For me, colours are like people,” India Mahdavi tells me. “They should start a conversation, they should argue, they should get close, they should get upset with one another.
“I’m not scared of colours and that’s my big strength.”
Right from the start of her career, architect and designer Mahdavi has been known for her confident use of colour. From the ultra pink Gallery restaurant at Sketch – one of London’s most instagrammed spaces – to the bright turquoise bar in Mexico City’s gorgeous Condesa DF hotel, she has never played it safe.
“I’m not scared of going strong, adding and adding even more and you think you have enough of it – no – and I just put more,” she says, speaking to me in a cafe in Amsterdam. “I am not scared of colours and patterns and I’m not scared of space.”
Mahdavi’s style is fun and playful. It makes you smile and this is her intention. “I’m a monomaniac when it comes to emotions,” she says. “I want people to feel happy; happy and joyful. Life has become so difficult, and most of my spaces are linked to some kind of entertainment, so I think why not go the whole way?”
With clients including Claridge's and the Connaught Hotel in London, Sketch owner Mourad Mazouz and Louis Vuitton, Mahdavi has built a strong reputation for her bold spaces over almost two decades. She is currently working on a range of projects, including a new furniture collection, several residential projects and a restaurant in Bal Harbour, Miami, US.
“I’ve always been attracted to colour,” says Mahdavi. “It’s always been in my life, consciously or unconsciously.” She was born in Tehran, to a Scottish/Egyptian mother and an Iranian father. By the time she was eight she’d lived in four countries – Iran, the US, Germany and France. She speaks about the colours of her childhood: the strong primary American colours of her time spent in Cambridge Massachusetts, the black and white of their “Addams Family house” in Germany and the blues and turquoises of the South of France, where the family settled.
The cinema was another big influence for the young Mahdavi; as a teenager she spent hours watching films on tv, and later went to the cinema up to three times a day. Initially she wanted to be a film maker, and then a set designer, and this early passion can be seen in the cinematographic nature of her spaces.
“My references for the Gallery at Sketch were David Lynch’s use of pink in Mulholland Drive and the ballroom in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, except that instead of being spooky, the Gallery is a pink and joyful room,” she says.
After studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and then the School of Visual Arts and Parsons in New York, Mahdavi got a job working for French designer Christian Liaigre, where she was art director until 1999.
“Liaigre is the king of beige and brown and cream and dark wood,” she says. “No colour whatsover.” She laughs. “Every time I handled a project, I’d put colour in. People in the office would say, ‘Oh if you want to do a colour palette, go and ask India because she knows how to do it’. I never thought it was a talent. I just did it very naturally, without thinking.”
In 1999 Mahdavi founded her studio, imh interiors, in Paris, launching her showroom four years later. Early projects included stores, her own line of furniture and an office headquarters in London for the fashion designer Joseph Ettedgui, who had encouraged her to go it alone.
A chance meeting with US restaurateur Jonathan Morr led to a job designing the 60-bedroom Townhouse Hotel on Miami Beach. Faced with a tight budget and no space for a swimming pool, Mahdavi set out to create a feeling of water on the small terrace using a colour palette inspired by the ocean and installing a fountain for guests to splash in and bright red fabric-covered waterbeds.
Mahdavi followed this up with the design of APT, a members' apartment-style nightclub in New York, also for Jonathan Morr. Her imaginative, playful interiors caught the eye of Ian Schrager, who asked her to design a hotel for him. In the end, Schrager was forced to sell the property before Mahdavi could complete the project, but by then her career was firmly established.
Other notable projects include the Peacock Hotel in Rowsley, UK; the Coburg Bar at The Connaught Hotel in London; the Condesa DF Hotel in Mexico City; and suites for Claridge's hotel in London. Mahdavi’s confident use of colour can be seen in these projects, as well as her love of curves and her use of sumptuous materials. More recently, she has designed pastel-hued cafes for French pastry brand Laduree in Geneva, LA and Tokyo.
THE RIGHT PINK
In 2014, Mahdavi got a call from Mourad Mazouz, owner of the critically acclaimed London restaurant Sketch. Mazouz had commissioned British artist David Shrigley to reimagine the Gallery restaurant following the success of Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed's Sketch commission in 2012, and was looking for a designer to update the restaurant interiors. After a meeting in London, Mahdavi agreed. She knew immediately that she wanted the room to be pink; finding the exact right shade of pink, however, was another matter.
Mahdavi started as she always starts – scouring her environment for the exact shade of pink she was looking for. “I look in papers, books, magazines, invitations – anywhere – and cut things out and then I start matching it with other tones,” she says.
“I ask for larger sheets to be made up [in the colours I’m considering] then I take them to the site. This is where it got trickier, because my studio in Paris has a lot of light and the Gallery at Sketch has no daylight, so I knew the pink would look more yellow. I didn’t want it to take on too much yellow or it would look salmon, and I didn’t want it to be salmon. It had to be a pink with a bit of blue in it.”
I ask Mahdavi if it’s true that Mazouz became a little exasperated with the length of time it took to find the right colour. In a recent interview with The New Yorker on the subject, Mazouz said: “Oof! A month to find the pink. I didn’t tell her, but after a while I wanted to say, ‘Come on, pink is pink!’”
Mahdavi laughs. “It’s true,” she says. “But it had to be right. That pink at Sketch; it’s perfect. It’s a happy colour. Everyone looks beautiful; like they have a three day tan.”
WHAT MAKES HER TICK
Like most designers and architects, Mahdavi is highly sensitive to her surroundings. When we meet, she arrived in Amsterdam the previous day, and was horrified to find that she was meant to be staying in a Novotel hotel.
“They booked me into this horrible place,” she says, visibly shuddering. “Corporate hotels freak me out. If you are slightly depressed, staying somewhere like that is just terrible. I left the Novotel and booked myself into the Pulitzer Hotel, which saved my life. It feels like home.”
Mahdavi is so fearless with colour, I wonder if there are any she shies away from using.
“I don't want to discriminate against any colour,” she says. “I think they can all bring something - in a certain context of a certain material and upon a certain texture.” There are some colour combinations she’s not a fan of though. “I wouldn’t necessarily put a Christmas green with a Christmas red,” she says. “And I don’t like black and yellow. I don’t think it works. I like colours when they get close to each other or they are very contrasting, but some colour combinations are difficult for me.”
Looking ahead, Mahdavi has several residential projects on the go, as well as a personal project that’s close to her heart. She lives in Paris, in a rented apartment, but recently bought a house in the South of France.
“I’ve never owned my own house before,” she says. “It's hard for me to say I’m not a nomad anymore. This is one of my most important projects; I’m so excited about it.”
She is also working on a Miami restaurant in Bal Harbour for Starr Restaurants. Mahdavi has worked with US restaurateur Stephen Starr before, when she created a sleek Philadelphia steakhouse for the brand.
And her dream future commission? “I’d like to work on something to do with transportation,” she says. “I’ve already worked on planes [creating interiors for NetJets]. Doing a train would be exciting for me. I’d like to do more public spaces too, and more projects with small budgets.”
One thing’s for sure, whatever Mahdavi works on will use colour in a way that’s bold, surprising, and that puts a smile on people’s faces.