Designer Spotlight

Ahmad Sardar-Afkhami Will Not Be Pigeonholed

The Iranian-born architect and designer creates elegant, distinctive rooms and gardens for projects ranging from a Jordanian eco-lodge and a Moroccan riad to a West Village townhouse.

Ahmad Sardar-Afkhami, with his dog, Pip, pursues projects that reflect his manifold interests (photo by Julie Holder). Top: He divided the living area of a Manhattan apartment into three spaces, including a dining area in the center. The Tuareg mat on the floor in the foreground is woven from palm fronds and leather. (photo by Attackfire Photography).

In the contemporary design world, Ahmad Sardar-Afkhami, the head of the multidisciplinary New York firm Sardar Design Studio, is something of an anomaly. While many architects and designers focus on a particular stylistic vocabulary, he is multilingual — figuratively and literally: He’s fluent in English, Persian and French and “gets by” in Spanish. His manners are courtly, but there’s nothing stuffy about him. “He has a mind that’s as refined as his taste,” says the designer Robert Couturier, a good friend. “He’s like this incredibly elegant prince who was thrown into our world.”

And where others appear concerned with crafting a brilliant career, Sardar-Afkhami is more intent on pursuing his polymath passions: architecture, landscape, interiors and decorative arts, indigenous crafts and the environment. “Having a lot of interests makes you difficult to place,” he notes, but this doesn’t seem to have held him back. His projects include renovations and restorations of Manhattan townhouses and an 18th-century riad in Morocco, apartment interiors, a Shingle-Style house in Sagaponack, on Long Island. In addition, he has worked on a villa and a soon-to-be-completed wildlife refuge and eco-resort in Jordan (both of which incorporate solar-energy elements into their clean-lined stone and concrete structures), as well as gardens and landscapes both in the United States and abroad. Sardar-Afkhami also designs crewel rugs that combine traditional techniques (they’re made by women artisans in Kashmir) with contemporary designs. “I love being able to go from grading a site to choosing fabric samples,” he says. “It’s ultimately very rewarding. It’s inhuman to pigeonhole people.” And if his project list seems cosmopolitan, that’s because he is, too.

 

In food guru Katie Lee’s West Village townhouse, the dining room contains a fireplace original to the home. The lacquered 20th-century dining table is surrounded by Louis XV-style dining chairs upholstered in chocolate canvas. Photo by Paul Costello

Left: A guest room includes a narrow desk paired with a white Norma Regency chair by Kathy Kuo and a table lamp in the style of Diego Giacometti. On the floor is a flat-weave sisal rug and a plaster head of David. Right: A breakfast nook in the kitchen contains a table with a pair of French rattan chairs. Photos by Paul Costello

Sardar-Afkhami transformed the space that separated the bedroom and bathroom into a private sitting room that also functions as a dressing room. The surfaces are silver-leafed and oxidized, to give a warmer tone to the metal, the clothes hidden behind gilt doors. The sconces are by Serge Roche, and the Louis XVI duchesse daybed is upholstered in aqua-green silk velvet. “All the restrained opulence of the surfaces is brought down by a simple rush mat on the floor, which smells heavenly,” he says. Photo by Paul Costello

Left: The kitchen of Sardar-Afkhami’s own East Village apartment displays stacks of export Canton china, which was everyday dishware in New England during the 18th and 19th centuries. “Since the patterns don’t change, it’s also pieced together over time,” Sardar-Afkhami says. Right: In the living room, a seventies leather daybed is covered with a Moroccan blanket. The chair is a sculpture by Greek artist Marina Karella, and the TV console is a Paul McCobb serving trolley. “The carpet is part of a series of needlepoint and chain-stitch rugs that I design and have made in Kashmir,” he says. Photos courtesy of Ahmad Sardar-Afkhami

A 19th-century Samarkand dowry suzani is used as a curtain in the bedroom. Suzanis are embroidered over many years, so the color batches are often different. The rug was made by the Azilal tribe, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Sardar-Afkhami

Left: In this new apartment overlooking the High Line in Manhattan, a 12-foot-long custom wooden bench is topped with handmade Mediterranean mattresses and bolsters covered in ticking fabric. Sardar-Afkhami collaborated with Andrew Galuppi to design the residence and some of the pieces, including the bench. “A dracaena plant evokes a palm tree, taking the imagination where it wants to go,” Sardar-Afkhami says. Right: A 20th-century suzani is draped across the bed, and a lambskin throw lies on the floor. The 19th-century chair was reupholstered in brown cotton ticking. Photos by Attackfire Photography

The den features a wide daybed with a tufted cushion and plenty of large throw pillows. The built-in shelves, of various lengths and heights, are used to display books and decorative objects. Photo by Attackfire Photography

