say hi to_ India Mahdavi
If France has an Interior, Design and Goddess of color - it would most certainly have to be Madame India Mahdavi. I am sure that no matter what corner of the Earth you come from, you have seen her playful and sophisticated candy hued interiors and sumptuous furniture. Born in Iran and raised in France (and across a few countries in-beween), this powerhouse designer and architect took strength from her diverse upbringing and created her own path at a time when it was unheard of for a woman to go out on her own in the world of Architecture. As a young, foreign, female entrepreneur in France myself, it was an honour to be able to sit down to India and discuss her path, drive and get a little bit of insight into how she put herself in the forefront of an industry traditionally led by men.
From more or less starting the ‘Millennial Pink’ trend with the redesign of restaurant, Sketch, in London to approaching each new project as movie with a narrative to create, to running one of France’s most important design studio’s as a single mother - I had so much to ask this power woman. We sit down to talk creative process, growing your network, managing family and work and taking a risk to challenge yourself to pursue what you need to establish your career.
| Kristen | Can you please introduce yourself and what you do?
| India | Hello! India Mahdavi, Architect, Designer .. and many other things.
| India | I think I consider myself a woman of my time, a modern woman in many ways, in many respects because I see myself as more than just my profession.
What was more challenging was to do it as a woman, as a mother, and I think what was even more complicated to achieve was - although my education is very occidental - I come from a middle eastern background, where as a woman, you always remained either the daughter of your father or the wife of your husband, and to become very or completely independent and to be able to have your own business, to do everything on your own and not depend on anybody. Although I work with a team and my clients, but basically, I’m standing alone. And I think that was maybe the more challenging (thing) and thats why I say that I’m more than just a designer or an architect.
| India | I think that I’m exactly a product and a model of success of a metissage, a cultural mix of religions, of education, of east and west.
| Kristen | It’s really inspirational not only to speak to a woman that I really admire because of your work, but especially because you are a woman - a woman from a middle eastern background - who has succeeded in everything that I, myself as a woman would like to do, without a man, and I wonder what kind of challenges you face as a woman that people may not realize?
| India | You know, as you start, you don’t really know what you’re gonna go through, and being a woman really helped me in many ways, because there are not so many women doing this.
When I started, there was Andree Putman, and I think Zaha Hadid was starting on her own, which is why I have a lot of admiration for her because I know, when you come from the Middle East, you either have to have very progressive parents, who are gonna push you and say, „You know what, why not? Go for it!“, or, they’re gonna say, „Why would you want to do that? Go get married, have a great life, relax!“.
“Being a woman really helped me in many ways, because there are not so many women doing this.”
| India | My parents raised 5 kids, and they said, „You know what, we’re gonna give you and your brothers the same education, because when you’ll be 20 years old, you might not even get married - things are changing, and women are the future of men. And if you’re not getting married, you’re gonna have to take care of yourself. And to take care of yourself, what I’m gonna give you is the best education you can get in a field you choose yourself, because you’re gonna spend more time at your job than with anything else in your life (laughs), so you better choose something you really like!
| Kristen | You studied Architecture, correct? I read that you lived all over, in Massachusetts, in Germany and France…
| India | Yes, I studied Architecture.
In the south of France, too. I did that at a time where nobody did that, so I was always the foreigner. I always experienced being the foreigner from a place that no one had even heard about.. Maybe places like Egypt more, but Iran? Everyone was like, Where is that? (laughs) . It was that type of upbringing. And then I went to very progressive schools.
| Kristen | So how did you first get interested in Interior Design and Architecture?
| India | I was not, really. I was interested in making movies, I wanted to make movies as a young girl and it could still be interesting for me to do so. So in fact, when I realized I wanted to make movies, I was interested in two things: I was always more in an imaginary world, for one, and that world was always very aesthetic, there was always an aesthetic ring to it, a narrative that was different from my every day life that allowed me to dream, and that was why I wanted to make movies.
So after my BAC, there was not really a movie school I could attend in France, so I decided I would do it like Fritz Lang and go to Architecture school.
My father said that that gives you a kind of big vision. If you’re an Architect, you’ll understand space, you’ll understand composition, and then, you can go into movies.
