Design Legends

India Mahdavi

Daniella Ohad

Each week, design doyenne Daniella Ohad talks with an industry-defining legend of interior design

This fall, Daniella Ohad hosts Interior Design: The Legends, a weekly virtual program presented in partnership with AIA New York and ASID New York, comprising one-on-one interviews with the world’s most admired interior designers. For the Design Miami/ Forum, Ohad recaps the highlights from each conversation.

India Mahdavi. Photo © Sabine Mirlesse

“India is not what she seems, and that’s a positive. She is highly aware, super tuned-in; she is studied. And she is able to take all that she sees and make it understandable. There are a lot of contradictory elements about her as a designer—and the more you see her work, the more you get to know her, you realize that she is a truly rare talent. Her multicultural background and upbringing is completely integral to who she is and what she does. She is part magician, part intellectual, part rebel, half rock & roll, half classical composer.” —Ralph Pucci

Colorful interiors often feel whimsical, dramatic, or eccentric. But in the hands of India Mahdavi, vivid palettes become edgy yet warm, elegant yet comfortable. The Paris-based interior designer—the only independent woman participating in this season’s Interior Design: The Legends program—is a mother, a friend, and a highly successful professional in a world dominated by men. Despite the obstacles, she has firmly secured her name in the pantheon of design history. Pages and pages are needed to list all of Mahdavi’s projects, accomplishments, and awards, but I wanted to focus our conversation on her philosophy and how she expresses her personal voice in design. 

Laduree Beverly Hills by India Mahdavi. Photo © Sam Frost

While she has created many stylish private residences furnished with blue-chip pieces for major tastemakers–Maja Hoffmann and Jean-Gabriel and Edward Mitterrand, to name just two–Mahdavi loves to speak about her public spaces. She feels that hotels, restaurants, cafes, clubs, and shops are the touchstones of her oeuvre, best capturing her signature aesthetic, which she likes to call Pop Orientalism. In her view, a house is a portrait of the person living in it, but a public space allows the designer to wholly define the visual narrative. 

When I asked Mahdavi where her passion for color began, she explained that it all started with the dreams of a young girl from the Middle East living in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1960s. In her memory, the American dream was suffused with the colors of that era, which she clearly remembers seeing in cars, cartoons, posters, and the early days of color TV. It was a revolutionary time, and the vibrant, psychedelic patterns left an indelible impression on her imagination. 

Il Cavallino Restaurante in Maranello. Photos © Danilo Scarpati

Mahdavi learned at an early age how to observe the visual, and she has carried this gift ever since. When the time came to begin expressing her own creative identity with the opening of her office in Paris in 1999, she daringly drew on her early color memories, and eventually she became the interior design world’s ambassador of color. 

Most interior designers will tell you that the use of colors is unsafe; it takes extra effort, and you have to be super careful. But Mahdavi makes bold mixtures of color look smart, effortless, and natural. Her role as a designer, she believes, is to allow colors to speak to and complement each other in order to create new worlds. Don’t expect to see familiar color combinations, because her palettes are uniquely fresh and unexpected.

The Gallery at Sketch by India Mahdavi. Photo © Thomas Humery

For her most publicized project, Mourad Mazouz’s restaurant Gallery at Sketch in London, Mahdavi devised a more radical approach to color. Not a melange, but rather a monochromatic palette of pinks. If you think of pink as a Barbie Doll color, you will be surprised by this all-pink space. Here in the world’s most Instagrammed space, pink looks avant-garde, architectural, experimental, almost masculine.  A master of the psychology of colors, she was able to convince a male owner to go all-in on pink. When the project was completed seven years ago, it was supposed to be temporary. It has since become a permanent institution of the city’s cultural scene. 

Mahdavi was born in Teheran to an Iranian father, an academic, and an Egyptian-English mother. The family moved to America when she was two. Four years later, the family relocated to Germany before finally settling in Southern France. Mahdavi still carries a very strong Middle Eastern identity. For her, traveling to Iran, Egypt, or Qatar (where she recently completed a townhouse) feels like a homecoming. 

Bishop Apple Blossom by India Mahdavi. Photo © India Mahdavi

Over the years, Mahdavi has expanded her interiors career to include designing furniture, lighting, and home accessories, which are offered through her own showroom in Paris and in the US through Ralph Pucci. Ralph, she says, has a special intuition to know what is right, and his enormous showroom, with its high ceiling and brick walls, cast her objects in a new and different light. Every piece that she creates is crafted in France and fully resolved. Each has a name that tells its story. Her signature design is Bishop, named after the chessman that is confined to diagonal movements with no restriction on distance. Mahdavi’s Bishop is both a stool and a side table, originally made in wood but now available in ceramic in a rainbow array of soft, satin glazes. The new variation decorated in an apple blossom pattern is particularly magical.  

Mahdavi has also mastered the art of the small hotel. Each is bespoke and imbued with its own narrative. Philippe Starck, she says, paved the way to that genre as it looks today, with his pioneering projects like the Royalton and Paramount Hotels in Manhattan, where he collaborated with hotelier Ian Schrager in the late 1980s. His innovation was to bring locals and tourists together as an anchor to the life of the city. Mahdavi has followed this example. In 2010 she completed the Condesa DF in Mexico City, a small hotel that revived the entire neighborhood of Condesa, still serving as its main leisure spot today. 

India Mahdavi's new monograph. Photo © Chronicle Chroma

Mahdavi’s pandemic project was completing a monograph. Different from most design books, it focuses on her process: patterns, colors, travels, note pads—all the ingredients that lead to her completed designs. Designed by Studio Achermann, the publication is a special portrait of Mahdavi, bringing to life her singular approach. 

To a question from the audience on who is the one figure from the past with whom she dreams to work, she named Italian architect Ettore Sottsass. I was not surprised. Like him, Mahdavi has been on a quest for freedom and is moved by spirituality. They are both designers of emotions, world travelers who find inspiration in life journeys, committed to creating human-centric designs full of color. Both invite people to dream, to think outside of the box, and to embrace joie de vivre. ◆