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07 Sep 2007

come to your sensesGerman interior designer Yasmine Mahmoudieh is a visionary who goes beyond vision. She experiments with colour, scent and touch, merging psychology with design. Kerstin Zumstein went to meet her in her colourful work/live space in London

Yasmine Mahmoudieh is developing a scent machine. Being the strongest carrier of memory, a sense of smell is crucial to the perception of a space. The machine will enable a controlled and subtle emission of certain fragrances aimed at wellbeing. For Mahmoudieh, achieving wellbeing is what interior guests than workers and addressing scent in the office as a part of workplace design.

Mahmoudieh’s main office is based in Berlin, but she regularly does business in London and bought an apartment near Old Street in 1999 that functions as her work-cum-living space whenever she is in town. We go to meet her on the only sunny day of this grim English summer and find a space converted into a glass loft that heats up like a green house. She ripped the entire flat out and re-did the place in a minimalist fashion: orange walls, wooden stairs, no cupboards nor handles, nothing but clean surfaces. Well, nothing apart from the toys and balls and chalkboards her two children have scattered around the place.

Mahmoudieh’s five-year-old daughter Fariba opens the door to me. Upstairs the grandmother is getting the designer’s 13-month-old son ready to take for a walk for the duration of the interview. It all feels perfectly natural, like everything Mahmoudieh does. With her kids running around and the heat of the sun warming the space, we touch on the Five+ Sensotel strategy again and this time it feels a little more real. The idea was to create a traditional and familiar feeling in hotels despite the modern design. Mahmoudieh explains: “For humans all five senses form part of how we perceive a room. Design, however, focuses exclusively on the visual.” Mahmoudieh’s concepts take the buzzword “holistic” to a whole new level.

Every material she chose for the project was aimed at familiarising your sense of touch. I remember the cutaneous sensation of the wallpaper, taking off my shoes and feeling the warm soft carpet under my feet that let off a subtle scent when I walked across the room. The touch panels in this original concept room were intuitive to use, with clear icons allowing you to select different light modes for your particular mood. The auditory experience was channelled through music options in the control panels, creating a desired atmosphere and linked to the mood setting for the lighting. The only sense I felt let down by was taste. Mahmoudieh had provided tablets, each representing a meal such as spicy chicken or muesli salad, but I couldn’t quite see how the taste of Cajun spices in my mouth would enhance my hotel stay.

“The idea was to push the boundaries of what is provided in hotel minibars. It’s always the same – nuts and chocolate. Most people nowadays want something fresh, something healthy, especially when travelling. The same counts for what you offer in a business meeting at the office. We go for fresh fruits rather than dusty biscuits.” Mahmoudieh simply doesn’t see the point in working on things that end up being the same as that which already exists. Not that she wants to be different for the sake of it, but only experimentation will move things forward. “Design influences people’s lives and in a way interior designers function like psychiatrists, aiming to make people feel good in their surroundings.” But how does a sensory influence deal with subjectivity? Will all people find the same scent soothing? “We only use very subtle fragrances and I’m working closely with IFF [International Flavor and Fragrance Inc] in New York, who are the market leaders with decades of experience in creating consumer-centred scents and tastes,” says Mahmoudieh. “On testing certain scents deemed pleasant, not one test person disliked the odour. It’s like the smell of coffee, everyone likes that. Together with IFF I am currently working on a scent for the office.”

Mahmoudieh confirms that furniture manufacturer Beyon has already expressed an interest. The fragrance is meant to enhance efficiency and concentration by making people feel fresh and awake. “I think quality of air and lighting are the most important elements in an office to ensure efficiency. We plan to infuse aromatic fragrances through the scent machine we’re currently developing. The fragrances are anti-allergic – and I’m the best test person as I suffer from many allergies.” Beside the effect on productivity, Mahmoudieh envisages this to be the dawning of a new level of corporate identity.

“Corporate identity is already vital in our current brand society and will become even more so in the future, even for smaller companies. At present, it seldom goes beyond a company logo. A recognisable smell, possibly only noted subconsciously, is far more powerful.” For a moment I wonder if that isn’t a bit too scary. The idea of controlling senses bears a little too much resemblance to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But then again no one would accuse you of manipulating the subconscious when designing a space that triggers emotions. This multi-sensory approach may just be a perfectly natural extension of human-centred design, a logical move forward from the visual overkill we have become so used to. Colour is the most prevalent attribute to Mahmoudieh’s designs because it is the easiest way to achieve a sense of wellbeing. The concentration on further senses, however, is what makes her designs so unique.

The integration of psychology into Mahmoudieh’s design concepts is something she picked up at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied architecture and design. The Hamburg-born designer previously attended an art history course in Florence, then studied architecture in Geneva, design in San Francisco and finished her degree in LA, opening her own office there fresh from university in 1986. That takes a lot of courage and a lot of confidence, something without which Mahmoudieh would not be where she is now. Her healthy assurance seems to eradicate self-doubt. “That definitely stems from studying in California. It’s no coincidence that most young entrepreneurial enterprises like Apple, Google etc come from that state. It’s because you are given this belief in yourself that anything is possible if you work at it, and that has stuck with me ever since. I never thought I could fail.” Among Mahmoudieh’s teachers were the likes of Frank Gehry and Charles Moore, which I’m sure contributed to her faith in success.