The mode of production, the production span was like, 7 years, so by the time you finished a project, you hated it. When you’re an Architect, it’s really about experience. You come out of school and you don’t know how to do anything. You have start working. And how you learn is building. Its the same thing with movies. There is only so much you can learn in school, and then you have to just make them. So if you take 7 years to make a movie, you’re not gonna learn. So the best thing is to take a little camera, move around, experience, see what looks good. So I thought 7 years, that’s not gonna work.
| India | So I said forget it, that’s not what I wanna do. Interior Design is great because you go super quickly. You see a project unfold in six months, a year, sometimes two months. If you do furniture, you can see things within one month.
So what you think is, even if it’s a different skill, you think about it, you make a little drawing, and one month later, that drawing becomes and object. That’s something fascinating. So I thought, if I do that on a regular basis, I can gain experience that I would normally gain by building five buildings, which would take me 25 years.
| Kristen | At the beginning, how do you realize projects? I think its one thing to design, but I spoke to a lot of young designers who say‚ we don’t have the funds to make the prototypes, etc.. I think people question sometimes where to start…
| India | Well, I was very good with that. So how it happened was I’d get a client who’d ask me to do their apartment, and I’d say fine, great, I’ll do the apartment - but I’ll design your furniture, too. So basically, I designed the furniture, the client basically paid for the prototype, and if the prototype was good, I’d make a second and that one goes to my showroom.
| Kristen | That’s a great method! That’s one thing I always ask creatives - how did you start out, how did you manage to get your prototypes produced..
| India | You just have to make sure … you cannot sell your clients prototypes. If you make a piece for them, you have to make another one, too. That’s how you gain the experience
| Kristen | So what was your first real job in Interior Design, and how did you get there?
| India | Well, first of all, I was working with Christian Liaigre and then I had my son, and then I decided I would have to resign because I thought it was not right for me to continue, that I wanted to have a different life.
| Kristen | And how long had you already been working for Christian Liaigre?
| India | For seven years, I was his Art Director. It was a very comfortable and enjoyable experience and time and I really enjoyed it. And then, my first job came, and it was funny because I had been working with Joseph Ettedgui in London, who has the shops, and I had a very good relationship with him. I was working with him on different projects, we had a good contact and it was easy to work together and he asked me to do a few things for him, but also, he introduced me to a few clients in London. One thing led to another, so I did his homes, I worked on a few of his shops, I did a few Residences in London, so immediately, my connection as a pure designer was abroad.
When we opened Townhouse it was a huge hit, it was the first chic and cheap hotel. It was chic but very accessible. There was a crowd of people who didn’t have a huge budget but would have taste, and we did incredible things because on the terrace of the Townhouse - there was a huge Terrace - we did all the waterbeds, all the terrace was red waterbed-matresses, because we didn’t have a swimming pool. The hotel was fun all the way. It was happy and fun. And it was a huge success!
In the meantime I was working with Jonathan Moore still, I was doing this Project in the Meatmarket which was called APT, which was a Nightclub, and that was another huge success because it was an interesting concept, it was really about creating an apartment.
It was a club that was designed like an apartment for a character that I invented. That guy was a french guy called Bernard, and he was teaching Anthropology at Columbia and he was from this french Bourgeois background and moved to New York. He wanted to live on the Upper East Side, but didn’t have means so he decided to transform this place into it. So that’s how I made my movies, and this goes on forever.
| Kristen | It sounds like a really, really fun conceptual project. It’s making me want to switch to become an interior designer now…
| India | That’s how you can invent a story. So that’s why my link to interior design is very similar to making movies. I just make movies and the actors are everybody. So that’s why I do it.
| Kristen | That’s a very interesting way of thinking about it! I really like that. Do you have any advice for young designers on where to start? Do you feel like you need a certain education to go into this field? Would it be good to study archtitecture?
| India | Yeah! Or Interior Design. But the relation to space is very important. Not only the space, but understanding the flow. Because a great space is also a great circulation. That’s the way it works. You have to understand how people come in. What is the energy that just goes around, comes around?
| Kristen | So what’s next?
| India | I think you shouldn’t be afraid of working hard. It’s a lot of work. And to see everything, want to know everything. To remain curious. To see the movies, to see the theater, to everything as an inspiration. To go to the flea market, everything.
| India | I also mean to speak about what you like and the things you see, because we take in a lot of things. But then you have to understand what you like and why you liked it, and be able to express it and speak about it. That’s a good exercise.
| Kristen | Good to know! Noted, that’s good advice! Did you have any type of mentor along the way?
| India | Well, I would say Joseph Ettedgui was kind of my mentor. I was happy to be able to work with a lot of incredible clients from whom I’ve learned a lot.
