A COLOURFUL CONVERSATION. Paris based interior designer India Mahdavi is internationally known for her expressive mix of colours that argue with each other and for her furniture design.

This interview is also available as a podcast.

India Mahdavi, how would you define yourself?

I am polyglot and polychrome. This summarizes my life, my education and the way I work. I’m open. I know what it means to be a foreigner, to be receptive to different cultures, and I use colour as part of my expression. I feel like my life is high in colours.

Where are you from?

I was born in Iran from an academic Iranian father and an Egyptian English mother. We moved to the United States when I was a year and a half and lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for four years. Then we moved to Heidelberg and after that to the south of France. 

Did you train as an architect?  

Yes, here in Paris at the Beaux Arts. But I never wanted to be an architect, I wanted to make movies.

Why didn’t you?  

At the time there was only one school in Paris that offered film as a postgraduate degree. There were few places and you had to start with something else in any case. During my architecture studies I went to the movies up to three times a day, and when I moved to New York I felt that architecture was not for me. So I then studied a trilogy of graphic design, product design and furniture design at Parsons, Cooper Union and the School of Visual Arts.

How did you start your career?

I returned to Paris and worked with Christian Liaigre, a French interior designer known for his very structured brown beige palette. As his art director I was involved in his international projects, including for Joseph Ettedgui in London. The last project I did with Christian was the Mercer Hotel in New York. When I married and got pregnant I started asking myself questions about my future and the kind of life I wanted. I was attracted to colour or maybe colour was attracted to me. I don’t know which way it was, but there was something going on. I knew that colour was my expression, and I decided that I would like to try working on my own.

What did you do?  

Joseph trusted me with a thousand square meter house in London and his home in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. I also designed my very first small collection of furniture for him. Joseph was the king of good taste in London at that time, and Vogue did an article on me that attracted more people. When I started working with Louis Vuitton I found my studio space here in Rue Las Cases, Paris.

“I like colours to have a conversation. I like them to argue.”

The interior of Ladurée Tokyo, designed by India Mahdavi. Photo by Gorta Yuuki.

India Mahdavi, how did you find your style?

I was given a hotel project in Miami called Townhouse by the owner Jonathan Morr. We were sitting next to each other at dinner and he said, I want you to work on it. In the United States it happens like that. It’s the American dream.

How did you feel when you got to Miami?

Miami is about sea, sex and sun. To express that through colour I chose a palette which was a strong real red, baby blue, and beige, and I added a very flowery fabric from Manuel Canovas. The 60 bedroom hotel that I was supposed to redesign was heritage art deco and didn’t have a garden or land around it so I used the top floor as the terrace, which nobody would do in in Miami. I put water bed mattresses on wooden bases one next to the other on the terrace and covered them with red fabric, with huge sunbrellas in red as well. The whole terrace was completely red. The hotel was a huge hit, all the parties were on that terrace. In 1999 it was the first affordable but hip hotel, very cool to stay at. You prepared your own breakfast in a little kitchen, like at home, and then sat at a big communal table. Bond St. Lounge, a fantastic Japanese restaurant, was downstairs. It was a great place.

What happened after this great success?

Ian Schrager, the man responsible for reinventing hotel style in the United States, heard of me and asked me if I am interested in doing a hotel in San Francisco. I said it’s not a good idea because I have a baby and it’s just too far away, so he gave it to Philippe Starck – and then he offered me, this young woman designer just starting out, the huge project of a 400 bedroom hotel in New York called the Empire.

Did you do it?

I started, and then September 11 happened and all the hotel projects in New York stopped. It was a nightmare. In the meantime, I had done a nightclub in New York called APT with Jonathan Morr. APT was a private club lounge in the meat packing district, one of the very first to open.

What was special about it?

APT is short for apartment and I designed the nightclub as a home around a character that I invented called Bernard. There was a bedroom, an open kitchen, a dining room, and one room had photographs of the life of this imaginary character Bernard that I had found in flea markets. Bernard’s story was that he had a country house in France and had been married for only six months, and we had photos of his wife, his dog, his grandfather.

None of Bernard’s life was real?

It was like a movie. I had written the scenario and I was following it. You had to know about the place, and when you entered you had to have the code and ask: Is Bernard here? They would say, No, he’s not here, and forbid you to come in! It became a super hip place. The club was like a very sophisticated Upper East Side apartment, really quite classical, and a lot of the colours were reddy. I designed a lot of the furniture, like my Bishop stools in wood and with a high seat for the bar downstairs. Those first projects in the United States had all the elements that I wanted to work with, and gave me the opportunity to define what I wanted to say and how I could say it with my own palette.

How did you say it?

First, by building stories within my projects. Second, I like to reveal a certain joie de vivre. The experience you can bring to somebody is very important. Your surroundings have an influence and affect your mood.

“I wanted to work with colour in a very different way and monochromatic was interesting.”

India Mahdavi, what did you do after APT and Bernard? 

A small 40 bedroom hotel in an area of Mexico City called Condesa. Mexico is about bright colours so I went around taking photos and put together a colour palette that belonged to that area.

And after Mexico?

I met Maja Hoffmann and I’ve been working with her for nearly 10 years. I worked on her home in London and then on her home in Paris, it’s an ongoing story. In Arles I did her Hôtel du Cloître, La Villa des Alyscamps and Le Réfectoire.

Maja Hoffmann is a well-known art collector. Do you match your interior colours with her collection?  

I don’t believe it’s a matching story. Maja has a very good understanding of what she has and how she puts it together. I always use many colours.

