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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

India Mahdavi, 2002

WITH SYDNEY PICASSO
PHOTOGRAPHED BY PIERRE BAILLY






India Mahdavi, interior designer, creates places one longs to be, for a moment or for a week. From the irresistible lightness of Miami's Townhouse hotel to the privileged nocturnal luxury of the New York nightclub APT, Mahdavi's designs exude a sense of well being. Sydney Picasso caught up with India in her office and showroom in Paris's seventh arrondissement.






SYDNEY: Your name is very evocative.
INDIA:
My father is Persian and my mother is half Egyptian, half English. After my parents got married, they decided to take a tour around India for three months. I was conceived there and so they called me by that name. I was born in Iran. When I lived in the United States, people would always make fun of me and call me Bombay or Pakistan, but I love my name.

SYDNEY: My grandparents met in Sydney so I'm called Sydney. People used to call me Melbourne, so I guess we have that in common.
INDIA:
Exactly.

SYDNEY: Do you think one can really return to one's origins?
INDIA:
You know, I didn't grow up in Egypt. And my family left Iran when I was one-and-a-half. I've lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Germany, New York, Paris, and the south of France. When I had my son, I suddenly felt uncomfortable because I had all of this cultural heritage within me that I didn't know much about. For example, I don't speak Arabic.

SYDNEY: You do speak Persian though?
INDIA:
A little. It's very difficult for me to return to Iran, but I go to Egypt quite a bit. The first time I saw the Nile I started to cry ­ I really feel that Egypt is a place where I belong. I'm designing a house in the Egyptian desert, in an oasis called Siwa. It's near the Libyan border.

SYDNEY: It's rumored that Alexander the Great was buried at Siwa.
INDIA:
He wasn't buried there, but he wanted to be. Alexander had gone to see Amon, the oracle at Siwa. He thought it was a magical place, and it is.

SYDNEY: Who are you building the house for?
INDIA:
My cousin, who's Egyptian. He fell in love with the spot, bought some land, and decided to create a place where he could bring his friends. So he made a very basic lodge out of local materials ­ earth and rock salt. Now he's asked me to build him a house.

SYDNEY: In Egyptian modern architecture, there is a lot of clay and sand. The designer Christian Louboutin is building a house in Egypt using these kinds of timeless materials.
INDIA:
What's interesting about the project I'm doing is that I can't be too specific about how things should be built. The builders don't read plans very well, so it's almost like making a sculpture. On the site, I often have to tell them, "No, tear this down," or "I want this window bigger."

SYDNEY: What are the specific materials you're using?
INDIA:
They're all local. The rock salt looks a bit like alabaster ­ it has a very wonderful relationship with light. So I've had rock salt bricks made, which will be used for partitions. We've created tiles out of the same material. We're using palm for the floors, and olivewood for some of the furniture.

SYDNEY: I've stayed in places like Ghanerao near Ranakpur in India where the local maharaja takes his guests out to small lodges to ride horseback and admire the local fauna. It's the idea of "changing air," which your work so reflects.
INDIA:
I'm trying to give the house I'm doing a modern feeling by rethinking the use of space. In Egypt, the kitchen is traditionally separate from the living areas. Today, in Paris or New York, everything happens around the kitchen ­ it's often the heart of the house. So I'm integrating that idea in a very different setting.

SYDNEY: How would you describe your influences?
INDIA:
I don't really have any. What influences me has more to do with a way of seeing things, a way of being ...

SYDNEY: You seem to have an enhanced relationship with the five senses. In one of your press clippings you mentioned something about "sniffing the air" when you were doing your location research for APT. I was quite engaged by that idea.
INDIA:
The way I work is very instinctive. After I was hired to do Townhouse in South Beach, I visited Miami for the first time. I only spent three days there. When I came back to Paris, I just had impressions of the city. And I thought, "Okay, Miami's really sea, sex, and sun. That's what the hotel should be about. And the light is very strong, so let's use strong colors." I chose red, baby blue, and beige as the scheme. The whole idea was to feel like you can go to the beach, come back to the hotel, sit on the porch, meet someone, have a glass of white wine, a cigarette, go up to your room, and that's the whole story. It's very animal.