Working with someone like Maja Hoffman was absolutely fantastic because I really see the way you work with a client is a path that you do together. You meet and ask yourselves, what’s our story gonna say, what do we wanna say? And you go together, and you tell a story together for a while, and then it’s like making a movie. It pushes you, you learn so much from the way they think. Every client told me something else and sort of made me aware of something else and you learn a lot from that.
| Kristen | France is notoriously difficult to open a business. What was the most difficult for you?
| India | France is not difficult to open a business. It’s not difficult. Okay, there is a lot of administrative work and you don’t know exactly… It’s true that when I started, someday, you start getting a number of papers that’ll take you half a day to figure out and it takes so much time, you think, okay, I gotta get somebody to do this. (laughs)
I think what’s difficult is to meet the right people. I never had that problem because I started and someday there was this silver tray that came to me with all these fantastic people to work with and so I never had that problem. But when I see young kids leave my office and I see how they start usually with residential work, the difficulty usually is to go from residential to non-residential work to get a public job.
Once you have a public job, it’s to have a budget... to make a difference. And also, I think once more, the way I got lucky is that I think my name is unusual. Somehow I was already a story. All these magazines about interior design are run by women, suddenly, they have, I don’t even understand that, but they (already) have a story. This is a young girl, a mother, with an interesting name and an interesting background, going on her own. Great! It’s like a head start. Of course, I always say that I was lucky I started (my career) being a woman with my background, etc. This name already meant something, you know? It sounds exotic.
You didn’t have anybody who is doing … I promise you, an Architect on her own … people don’t do that. Even today, you only have a few girls doing interior design and of course I think a lot of girls are so projected, you know, they make it as a model or something. It’s a lot of work!
| Kristen | I can imagine and with a child on top of that. I think already, when you want to build your career, I see as single woman with no children and I’m still working morning until night, seven days a week - working to build what I want to build. If I had children, I don't know where I would have enough time, energy or flexibility to do that. I mean, I have a cat, but thats not very demanding (laughs). I can’t even imagine!
| India | Yeah, so I worked with my son, I separated with the father of my child when Miles was 5, and then I was raising him on my own. That’s why I have this organization where everything is so local. I live on the same block and everything is here because I couldn’t have done it otherwise.
| Kristen | I give you a lot of credit. I don’t have children yet but I imagine this is a huge accomplishment.
| India | It was all kind of super organic.
| Kristen | How does that fit? Was it difficult, once you had children, to - because I imagine there is just so much more planning you have to do, schedules must be a lot more important.
| India | Yes, but the school was next door, so Miles used to come after school, then we had a bit of help at home in the evening to cook dinner, but it was all super organic, and very local.
| Kristen | What do you wish you knew before you started your business, or went on your own? Was there anything you learned that you didn’t expect?
| India | I wish .. - something that you don’t realize and you learn as you go along is that you have to know a bit about business. That’s something that really takes time. Becoming a manager. If you start on your own, it’s you and your maybe one person, then two, then three, then four. The team grows, and then it’s like a pyramid. And you grow on the top, and one day, without knowing, you’re on the top. And people look up to you and you look down to them. That’s not how you want it. And you’re alone. Alone! When you’re out there, and you don’t know what you are doing to do, it’s really scary!
| Kristen | Yeah. Also, that’s a whole other skill set, to be a manager. I can imagine that on the one hand, you’re following your dream of making interiors and architecture, and then that’s a whole other job, to also manage people.
| India | You have to do a bit of multitasking. You have to get the right people who can multitask. Sometimes I just need to be on my own and think, and then I decided, okay, so how can I do this, being alone and making these business decisions, you’re like a captain on a boat.
