India Mahdavi began absorbing colorful impressions as a child and now uses them in her world-famous interior designs. We met her in her studio in Paris and talked about the language of color, hospitality and a lack of vision
The architect and designer India Mahdavi is one of the superstars of her trade, but her interiors, which feature heavily on Instagram, are arguably even better known than she is. For instance the elegant dining room in fluffy marshmallow pink at the London restaurant The Gallery at Sketch; or the interior of the upmarket French confectionery chain Ladurée in Geneva, Tokyo and Los Angeles; or the decors of many iconic hotels, including Claridge’s in London and the Monte Carlo Beach in Monaco. Twenty years ago, Mahdavi put the fun and drama back into interior design by using striking colors against monochrome backgrounds and eccentric combinations. Receiving us at her Paris studio today dressed in an orange blouse and seated on a purple velvet sofa, she is her own concept personified. The studio’s many rooms are buzzing with activity as everyone prepares for the launch of the first collection Mahdavi has created in collaboration with the Parisian paint company Mériguet-Carrère. If Mahdavi has it her way, the age of color will soon be dawning in our homes.
Ms. Mahdavi, You were born in Iran, raised in the United States and France, and lived for a brief spell in Germany. What colors made a lasting impression on you in those countries?
I was still very young when I moved to the United States, but back then, midway through the sixties, color TV was the great invention. Brightly colored Tex Avery and Walt Disney cartoons were already flitting across the screen in the mornings. For me, those vivid colors are closely associated with childhood happiness. We moved from the States to Heidelberg in Germany, and it was as though someone had switched the station from color to black-and-white. It wasn’t the right move for our family, and so we relocated to the South of France. That’s when sunshine came back into my life along with the French way of life, which was so very different from anything I had experienced up to then. As a child, I had to process all of this, and it was mostly painting that helped me.
You also express your particular sense of color with language. Your wall colors have names like “Je rougis” (I’m blushing), “Voyage au bout de la nuit” (Journey to the end of night) and “Subway.” How did you come up with them?
When I look at a color, I always connect it with something more than the immediately obvious. I like them to have a personality. For me, colors are like people, and I awaken them to life – also through language.
Are there any difficult characters among the colors?
The difficulty is deciding how to combine then. That’s what fascinates me. Rooms are not just empty spaces; you have to take furniture, artworks and everything else into account – and color is just one element among many. The whole thing is like a recipe. A single ingredient doesn’t make a cake.
Many people considering using bright colors on their walls worry about making mistakes. What’s your advice?
Interior decoration is like fashion, meaning it’s easier to wear black than colors because then you have to make sure everything matches. That’s why I developed my paints. Even whites are complicated. There’s a different white for north-facing and south-facing rooms. The north one is whiter, the south one has a touch of beige. A soft pink always looks good in a bedroom.
Irrespective of the colors you opt for, your interior designs are always joyful. Is it possible to set the scene for a happy mood?
Yes, I can do that. I add a pinch of calculated nostalgia drawn from the happy years of my childhood.
I can also see references to the Hollywood Regency style, the carefree glamour of the film studios’ heyday.
Absolutely. My style is cinematographic and to a certain extent cartoonish, stylized and simplified. It’s an exaggerated reality in which everyone can be an actor in their own film.
You designed the interiors of a number of hotels and with them, sparked a new era of travel.
I wanted to reinvent hospitality, to promote an interaction between the location and the guests. The first hotel I decorated under my own name was the Townhouse Hotel in Miami; that was 20 years ago. It was one of the first smart, but low-budget hotels, and it had lots of quirky elements: The roof terrace was too small for a pool, for example, so I filled it with huge red water-beds and sprinklers. Instead of a dining room, it had a kitchen with a self-service buffet for the guests.
It sounds like you invented the millennial hotel.
It was ultramodern for the time. I did many more hotels after that. When I design an interior, I want it to reflect the atmosphere of the location and what sets it apart; I want it to tell a story. In Miami, the motto was “sea, sex and sun” coupled with a shot of New England. In my hotel projects, I always insist on working with local craftspeople and including a small store for artisan souvenirs and handicrafts. I like hotels to be miniature cultural centers.
Happily, my childhood was filled with bold, bright colors
Design concepts such as these have become the norm. But you don’t seem to be doing as much in this line of business nowadays.
The offers still come in, but they used to be from hoteliers with a powerful vision that we would develop together. Today, the entire architecture is already set in stone, and they just want me to come in and do the decor. The hotel sector has turned into an industry. Often, the main priorities are to do things fast and do them cheaply.
Many people have imitated your style…
Yes, that’s a problem. But there’s a saying in France that goes roughly like this “Every success has its copy.” That’s annoying, but you just have to keep going.
What do you focus on when designing private homes?
They are like portraits. I need to understand who the people are and how they want to live. Then I listen to the building – it also has a lot to tell me. It’s like an equation that ultimately has to be solved.
Is there anything in your house that you haven’t been able to do anywhere else?
My Paris apartment houses the sediments of my life. That’s the main thing, so there’s no decoration as such. But I have just bought myself a house in Arles and there, I’m going to try and express my work in a different way. What interests me is the rhythm of a space. Designers like me are generally susceptible to such energy. Our responses to both positive and negative vibes are more extreme than other people’s.
What spaces do you consider lacking in style?
Airports, for example. Many could do with a creative upgrade – not just for the VIPs.
What would improve travelers’ wellbeing, would you say?
The materials and colors people choose for airports are highly impersonal. I did the design for “I love Paris by Guy Martin,” a restaurant at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. That experience brought home to me for the first time just how many regulations apply there – but they can be accommodated.
What do you recommend for good vibes on the move?
My cozy blanket “Every day, everywhere.” It’s made from Nepalese cashmere and comes in a range of colors. But the best thing about it is that it’s gorgeously soft and snug.