SYDNEY: You've spoken about sight. Have you noticed how the sense of taste affects your work?
INDIA:
Taste is closely connected to texture. When I was working with Christian Liaigre, I traveled extensively in Thailand. I was amazed to see how the Thais mix sweet and sour tastes together, while at the same time using very different textures. It makes what you're eating so much more exquisite. That variety is something I always try to achieve with the materials I use. A lot of the wood at Townhouse is sanded pine that has been lacquered. So it's glossy with a very rough texture underneath. I find that assemblage de mat?riaux very interesting.

SYDNEY: I noticed that you attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. How did you live through that?
INDIA:
I had the worst time of my life in architecture school. I was completely turned off by it. However, at that time I was very interested in designing film sets. So for my thesis I made a 16mm black-and-white movie, which was very well received. Afterwards I went to work in an architecture firm. But I just knew that wasn't going to do it for me.

SYDNEY: Why?
INDIA:
People who build should have a sense of environment, and a lot of the architecture studios in Paris are really gloomy. I didn't like the way of life, nor the pretentious people who worked there. So I decided to go to New York ­ and it was fantastic.

SYDNEY: What did you do there?
INDIA:
I studied industrial design and graphic design at the School of Visual Arts, and furniture design at Parsons. At the same time I was working for a cartoonist to make a little money. I started designing furniture on my own. In New York, the attitude about what one can do is so much more positive.

SYDNEY: Can you compare the two? Are New York and Paris complementary or opposites?
INDIA:
In New York I was asked to do very practical exercises, which amazed me, because in Europe everything is so intellectual and conceptual. In my industrial design course, for example, my assignment was simply to choose a material and design a product. They taught me how to research prices, how to protect my rights, how to manufacture a product, how to discuss a contract.

SYDNEY: I have seen that there is a fundamental difference in lifestyle between New York and Paris, in leisure and desire ...
INDIA:
I realized that, in Paris, there was an amazing lack of ambition among my classmates. They all wanted to be hired by a company, and eventually go to the countryside on the weekends. In New York, all the architects and designers want to set up their own businesses. If they have to work in a caf? or in a restaurant, they'll do it, but they're still planning their next step. There's no fear of anything.

SYDNEY: Who are your heroes? They don't have to be architects or designers.
INDIA:
I would say James Bond is my hero. [laughs]

SYDNEY: That's very good, I like that.
INDIA:
James Bond is a happy, positive character. He's sexy, and it always puts me in a good mood when I see him. I think one has to remember to think about what's sexy in life. I'm not talking about sex so much as a bit of glam, a bit of fun. I try to incorporate that feeling into all my projects. APT has that freshness ­ if it were grander, APT would be very Bondian.

SYDNEY: James Bond is very much about setting and styling. How much styling do you do?
INDIA:
You can have very good design and bad styling, and it doesn't work. I know that I have the ability to take a space ­ without changing any of the furniture ­ and make it look one hundred percent better just by switching things around. That's style. It's vision. It's the way your eye sees things.

SYDNEY: Can you tell me how you define the difference between design and style?
INDIA:
Style is just being clever with space, clever with color, clever with ambiance. Style can create a very good feel. In Miami the budget was kind of tight, so everything we did was very, very basic. If you look at the furniture in Townhouse, the pieces are almost not designed ­ they're volumes that have proportions. For me, that has nothing to do with design ­ that's all about style.

SYDNEY: What about the furniture that's here in your office? Do these pieces define how you think about design?
INDIA:
Over the past three years, I made all these prototypes and left them sitting around my office. All of a sudden I realized that I had created a lot of furniture, and I wanted to produce some pieces.

SYDNEY: How do you get started?
INDIA:
It's a very physical process. First I draw the pieces full scale on a blackboard. Then I have the prototypes made. Then we correct them ­ tearing things apart and putting them back together. I really enjoy designing furniture because the production is fast. After I make a drawing, I can have the prototype in front of me within a month.