You have to adapt, the whole time.
| Kristen | Seeing it as an outsider, an American who has now has lived a few years in France... When you hire an employee in America there are not that many liabilities, you can easily hire and fire employees. Whereas here, the employees have a lot of rights; which on one hand is a wonderful, wonderful thing but as a business owner, its also a much bigger responsibility than in the States in a way. I think you have to be extremely careful in your decision making at work. The decisions are more permanent, in a way. I think you have to be more careful here when hiring people and building the right team and it’s also very expensive to hire people. A lot of things to think about.
| India | It’s very expensive to hire people, that’s true. Now, I’ve kind of re-thought my thing, because I used to have all - employees - and I said okay, all the creative things have to be freelance, and I could play with things. I see this place like an organic company. It’s organic. It cannot be static. I think that’s very important, to have that feel.
| Kristen | And also, there’s always new perspectives if there are new freelancers coming in ..
| India | Yeah, and I think everybody brings their own thing and we leave, come back in … I think that makes more sense for me, in a way. Then, also, in the way I’ve become, and I think it’s very important that I say this, is that I’m located on one street, so I’m very local. Being very local, everything is here but I’m very global. I’m a small important office, because I think that when I do my projects I get international recognition although I’m just located here, I can’t compare my office to the Peter Marinos of this world. I’m a small entity. But what I do is, I do my creations in the studio, I have a unity that oversees production, I have, let’s say, my manufacturers at my booth where I work and I have my partners, then I sell my own furniture and my objects and then we communicate. So there’s like a real circle, like an eco system, that makes me very independent.
| Kristen | So what does your creative process look like when you start with a new project?
| India | It’s more or less the same. A project usually comes with the space and a client and the project as sort of a program, so there are needs that you have to incorporate. There’s a function and it’s a location.
The location is in the building; in a building, but it’s also on a street, in a city, the city is a location. It’s in the south, or in the north, or where ever. So all those elements give me a certain number of constraints that I listen to.
The first thing is to listen to what the space requires, the client wants, what he wants from me, what he’s expecting from the project. You know, some people say modest, some want it to be a continuity of what we’ve already done, some people say they want utter luxury, some want something very accessible, whatever.
So all these elements help me to find a question that I want to answer. And the more precise the question, the easier it is to design and to give it the answer. You come up with some kind of little concept, like I was saying earlier on, for - .. and it’s not necessarily a question but a story you want to tell, what kind of idea do you want to make people understand.
| Kristen | So you have to be extremely efficient and work under a lot of pressure I guess?
| India | You have to be precise. It’s about precision. What is it, you know? What is gonna make the difference? So the pink wasn’t something obvious for me when I started, because Mourad Mazouz’s place, Sketch, was completely eclectic. When you entered, there was vintage everywhere. And so, suddenly, it’s all vintage, but vintage kills vintage in the end. So I wanted it to be fresh, open, you have to breathe, airy, chic.
| India | Yeah. The artwork is provocative, you know, David Shirgley, and it’s put on the walls in a bourgeois but radical way. The layout is very much the layout of a brasserie, very straightforward, and then suddenly - everything pink!
| Kristen | So what’s more important - technical know-how or having a vision?
| India | The vision. Of course, in anything you do in life, having a vision is more important than anything else. Then, you also have to have the vision to choose the right people.
| Kristen | Makes sense. You have a very strong and defined aesthetic and vision. How long did it take you to define that? Was it always there?
| India | Look, a lot of people always refer to me saying „You love color!“ - yes, I love color, you know, of course, it’s something that I always had, this attraction to color and I think that I can see the colors that appeal to me and those that don’t.
I think now, what’s happened in the last few years is that I’ve been speaking about my work in a more… maybe, understanding myself more, where I want to go. So I’ve been speaking about it in a different way, and that’s been helping me also to define where I wanna go. It’s like one of those things, that’s why I say - if you like something, you have to explain why you like it. It helps you, putting words on things helps you to conceptualize it. Then, you can push it forward.
| Kristen | And so how do you go about choosing what jobs you do, while balancing keeping true to your aesthetic and creative integrity?
| India | You know, it’s about … I choose my projects according to people I meet, if I have a good connection to them, (..), and also, locations. For instance, Ladurée, we started in Hôtel des Bergues, and I said yes immediately, but in the beginning, he told me, maybe we can do it in Luxembourg..? I said, no, I’m not going to Luxembourg, I don’t wanna go to Luxembourg. But he said we can go to Geneva and do it in the Hotel des Bergues, and I said, yes, that works for me.
