Designing El Dorado

Yasmine Mahmoudieh speaks to CID about pairing architecture with interior design and her projects in the region.

Yasmine Mahmoudieh.
Yasmine Mahmoudieh.

Yasmine Mahmoudieh speaks to CID about pairing architecture with interior design and her projects in the region.

With an international education and a broad range of experience gained in various environments, Yasmine Mahmoudieh's design practice brings architecture and interior design together. With projects on offer throughout the region and the possibility of opening an office in Dubai, the designer's interest in this part of the world is growing.

What is your first memory of being interested in design?

As a child, I used to change my parents house around when they went on vacation. I'd move things and rearrange things. I also remember going to my friend's homes and being critical of how they were designed.

What is your formal training in the interior design field?

After high school in Germany I moved to Italy to study art history and Italian in Florence. Then I moved to Geneva, where I studied architecture for two years. After that, I moved to San Francisco for a year to study interior design and then I went to UCLA where I got a degree in architecture and design. I opened my first office in 1986 and stayed there until 1993.

When I moved back to Europe I had offices in Berlin, Hamburg and, shortly after that, Barcelona and London. I was working mostly outside Germany and didn't really like that. So, I decided to consolidate and just keep the offices in Berlin and London. Right now, we're in negotiations to open an office in Dubai.

Tell us about your first design job...

My first commercial design job was in Los Angeles. I was commissioned to do the interior design for the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel and the Four Seasons back in the 1980s.

You are formally trained in architecture but chose a career in interior design. What do you see as the biggest differences between the fields?

I think it's very good to be knowledgeable in both. If you only study one of them, something is missing. Either you study design and have no constructive knowledge or you study architecture and have no concept of fabrics and materials and detailing. I've always thought it was good to have a global familiarity with both disciplines.

Before I started my own company, I worked for HNTB Architecture in its Los Angeles office. I did that for about 10 months, but at that time there were huge restrictions on architecture.

You always had to consult city officials and navigate the bureaucracy and I didn't like that. I knew I wouldn't be able to do my architecture so I began concentrating more on interiors.

I would say the similarities between interior design and interior architecture is that you still do space planning and you create spaces and you use the building to drive the design. You really work on buildings from the inside out.

Can you give us a brief rundown of your career thus far?

At UCLA, I had the privilege of being taught by some very famous people. People like Charles Moore, Charles James and Richard Marshall were among my professors.

At the time, Los Angeles was a fantastic place to get in touch with some of the influential architects of the time. Later on, I moved into masterplanning and urban design and in 1993, I did a major project in Buena Vista.

In 1993, I moved back to Europe and began working on some big hotel projects. They included the renovation of the Kempinski Hotel in Moscow in 1994 and Hamburg's Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten.

In the last three to four years I've shifted again into masterplanning, urban design and architecture, in addition to concentrating on interior architecture. But at the same time, I was looking at alliances with good architects.

For example, I did a huge masterplan for a mixed-use development in the centre of Moscow, for which I'm a finalist. We're also doing a huge concept in St. Petersburg that is almost the size of Covent Garden [London] that will incorporate retail, office and hotel space.

At the moment, I've been commissioned to do a signature office building in Bucharest, as well as a masterplan for the town centre, which will incorporate office, hotel and huge living quarters. So, it's been shifted. Right now, more of my people are architects than interior designers. We've gone back to the bigger scale.

What projects have you got lined up regionally?

We're looking at doing a resort hotel in southwest India. I'm also working with Ahmedabad in India to develop a signature building there. The Flyotel, which is helping my decision on whether to open an office in Dubai is a huge hotel we're working on that is part of Badawi.

But, I'm really not looking to add another high-rise to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, which is becoming more and more difficult.

I cannot disclose the exact nature of what I'd be doing in Dubai but it would definitely be different from all the other hotels. The theme and concept are different but it's also not Disney-like, which a lot of the hotels are. There are very few exceptions that are really outstanding.

When I came to the region four years ago, I really had the feeling that I was too early. It was all about quick development and finding the lowest bidder. You always hear about these billion-dollar projects but the fees were less than in Europe or anywhere else in the world. I wasn't going to spend my time where I'm paid less than anywhere in the world.

Now, with the arrival of a lot of well-known architects, it seems like things have changed. I think clients realise that it isn't so easy to differentiate their projects from all the others, so they're using big names to make their projects more appealing.

Describe your design 'style'.

It's really cutting-edge but I have projects that are 14 or 16 years old that people think are new when they visit them. You have to think into the future and convince your client that anything you do in today's style will not be exciting in the future. But, it has to be intelligent.

I remember rejecting work from one client because they asked me to do the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in a hotel. I told them to ask a Disney designer to do it.

The work I do really has to have a strong philosophy and explanation for why it's being done. I think the biggest challenge is to understand the location, the area and the culture you're working in, because you could put a lot of high-rise buildings anywhere in the world and they would all be the same.

Use St. Petersburg as an example. St. Petersburg is built by only Italian and Dutch architects, there's nothing Russian about it. In one of my projects there, which is located near the Mariinsky Theatre, we've covered the corridors with very small details from all the performances that have been done at the theatre.

This is how I differentiate my work. It may seem abstract but if you take the time to study it, you can see the connection to the country and the local culture. We take the issue of culture very seriously and yet we try to keep our work very contemporary and cutting-edge.

Where do you get your inspiration from for each individual project and how do you keep your ideas fresh?

I'm inspired by the cultural context and how it is interpreted. The interpretation of culture draws on one's creativity and that is the most exciting part.

For example, in the Flyotel we've got an escalator coming from the main structure to another structure where visitors will be transported through five senses from the Arab world. As you go through, you'll see videos of Arab artists, hear music of the Arab musicians, smell scents from around the region and touch local materials that are pleasing to the skin.

What are some of the important trends you've seen emerging in the industry?

Definitely the use of the computer as a design tool is one. It can be a very dangerous tool because it offers infinite possibilities in terms of shape. People who have no idea what they're doing can use it to create whatever they want, which often results in designs that don't last.

I've seen architectural presentations that show 100 different ways to build a skyscraper in New York. If I were the client, I'd go absolutely crazy; I'd want two or three choices maximum. That is the real danger of the computer as I see it.

I've always been very interested in indirect lighting as well, and now it's possible to use lighting to change the mood in a room. That's also very dangerous if you've got people operating it that don't know how to use it. All of a sudden, you've got horrible colour schemes in a room that don't fit with the rest.

Obviously, I think the big change for the future will be the consideration of alternative materials that won't be a burden on our environment. That's not always easy because the materials tend to be more expensive so clients won't pay for them. We're trying to incorporate those things into our projects, even in small portions, to create an awareness. If demand increases, the cost will decrease.

What is your favourite project that you have worked on? - And the most challenging?

That's a difficult question. I can name a couple highlights. One is definitely the renovation of the Arne Jacobsen Hotel in Copenhagen because it was the most well-known hotel in the world. Through a series of directors, it had undergone changes here and there until there was nothing left. The Scandinavian public was very anxious about this landmark being destroyed.

At the press conference, they couldn't believe that I wasn't Scandinavian because it expressed so much of the culture in the interpretation. I won the European Designers Award and the International CoreDesign Award many other citations because the project succeeded on many levels.

Five Plus Sensotel was one of my favourite projects because there was no client, it was my own initiative, and I've never received so much coverage throughout the world as I did for this project.

My approach is always to think about the user and in this project all the decisions were based on what was appropriate for creating a wonderful experience. This gave me a lot of confidence that I can do my own projects and look for investors afterwards.

The Flyotel was another project like this. There was no client in the beginning but now I'm seriously talking to someone who wants to realise it. That is a little more the direction I would like to take in the future. I'd like to be more in the development side as my own architect and designer, and then find people to invest in them.

If I look at the SAS Radisson in Berlin-with the big fish tank in the lobby-that is something of which I'm very proud.

If you could have worked on the design of any project what would it have been?

Looking back is impossible. But, if I looked into the future, I'd like to create not just one building but plan an entire city. That would really excite me. It's a bit like what I'm doing in Bucharest right now.

Bucharest is a bit like El Dorado for architects because there's not much there, but we need to be sensitive to how it is developing. Some of the billion-dollar projects being done in the Middle East are horrible. They're just copies of America. How many people are asking if these projects going to improve life in the region? It's always about the investment. What about the intelligence of it? Anything to add?

I have a big interest in the region but anything I do there would have to be more about intelligence and less about being iconic.

Also, it's a little boring that the same architects are always asked to build the same museums. I think it comes from the sense of security of choosing a big name.

I'm not talking just about myself, there are other, younger architects who could make something more exciting than what has almost become predictable. People in the Middle East need to become more educated and understand what is a very typical piece from aa famous architect.

They do their own branding. A Gehry always looks like a Gehry. It's okay to do it once or twice, but I wonder why some architects are always selected for the major buildings. When the star architects were young, they were really revolutionary but they're not anymore. Clients have to look for new talent and help get to the next phase of design.

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