Why did you famously make the London restaurant Sketch all pink? 

Mourad Mazouz who owns Sketch said, It’s your room, do whatever you want. I decided to do everything pink, and I dared to do pink because it was supposed to be a scheme for only two years. Normally when you do a restaurant you have to be careful that it’s going to be durable, so you don’t dare go with bright colours, you always go with a darker palette. It’s now in its sixth year because it was so successful.

Why did you choose a single colour, pink?

I wanted to work with colour in a very different way and monochromatic was interesting. The space became very immersive, giving pink a different visibility, treating pink in a very masculine way. It was about an experience. Sketch is a very cinematographic place, and people look super good because of the pink.

Have you done many monochromatic places?

After Sketch many different people approached me. I did the whole concept for REDValentino, Valentino’s sister line. It’s feminine but romantic and out of a dream. Then I also redefined the concept for Ladurée.

What did you do for Ladurée, the French luxury bakery and sweets maker?

I redefined the Marie Antoinette concept for Ladurée in three of their locations: Hollywood, Geneva and Tokyo. I reinvented each space according to the location. For me Marie Antoinette belongs to Versailles and is linked to the garden, so at Ladurée her experience of her sweet garden is different wherever she goes.

Do you invent your own special colours?

I am working on a few homes in the south of France where my palette works so well, and I’ve just designed a collection of colours, but you don’t invent colours, you reveal them. Then it’s how you put them together and combine them.

How do you put them together?

I like colours to have a conversation. I like them to argue. I like them when they’re very close to swearing at each other and are always a bit off. When there’s acidity there’s a tension. I don’t like colours when they’re matchy matchy.

India Mahdavi’s Bishop stools at the bar in the hotel CONDESA df, Mexico City. Photo by Undine Prohl.

Hôtel du Cloître, Arles. Photo by Matthieu Salvaing.

REDValentino, Sloane Street, London. Photo courtesy of REDValentino.

The Gallery at Sketch, a restaurant on Conduit Street in London. Photo by Thomas Humery.

India Mahdavi being interviewed by Alain Elkann in her studio on Rue Las Cases, Paris, December 10th 2019.

STROMBOLI TABLE – ©india mahdavi. Courtesy of India Mahdavi.

“I was attracted to colour or maybe colour was attracted to me. I don’t know which way it was, but there was something going on.”

India Mahdavi, in a home do you choose one colour or does each room have a different colour?

A home is like a book, it’s a whole rhythm. Putting the same intensity on every page doesn’t work. I do it like a whole and then maybe I’ll give one or two rooms a different intensity. Homes are like portraits in three dimensions of the people who happen to live there.

For instance, do you make the ceilings the same colour as the walls?

Sometimes I leave the ceiling white, sometimes when you paint the ceiling a colour it brings it down. It depends if you want to open the room up or what kind of tension you want to have. You may want to concentrate on the view outside, or, if the view is not interesting, you’re better off giving a room a more intense feel because you’re going to live in the room and not look outside. It depends so much.

How do you decide?

In my book called Home Chic I gave rules, but I think rules are made to be broken, because once you make rules then you follow them and it’s not fun anymore.

What is your favourite colour?  

I don’t have one, I like them all, but it’s how you mix them. If you tell me to mix yellow and black, I hate that combination. But if you ask me, Do you like yellow? I love yellow. Do you like black? I love black. I like colours that are a bit awkward, that scream and are aggressive with each other.

What do you think now about the beige and brown combination you were obliged to work with when you started out?

Beige and brown work well when you put strong colours next to them.

After quite a few years is there a fil rouge that distinguishes your work?

I’m happy that I’ve been able to reinvent myself for every project. I don’t want to be bored with myself. People from the outside say that I have a very recognizable style, very colourful, stylized, an element of dream. Maybe that’s true.

You have designed both public and private spaces. What is the difference?

Public spaces are finished and held together. They are where people can experience interesting features so that they know they are somewhere special, but not too powerful for them to forget who they are. In private homes I don’t finish the spaces as much because I think that the owners should be able to add, to evolve, to buy more pieces, to have the flexibility to change the furniture or the way they hang a painting.

Do you love some homes you have designed more than others?

Private homes are very much related to the people who are living there. I try to do their portrait in three dimensions. The result is about them; and you do it together.

What materials do you like to use?

I love working with ceramic and rattan and have a specific love for fabrics. I like objects that are made in very small production quantities in a country with a specific knowhow. Trays made of lacquer in Vietnam, or some techniques that come from India, or basket work made in Mexico.

Where is your furniture made?

It is all made in France, a country that doesn’t have a furniture industry like in Italy. You have to go and find things on your own. 

Do you like mixing everything together?

I like mixing things. If you only invite the same type of friends for dinner it becomes boring. Putting people together from all around the world is cool, and when you add younger crowds with older crowds it becomes really fantastic. That’s how I see life.

You said at the beginning that you are polychrome and polyglot. Are you also “polypeople”?

Yes, and “polypeople”! I’ve just designed a whole collection for the retail chain Monoprix. They gave me carte blanche and it’s coming out in May.

Does Paris inspire you?

The quality of life in Paris is very nice, there are fantastic exhibitions, and it has become a centre of Europe from where I can move very easily. France still has high quality craftsmanship and creative people, knowhow that you can work with.

Will you ever realise your dream of shooting a film?

Yes, I will do a fiction but slightly auto biographic film, but not yet. It’s too difficult for me to do what I’m doing now and to have space in my mind.

Paris, 2019