SYDNEY: What do you consider your most successful project?
INDIA:
That's a hard one because once I finish a project, it doesn't belong to me anymore. It has a life of its own. There has been a great response to Townhouse. But when I was almost finished with it, I got really nervous. "Is it good enough? Is it this, is it that?" When you work on a project for a long time, you just don't have the distance to be able to judge it.

SYDNEY: What distinguishes Jonathan Morr, your client on that project, as well as APT, from other people you've worked with?
INDIA:
Jonathan trusts me one hundred percent. I can suggest crazy things and he'll say, "Yeah, that's a great idea, let's go for it." He's very open and that really makes a difference ­ you have to have a good rapport with the person you are working for.

SYDNEY: Who came up with the concept for APT?
INDIA:
Around the time that I was working on Townhouse, Jonathan kept asking me to design a nightclub in New York. He had very specific ideas about what he wanted to do. But I was involved with starting my own company and I'd had a baby ­ so I hadn't been going out for three years. I felt disconnected from nightlife. Finally I asked myself, "What is the kind of place that I would like to go out to in the evening?" And I thought of an apartment that wouldn't belong to me, but would have everything that one would want ­ food, music, ambiance. Jonathan immediately loved the idea.

SYDNEY: How did you go about the design?
INDIA:
The questions was, "How do you achieve the spirit of an apartment, without having it be a gimmick or feel like a set?" I decided to create a character, Bernard, who owns the apartment.

SYDNEY: That's clever. What's Bernard like?
INDIA:
He's a French bachelor who teaches at Columbia University ­ he's lived in New York for years and years. He was married very briefly. He prefers to have a lot of girlfriends. He travels a lot and he likes to entertain. He's in his fifties, part of the generation who participated in May ?68. Because his budget is a bit limited, he created an Upper East Side apartment down in the meat market.

SYDNEY: You did make it seem as if one were visiting someone's place, maybe a friend of a friend.
INDIA:
Right. There's no signage on the front of the building. You enter into a small lobby and ring a doorbell. Then you're in the foyer of the apartment. You go through a long corridor and into the living space. Because Bernard is a bachelor, there's a bed in the middle of the room. People who go there usually don't realize that it wasn't originally an apartment.

SYDNEY: What about the bar downstairs?
INDIA:
We had very little space to work with. So while the upstairs is homey and comfortable, I wanted the downstairs to be more about music and standing up and dancing ­ which could never actually happen because of city regulations. I really like the toilets downstairs ­ the walls are blackboards so you can leave messages and write notes.

SYDNEY: The whole place has a great sense of play. Are you planning other projects with Jonathan?
INDIA:
Yes, we're working on a forty-room hotel in Mexico City. It's in an up-and-coming area called La Condesa. We're gutting a 1920's building completely and creating a courtyard in the middle. The idea is to make the hotel into a passage oblig? for tourists as well as locals. It will have a very good restaurant, a lot of places to lounge, a bar, tables in the courtyard. We want the hotel to be a place where people can be seen ­ or not seen ­ depending on if they want to be hidden or not.

SYDNEY: What will the rooms be like?
INDIA:
Quite simple and small, like a modern version of a monk's room. Everything else you need will be in the public spaces. Each room will have a fantastic view, great light, a comfortable bed ­ quite minimal.

SYDNEY: I notice an incredible combination of calm, meditation, intimacy, and force in your work. It radiates through all your projects.
INDIA:
It's always difficult to arrive at that balance and leave enough space for people to use their own imaginations.

SYDNEY: You want to maintain an identity ­ your identity.
INDIA:
Without being overpowering and aggressive. That's what I dislike in a lot of the modern hotels ­ the architect's ego is always in your face. One of the things about Townhouse is that you know someone designed it, but you don't necessarily know who. There's no signature. What I'm going to do in Mexico City has nothing to do with Miami, or any of the other projects I've done. But it will be an environment where you can just be yourself.

 

 
© index magazinegelatin1
India Mahdavi by Pierre Bailly, 2002

 

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