Iranian architect and designer India Mahdavi is the reigning queen of color. Now, she injects new life into six rooms within a Roman 16th-century landmark.
Situated on the Pincian Hill, overlooking the Spanish Steps and the heart of Rome’s centro storico (historic center), the 16th-century Villa Medici is one of the eternal city’s grand architectural dames. Owned by Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, it has been the property of the French State since Napoleon bought the building in 1801 and it became the headquarters of the French Academy in Rome. At the time, it was the place where the recipients of the prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship for young French artists to study in Rome were housed. The villa itself serves as an important example of Mannerist architecture mixed with prominent classical features. Its grandeur is hard to match but contemporary architect, designer, and scenographer India Mahdavi has managed to enliven six rooms in one of Rome’s most famous and sought-after structures from the late Renaissance period. In April this year, Villa Medici unveiled the new design by Mahdavi of six of the iconic building’s historic rooms. “I wanted to add beauty to beauty,” she says, stating how updating the design of an already stunning and historical building was not an easy task. “The Villa Medici is an aesthetic experience in itself. There are so many historical pieces of Italian furniture from the 17th century.”
What was crucial, she says, was striking a balance between new furniture pieces she designed specifically for the rooms in the form of beds, tables, seats, and carpets, and the grandeur of the pre-existing art and architecture. The result is breathtaking: a marriage of the past with the allure of the contemporary seen through Mahdavi’s injection of colors and lines that enliven the spaces. “What I did was add experience,” she says, noting, “My only way to deal with the heritage of the rooms was by asking what human experience can I add to them to make them even more special?”
Based in France, the Iranian designer is best known for her use of vibrant hues, earning her the title “the reigning queen of color.” Born in 1962 in Tehran to an Iranian father and an English-Egyptian mother, Mahdavi spent her early years in the US in Massachusetts where she says her love for color began by watching Disney movies as a child. Her heightened attention to hues can be found in Ladurée’s boutiques with their various shades of greens, the entirely pink Gallery restaurant at Sketch in London, or her various hotel designs throughout the world, including Coburg Bar at London’s Connaught Hotel, Hôtel du Cloître in Arles, and Rivington Hotel in Manhattan. This is besides numerous private residences and cinemas, showrooms, galleries, and restaurants. Adding new designs to a historical building of such esteem is an entirely new experience for her. Still, she worked her magic on the Villa Medici.
Mahdavi’s designs are part of the Re-enchanting Villa Medici project, a three-year plan launched in 2022 to amplify the presence of contemporary design and craft within the villa. Mahdavi was asked to enhance and freshen the rooms on the building’s piano nobile or “noble level” where the main reception and bedrooms are housed. She updated the decor of the historic rooms with furniture situated in key areas for taking in the surrounding heritage, especially pieces such as the 16th- century paintings and frescoes by the Mannerist painter Jacopo Zucchi and wall decorations by Balthus, restored for the occasion.
Mahdavi renovated three rooms constituting Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici’s Apartments, which are now open to visitors (the Chamber of the Elements, Chamber of the Muses, and Chamber of Jupiter’s Loves); as well as three guest rooms renamed the Lili Boulanger Salon, the Debussy Room, and the Galileo Room, reflecting the great figures of the arts and sciences connected to the Villa Medici. “I approached the design for all of the historical rooms by keeping them more or less as they were,” says Mahdavi. “I changed the furniture and layout slightly, added some furniture pieces and a few rugs to make the spaces even more dense, and also reupholstered some of the pieces that were there.”
The Chamber of the Muses features a dramatic coffered ceiling depicting an astrological theme that the designer wished to highlight. “We wanted people who visited to stop in that room and look up to the ceiling,” she says. “Then we thought it would be interesting to have seats so that one could actually look up.” She added her signature Bishop stool in sea green color in a manner that framed a large hand-tufted rug by French workshop Manufacture d’Aubusson Robert Four occupying almost the entirety of the room – and which reflects the carefully manicured garden outside the Villa Medici. The rug’s bold geometric design features purple, red, green, and rosy pink forms echoing the sprawling grounds and flowerbeds outside. “The rug is very much made in the manner of a Persian carpet, which itself reflects an interior garden,” she explains.
Of note is the Lili Boulanger Salon, named after the first female composer to take up residence at the villa. It is one of the first rooms the visitor enters, and is punctuated by a cluster of bright yellow sofas and armchairs taken from the French conservation agency Mobilier National. The furnishings, which appear almost golden, are situated on top of a pink rug by French manufacturer La Manufacture Cogolin designed by Mahdavi. They add spirit to the wall frescoes and the classical female statue – adding just enough contrast to give the room new life without taking away from its preexisting Renaissance grandeur. In other rooms such as the bedroom, with its large bed decorated in a geometric pattern that she says echoes the forms of the Pantheon, she strove to incorporate references to ancient Rome.
Mahdavi says she sought to inject a “domestic” quality to the spaces so that visitors and residents feel at ease within them. “I wanted them to feel at home rather than inside an institution.” Her intervention invites the Academy’s collections to stand out in a new setting, particularly the group of sculptures, paintings, and historical tapestries from the Gobelins. She infuses them with life again. As she states: “I wanted to bring light, joy, and color to the spaces.”
Photographs: François Halard, Alessia Calzecchi
Originally published in the November 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia