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Incredible India!

© Maybourne Hotel Group

Paris designer India Mahdavi brings her distinctive brand of high-style whimsy to America.

One of the most intriguing exhibitions staged during New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair last May involved masking tape—bubblegum-pink masking tape, tracing a pattern on the hardwood floor of dealer Ralph Pucci’s skylit gallery. It was the U.S. debut of furniture by Paris designer India Mahdavi, and the tape mapped out the floor plan, at full scale, of her showroom on the Rue las Cases, cleverly bringing a touch of the Seventh Arrondissement to Manhattan.

Inside those colorful outlines Mahdavi arranged several pieces from her collection: the Flower coffee table, with interlocking shapes in green, black, and brown lacquered wood suggesting abstract blossoms; her low-back geometric Oliver armchair in sprightly apple-green upholstery with chrome feet; a cluster of curvaceous ceramic stools or low tables she calls Bishops, which resemble chess pieces or sections of turned wood.

Originally designed several years ago for the Manhattan nightclub APT as an upholstered barstool in wood (still available), the Bishop has become one of Mahdavi’s signature pieces. Each year she produces the ceramic version in new colors, from cobalt blue and lemon yellow to aubergine and platinum. “They have a sense of humor without being in your face,” she says of the stools. “They wink at you.” Like the pink tape, these pieces perfectly capture the irresistible playfulness that Mahdavi brings to the sometimes somber, overly cerebral world of contemporary design.

A onetime collaborator with trendsetting French designer Christian Liaigre, the 46-year-old Mahdavi has a hard-to-define style that balances wit and whimsy with a timelessly modern, sexy chic. Her aesthetic is not Liaigre’s muted minimalism but a playful mix of brash, unexpected colors and clean-lined profiles: David Hicks meets Eileen Gray.

Mahdavi’s eclectic style is evident in her recent redesign of the Coburg Bar at the Connaught hotel in London—boldly patterned carpeting, classic wingback chairs and ottomans rendered in hues of burnt orange and plum. She also did Michelin-starred French chef Hélène Darroze’s eponymous restaurant at the Connaught, which opened this summer. And currently Mahdavi is working on a new Paris restaurant for Thierry Costes, a series of Hawker airplane interiors for NetJets, and the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel.

“India’s designs are incredibly fresh and modern—they’re lively but not forced,” says Ralph Pucci, who also represents French designers Patrick Naggar, Andrée Putman, and Paul Mathieu. “In a market with a lot of sameness, India’s work is very different. It feels right for the times we live in.”

Tall and quietly elegant, with soulful eyes and exotic looks that reflect her cosmopolitan background—Iranian father, Scottish-Egyptian mother—Mahdavi was born in Tehran and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Heidelberg, Germany; and Vence, in the South of France. She earned an architecture degree at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and then, yearning for more creative freedom, headed to New York, where she studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts, furniture at Parsons, and industrial design at Cooper Union. Back in Paris, she went to work for Liaigre in the early nineties, just as his star was rising, and eventually became his in-house art director, leading important projects like the Mercer hotel in Manhattan.

Since setting up her own studio in 1999, Mahdavi has designed a range of high-profile interiors, usually incorporating some of her own custom furniture and lighting. At the Townhouse hotel in Miami Beach, opened in 2000, a palette of bright red, pale blue, sandy beige, and punchy pink florals captures Mahdavi’s vision of the city, which she describes as “sex, sea, and sun.” Chef Zak Pelaccio’s new Malaysian restaurant, Suka, at the Sanderson hotel in London, is all curved-wood dining chairs, black leather, and copper-lined pendant lamps by Tom Dixon. Mahdavi’s design for the stylishly funky Condesa DF hotel in Mexico City added Pop-y turquoise, white enamel, and dark woods to the twenties Art Nouveau building.

“I like to work with memory, for people to remember a particular color when they leave a place,” says Mahdavi. Though aesthetically diverse, these and other projects—the private club Bungalow 8 in London, Stephen Starr’s Philadelphia steakhouse Barclay Prime, and the guest rooms at the Hotel on Rivington in New York among them—share a seductive sophistication.

When it comes to residential interiors, Mahdavi limits herself to just one at a time. “It’s like making someone’s portrait,” she says. “It’s quite emotional.” Recent projects include the Paris apartment of fashion designer Alber Elbaz, the artistic director at Lanvin.

Once Mahdavi decides a piece of custom furniture or lighting is ready to “take on a life of its own,” as she puts it, she adapts the design for production, working mostly with small manufacturers in France. Her modular walnut Fullhouse table ($27,600 for the longest, ten-module version) was initially created for a private residence. She first made the ceramic Bishop stool for the Condesa DF hotel. (“I wanted to introduce a cool material to the project,” she explains.) The ceramic Bishops—which can be used outdoors—are now sold in nine colors, ranging from $2,160 to $4,560.

“There’s a sensual quality to the furniture,” Mahdavi says of her work. But joyfulness is what matters most to her. “My pieces,” she adds, “have a happy life.”

India Mahdavi’s complete furniture collection, about 60 pieces, is sold at her Paris showroom (3 Rue las Cases; 33-1/45-55-67-67; india-mahdavi.com). In the United States, around 20 pieces are available through Ralph Pucci International in New York (44 W. 18th St.; 212-633-0452) and Los Angeles (8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; 310-360-9707; ralphpucci.net).