very much influenced by my own memory. Familiar shapes, forms… everything looks familiar in a way. I moved so many times as a young kid from country to country that I never had a “family home” or family base. It made me very sensitive to homes and places. I’m still looking for the holy grail.

Condesa Bar

The Condesa bar area

B: You currently reside in Paris. Did you always feel you would end up living there? How did you end up there?

IM: No, I never had a sense of where I’d live. I could be here or elsewhere. It was a natural continuation of my schooling Paris. I went to high school here, then got my degree in architecture. I then went to NYC for a year, but moved back to Paris where I started working with Christian Liaigre. Because of this, all my professional connections were here. So being based in Paris made sense. Also, I love the quality of life in Paris.

Condesa Chamber

A bedroom at the Condesa

B: You are of Persian / Egyptian descent. Do you consider yourself Persian? Egyptian? Parisian? A nationality stew?

IM: A complete stew! I love stews in fact. And I think I get the best of it all, that way. Day to day life, I’m a Parisian. But that doesn’t mean I’m French! I feel Persian when I eat Persian food, Egyptian when I’m in the Egyptian desert. It’s good to feel the different cultures we have within us.

B: When did you realize that designing was what you wanted to do with your life?

IM: I never grew up thinking I wanted to be a designer. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I wanted to tell stories. I feel comfort being removed from every day life and in an imaginary world. I know this sounds strange, but when I started studying architecture it was to become a filmmaker. When I started my own business in 1999, I realized I could tell stories through design. It’s not through film but in a different media. I tell stories with every new project.

Bishop stool

The Bishop stool which first appeared at the Condesa, today available in Mahdavi’s exclusive furniture line

B: If you could redesign anything in the world, what would it be?

IM: Homes for the homeless.

B: You wear many hats: designer, architect, stylist. What do you tell people when they ask “What do you do for a living?”

IM: I say exactly that. Designer, architect, art direction. But I wish I could just say “concepts” because that’s what it’s all about.

Vera Cruz table

Mahdavi’s Vera Cruz table

B: If you were told that you would have to pick an entirely different career tomorrow, what would you be inclined to pick?

IM: Filmmaker, the thing that I missed.

B: What sort of films?

IM: Fiction. The filmmakers I love have a strong visual identity and impact. Fellini, Kubrick, Visconti. When watching their movies, you enter their world.

B: If you were to describe Paris using all 5 senses, how would you define it?

IM: View of the Seine from the Quay d’Orsay (Eiffel Tower/ Trocadero + Grand Palais / Petit Palais). It would be a view from above from a 6 or 7 story building. The smell of a good glass of Bordeaux. Maybe a chasse-spleen ? A piece of chèvre on a poilâne bread … that’s for the taste. I am missing the sound? The sound of the St Clotillde bells next door every hour. Touch? Touching a guys chest [laughing]. With the smell of Bordeaux [more laughing].

Hotel on Rivington_Room

The Hotel on Rivington on NYC’s Lower East Side. Mahdavi designed all 60 rooms.

B: If memory serves, you achieved a certain renown first outside of Paris. Why do you think this is?

IM: I think this is a French tradition. You sort of have to prove yourself elsewhere before being approached by Parisians. First, I want to say my career started mostly in London. I started working with Joseph [the fashion designer]. My work spread by word of mouth. It was then while I was still in London that I met Jonathan Morr. He was starting Townhouse in Miami. That led to my meeting Ian Schrager to do the Empire in NY, which never happened due to Sept 11th. But there was a lot of coverage in the NY Times and that got the world out that I was able to work abroad. Speaking English along with my international exposure is reassuring to many cultures.

Hotel on Rivington_Bathroom 2

The corresponding bathroom at the Hotel on Rivington

B: Can you describe your work process?

IM: I have a team that I work very closely with. I start by listening to client about what they want and what they expect form me. Then I look at the space. I create an equation of “the best of what they want + the best of the space” and give them several options. I try to integrate these options as an elaboration of the schematic design. I submit these ideas to the client so they can react. Many times clients have one vision. If you bring many ideas, you can start with their initial idea, but then say “your idea can be enhanced if you do it this way” which makes them feel reassured. From there, a senior designer takes hold of the project. Once schematic is defined, then we try to find the spirit. What kind of finishes, textures? What kind of spirit do you want to give to the place? I try to create “places” and give identities to spaces. It’s this part, the spirit, that is the hardest part of the project.

Hotel on Rivington_Room 2

Mahdavi created two room treatments for the Hotel on Rivington, beige on black, and yellow on black, shown here.

B: How do you convey an idea to a client? Meaning, what references do you use to describe an idea?

IM: Mood boards. I will cut images out of magazines, present postcards from a flea market. Or it can be an object. I’ll put materials together. For instance, for a project I’m working on in Monaco, I took photos from Hoyeningen-Huene and put them next to a drawing by Matisse and then next to an image of a Riva to say to the client, “This is where we’re going” and explain why. I was working on a revival of the 30′s. The Riva is timeless elegance. The photographer is from the 30′s and very beachy, portraits of bathers, very graphic and elegant. Matisse represents the feeling of the south of France at that time. It’s poetry, it’s the colours, the textures. So those three images sum up what I was trying to do for them. That’s how we start working.

Hotel on Rivington_Bathroom

The colorful yellow bathroom at the Hotel on Rivington

B: Your official CV describes your work as a “subtle association between sensuality and elegance, a perfect balance between masculine and feminine.” True… and yet these words might be used to describe the work of others. What else sets you apart?

IM: A bit of humor. A bit of risk, because sometimes I do unexpected mixes. Recently I’ve done bathrooms in Arles, and I’ve mixed Moroccan “zeliges” [tiles] with very strong marble and wallpapers and patterned fabrics. It’s very rich and very unexpected. I’ve never seen such a mix anywhere else. It’s really more like what fashion designers would do. I’ve also used formica and other materials that have a rather unsophisticated quality and make them look, by their association to others, quite stunning.

Stay tuned next week for part two of this interview.

For more information on India Mahdavi, click here.