In its powdery pink glory, The Gallery gastro-brasserie at London’s hip food and arts destination, Sketch, has become a pilgrimage for Instagram enthusiasts, both local and visiting. The grand room in an 18th-century building is completely decorated in shades of pink, save for the zigzag marble floors and the backdrop of David Shrigley’s satirical artwork. This pastel dream space is the work of Paris-based designer India Mahdavi, who has emerged as a champion of colour and exuberance amidst an era of minimalist resurgence, earning the title “reigning queen of colour” from Architectural Digest.
“My love of colour is very much related to my childhood memories [of viewing TV shows and films in] Technicolor. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the mid-1960s, and I can only remember strong colours from Bugs Bunny, Tex Avery, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book.” Her 2009 design for the Germain restaurant in Paris possesses a vintage cartoon-like spirit with its checkerboard tiles and black-and-white geometric ceiling that provide a graphic backdrop for the room’s pièce de résistance: a giant yellow sculpture of a woman by Xavier Veilhan that spans the entire two floors. It’s a surreal scene certainly worthy of her childhood heroes.
Born in Tehran, Iran to an Iranian father and Scottish-Egyptian mother (and named after the country she was conceived in), a one-year-old Mahdavi moved to the United States when her father enrolled in Harvard Business School. Five years later, they relocated to Germany and finally settled in the small, idyllic town of Vence in the southeast of France, revered for its art pedigree and famous residents like Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse.
In between high school and enrolling in the architecture program at the École des Beaux-Arts, Mahdavi took a year off to pursue her love of cinema; she schooled herself by watching three films a day. “I saw all the classics, from F.W. Murnau to Erich von Stroheim, from Fritz Lang to Ernst Lubitsch to the French New Wave, German Expressionism, Italian Neorealism, and my favourites: [Federico] Fellini, [Luchino] Visconti, Stanley Kubrick,” she says. Those influences are subtle but undeniable as one can catch glimpses of the Art Deco sensibilities from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or be reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s precise symmetrical compositions by her work.
After earning her diploma in architecture (an experience she did not completely enjoy), Mahdavi switched gears by moving to New York to study smaller scale design. She took furniture design at Parsons School of Design, industrial design at the Cooper Union, and graphic design at the School of Visual Arts. “I was attracted to designing furniture because the production span was much shorter than interior design or architecture.”
Mahdavi returned to Paris to join the renowned Christian Liaigre studio as an art director where she remained for seven years, until giving birth to her son, Miles. “Becoming a mother, a parent, made me ask myself a few important questions: What kind of life would I give my son? What would I like to share with him? What kind of values would I like to pass on to him? None of the answers to those questions were compatible with the life I was leading as an employee—although I remember those years being comfortable, enjoyable, and very formative.” In 1999, Mahdavi started her own company, focusing on interiors and furniture design. Within weeks, she got her first commission furnishing fashion designer and retailer Joseph Ettedgui’s men’s shop on Sloane Street in London. Having developed a significant catalogue of designs, in 2003 she opened a furniture showroom in Paris, and a year later she was named Designer of the Year at Salon MAISON&OBJET.
International acclaim came after the completion of the award-winning design of the Condesa DF boutique hotel in Mexico City, which she did in collaboration with local architect Javier Sánchez. With an airy update on its heritage French colonial design, the hotel kick-started the revitalization of the city’s Condesa neighbourhood, a historic district that struggled from the devastation of the 1985 earthquake. “It gave it the right tempo, and that’s the absorbing part of my profession,” she says. “We can create links between people, exchanges between local communities and people coming through a city, a meeting point for local artists, etc.” Its breezy courtyard, with the picture-perfect white bar and Mahdavi’s now-signature Bishop stools set against a bright teal backdrop, is still a neighbourhood hub more than a decade later.
What makes Mahdavi’s endeavours unique is the idea of “total design”—all aspects, from furniture and textiles, to light fixtures and wall treatments—bear the designer’s meticulous signature. Although she leans towards a more maximalist aesthetic, her spaces are never over-designed or cluttered. “When I start designing a space, I start by analyzing my constraints: I listen to the space, to my client, to the project needs, to the location, to the environment.”
Expanding on her repertoire, in 2011, she opened her Petits Objets shop in Paris, selling a line of objects manufactured by artisans from around the world: embroidered cushions from India, lacquer trays from Vietnam, basketry from Mexico, among others. “It’s like a world bazaar of small objects that bring sunshine to your home.” The shop is a reflection of the designer’s international upbringing and her penchant for masterfully mixing different styles.
While it’s safe to say that Mahdavi has conquered the world of interior and product design, she is not the type to shy away from new challenges. Having reconciled some of her earlier apprehensions of large-scale architecture, she is currently tackling the design of a residential building in her birthplace, Tehran. “I think I have gained the professional maturity to do so,” she says. It’s her first large-scale architecture project, entirely conceived by her from the ground up. Currently in planning stages, she’s using the lessons learned from her oeuvre thus far and formulating the project with the interior design approach, conceptualizing the building from the inside out. The venture into large-scale projects is a challenging but exciting step for Mahdavi, but the once-aspiring filmmaker still holds the ambition to find herself behind the lens someday. “I want to make a movie,” she says. No doubt it will be colourful.