So I always considered - is this a project for me, will I make a difference or do they not need me? You know? So, if people want to dream, if you want something really different, I feel I’m the right person. If it’s just to do a job, I don’t need to do that unless I need work - you know, when you have an office, sometimes, you have to take jobs just because you need to…
| Kristen | So you’ve lived in several countries, I’m not sure if you’ve worked - well, I guess you’ve worked in the US - do you see a big difference in work culture in different countries?
| India | Yes. For instance, here, everybody multitasks. In America, I think it’s divided. ‚I do this, but I don’t do that‘. It’s very, very divided. ‚I’m sorry, but this is not my job!‘. So there are a lot of people on a project that don’t do anything as far as I’m concerned, that are paid fortunes to do nothing, when we can do it in a much quicker way.
| Kristen | So I guess you lived most of your life in France? Because I was gonna ask why you chose France to open your business?
| India | You know, my education is mostly French, and then, after working with Christian Liagre for seven years, I had all my professional connections. I was based here, and you know, I could’ve decided, at one point, Joseph told me: „Why don’t you come to London and we set up a business together?“. I thought, If I set up a business with Joseph, it’s gonna be all about Joseph, because he was so much more known. I just felt it was a time that I needed to be on my own. Make my own mistakes, do my own thing and see if I’m capable.
| Kristen | Definitely.
| India | You know? And really see what I can do. Maybe I won’t do anything and it doesn’t work out, then I can go and work for somebody else again. But I think that it was also a challenge I wanted to give myself, and also, it was important that I did that for my son. To set an example.
| Kristen | So what do you find is the DNA of Paris? You can interpret that any way you like.
| India | I’m gonna speak about what France is for me and my own business. So, France offers a fantastic array of know-how, which is fantastic. It’s the best place to do interior design. You have the best manufacturers in the world, the know-hows, the sophistication, it’s fantastic. From Upholstery to Woodwork to Metalwork to Plasterwork to finishes, they’re very inventive.
| Kristen | Also, there are generations of people that do this…
| India | Yeah, Exactly. So there is a history of that, and luxury, knowing how to do it high end. And, the passion about it as well. Being in Paris, or at least France, is great for me because of that. And of course, the downsides… Life in Paris, it’s a very cultural city, there are fantastic exhibitions, movie theaters all over, food is great, it’s very accessible. I mean, if you’re rich or poor, you can nearly do the same things.
The bad sides of Paris is, for me, there is something a bit static about the french bourgeoisie. Paris has to get out of that - in my opinion. But it’s years and years of bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie is governing this country so they’re all very attached to their benefits, to their comfort, to everything. Sometimes you have to break it to move on, and that’s difficult.
| Kristen | Do you see any trends in the Design Landscape in France at the moment? Or something that’s specific to France?
| India | Well, i think color is back. Let’s face it. I mean, it’s not very new but everybody is experimenting with color, everyone became tired of the beige and black.. And I think people are becoming more open to work with.. they’re more open to dreams. I think they’re more open to texture, they want .. I think people want to be engaged when they enter a place. They want it to mean something without being overwhelmed. I don’t know, I think it’s something like that.
| Kristen | What is a dream project for you? You mentioned earlier possibly doing a film, is that something you’d like to do all the interiors of the film, or direct a film, like, the whole thing?
| India | No, no, no. I wanna do a movie on my own.
| Kristen | That’s super exciting! Do you have plans to get the wheels for that in motion?
| India | I do, and it’s kind of, the movie of life.
| Kristen | I’ll be the first one there to see it! What’s next, do have - certain projects I assume you can’t talk about, but - are there things going forward that you’d love to do, dream projects etc.?
| India | Well, I’d like to do architecture a bit more, you know, do complete projects. I’ve always been saving architecture. They come in with architecture that’s a bit lousy and I have to „save“ it. I feel like a firefighter, going like, okay, I’m gonna risk it, cut this, open this.. But maybe it’s just time for me to do it on my own, you know, my perception of what an interior should be and build it from scratch.