When Mahmoudieh returned to Germany in 1993 it wasn’t easy to get the same respect as in the States. “Europe is caught up in hierarchies and traditions, and some people thought I was too young to be doing such high-profile projects.” But Mahmoudieh is not the type of person to be put off by suspicions. In a way, she seems to need that challenge. “I’m not interested in building another building, I’m only interested in developing a new way of building,” she tells me. Her recent concept for the Flyotel in Dubai, a collaboration with Kas Oosterhuis from Rotterdam-based practice ONL, is a prime example. The design is based on parametric and mathematical formulae, and I must admit she lost me somewhere in a web of technicalities, but the project is being pushed by investors not least because if this building method had been used to build the Burj Al Arab, it would have cost a third less than it did. Arup is involved in developing a distinctive engineering tool – a parametric tool to enable a geometrically complex building to be modelled, loaded, analysed and optimised all in one. The diagrid primary structure of the building (similar to that of the Swiss Re tower) acts as vertical trusses. The architectural scripts are digitally designed and sent directly to the steel manufacturer, leaving out a number of costly steps. ONL’s WEB of North Holland is the first example of how the method can work, albeit a horizontal model of what the vertical will be like.

“In general, European developers are more conservative – that is probably one of the reasons why we do more work in Russia and Turkey and the Eastern countries. These emerging economies have this undying love for speed. They feel they need to catch up and charge forward while Old Europe still looks back. The East Block has less preconceived ideas so it’s easier to lead and initiate forward-thinking projects. In a way you are educating them about possibilities and they are eager to learn,” says Mahmoudieh.

She talks me through her masterplan for Bodrum in Turkey. The enterprise goes beyond a design solution for a Turkish town – she has been brought on board to turn the town into a tourism magnet, putting it on the map by providing architecture that in itself will become a destination. Out-of-season buildings will become artists’ workspaces and the design language will incorporate ornaments from the Ottoman reign to reflect cultural identity. That the project is green and in sync with it ecological environment goes without saying. Mahmoudieh’s ideas are tremendously progressive and she takes an ambitious approach, but one can’t help be stunned by her comparison to “what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao”. She is not shy about speaking of revolutionary effects of her concepts. But there is something refreshing in her convinced demeanour. It’s neither show nor image nor arrogance, just an intriguing designer who believes in making a difference. Her projects vary from small-scale (a boutique hotel in Verbier, Switzerland) to a multi-million dollar project in Moscow, Russia’s biggest public construction.

Mahmoudieh has fitted out many offices such as Garbe and Listmann’s workplace and is getting more and more into architecture, but ultimately her innovation is led by necessity. Whenever she comes to a point in a project where something is missing she looks into how to solve it. Her research with the famous Fraunhofer Institute for instance makes her knowledge particularly attractive to clients seeking something out of the ordinary. For the Airbus A380, Mahmoudieh was brought on board to develop a new concept for the use of materials. She is now thinking of using an acoustic membrane material for screens in offices. Her interdisciplinary way of thinking has led her to import her knowledge from the hospitality sector into the office.

Mahmoudieh is also interested in chemistry. “Acrylics have a lot of potential. And then there are materials like 100 per cent decomposable potato starch, which is already being used in Japan.” The material is still expensive but at a time when everyone claims to aim at environmentally friendly practice, these materials should be pioneered. “The problem is to find a company that is willing to be the first to use it. It’s a risk not many are prepared to take. But if we don’t trial material how can we improve?” Her current favourite is the basketball material that is more durable and stronger than leather. “At Milan and Cologne 90 per cent of the exhibited products are crap. Pure repetitions. It’s the pressure from the industry to come up with something more to sell.” At last years Orgatec, Mahmoudieh wanted to encourage imagination and collaborated with other experts, including Thomas Willemeit of architecture practice Graft (onoffice 03) on a project called the “ultima office 2030”, the office of the future, sponsored by Bene.
The key results were that the office of the future will be a flexible space. Booking systems will be introduced to use space more efficiently. “Offices won’t mainly be in mayor cites anymore but can be anywhere, with city office space rented or booked like a hotel room,” says Mahmoudieh. “Thinking rooms will increase, which will need a good coffee machine more than a workstation. The home and office will melt together just like our work-live rhythm is already merging.” Video conferencing will be done via mobile phone.

“I personally see two things coming up. Firstly, the spa will become an integral element of an office, with massage and relaxation rooms. Stress is increasing so a counterbalance is vital. The rise of wellness and spa treatments generally is an indication for this trend and companies will pick up on this. I truly believe offices and spas will melt together. Secondly, workspaces will become networking space, with synergies of profession being exploited efficiently. Lobbies will become important networking areas, reinforcing some humility rather than the current model of the reception as a transitional space. Office design will increasingly fight anonymity and formality.”

So what is workplace design currently missing? “Human resources still aren’t being considered enough – our human needs aren’t being incorporated the way they could. Also in terms of corporate identity there is still a way to go. Hierarchies need to come down, people need to work more as a team than in hierarchical groups. In America there is this saying – ‘There is no one you can’t learn something from, even a dumb person!’ Sharing knowledge is key to the future of work. Regarding demographics it’s essential that we become more family friendly. Without creches and other family-friendly solutions and tax advantages, Europe’s declining birth rate can’t recover.”

Another movement Mahmoudieh foresees is the rise in mixed-use projects. “Interconnecting buildings like hotels and offices would allow workplaces to facilitate the hotel’s catering service for instance, as hotels never make enough money with their restaurants anyway. But the important thing is that it’s done tastefully, not like those depressing malls.”

Mahmoudieh has collaborations with Vitra lined up, so it sounds like there are some office products on the way. It’s not often I end up thinking, ‘I wonder what they will smell like?’

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