Sardar-Afkhami and Nate Berkus sit in the Kargo headquarters, which they worked on together. The pair has also collaborated on residential projects in Manhattan and Sagaponack, New York. Photo by Julie Holder

Sardar-Afkhami was born in Iran, but in 1979 he and his family fled the revolution and settled in Paris. His parents, who were both modernist architects, turned to breeding Arabian horses when it became clear they would not be returning to their native country. At 13, Sardar-Afkhami was sent to Bryanston boarding school in England, which also counts Sir Terence Conran and his designer son Jasper as alumni. He earned his undergraduate degree at Brown University in semiotics and modern culture and media. A trip to India, where he worked on a film project that examined gender politics in traditional northern Indian architecture and design, ignited an interest in landscape architecture. So, he enrolled to study the subject at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, receiving a master’s in 1995. “My grandmother said, ‘Thank God you’re going to Harvard,’ but when I told her why, she said, ‘Who goes to Harvard to become a gardener?’ ”

Four years later, following a stint in the landscape architecture department of Robert A.M. Stern’s office, Sardar-Afkhami got a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. After working again for Stern and for the New York architect Daniel Romualdez — who, Sardar-Afkhami says, “respects the past but is never enslaved by it” — he opened his own office in 2007.

Sardar-Afkhami has collaborated with the designer Nate Berkus on a number of projects, including a West Village townhouse for culinary personality Katie Lee; the Sagaponack house of Lee’s ex-husband, Billy Joel; and offices in Manhattan for Harry Kargman’s mobile-advertising company, Kargo. Describing Sardar-Afkhami, Berkus says, He truly understands all those elements that take a room from average to outstanding, like the Kargo offices. Sleek modernism mixed with natural reclaimed materials and handcraftsmanship — that’s classic Ahmad.”


“I love being able to go from grading a site to choosing fabric samples.”


Instead of desks, the open-plan Kargo offices have rows of long tables. Reclaimed white oak accent walls and glass-fronted conference rooms add warmth and light to the industrial-style space. Photo by Julie Holder

In Katie Lee’s townhouse, Sardar-Afkhami removed walls that had been added over the years to the 19th-century structure, restoring the rooms’ gracious proportions and creating an elegant backdrop for Berkus’s subtly luxurious mix of furnishings and fabrics. He also made contemporary changes, like opening the kitchen to the living area and creating a glamorous silver-leafed dressing room. Inspired by a California house designed by the renowned architect David Adler and his equally famous decorator sister, Frances Elkins, the room is outfitted with Serge Roche sconces and crystal door handles from E.R. Butler, as well as a jute rug, the latter a demonstration, Sardar-Afkhami says, of “Nate’s genius — his way of mixing high and low.”

For Kargo, Sardar-Afkhami turned a former industrial space above the Strand bookstore into a communal work area and private offices. He used interior windows with LEDs — which can make the glass either clear or opaque — to allow daylight into the open areas while affording privacy in the individual offices and conference room. Reclaimed wood gives the space a warmth that contrasts with the firm’s tech vibe, while custom steel windows allude to the building’s warehouse past.

It’s clear from these projects that Sardar-Afkhami can toggle with ease between historic and modern, but the space that reveals the most about his personal taste is, of course, his own apartment, in a 1929 Art Deco building in the East Village. “I think people are afraid to live the way they really want to,” he says. “A home should look lived in.” This one does, and presents a portrait of someone who loves to “travel and collect things from different time periods and cultures and own works by artist friends,” someone who also appreciates “the beauty of the techniques of ethnic crafts.”

At this home in Oyster Bay, New York, espaliered fruit trees were planted against the west-facing wall to create the look of a walled kitchen garden. “The stone pavers were jointed with grass to relieve what could be otherwise too much paving area,” Sardar-Afkhami says. “Clipped boxwoods in pots provide exclamation marks.” Photos in this slideshow courtesy of Ahmad Sardar-Afkhami

A line of pleached Silver Lindens separates the motor court from the rest of the garden.

“The formal entry hedges slip past herbaceous borders designed to mimic a wild flower meadow,” Sardar-Afkhami says of this horse farm in central France. These borders provide a transition between the formal entry court, with its clipped yews, and the west-facing field.

 

A horse pasture was cleared from an existing woodland to allow for unobstructed sunset views.

This floral border at a horse farm in central France uses as its base colors cool pinks and grays. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Sardar-Afkhami

Sardar-Afkhami painted the apartment’s walls in Benjamin Moore’s Stonington Gray and furnished it with pieces ranging from Eames and Milo Baughman to Louis XVI-style. Central Asian suzanis share space with Parentesi lights — a classic 1971 design by Achille Castiglioni and Pio Manzu for Flos — and numerous artworks and objects. The dining room doubles as a library, reflecting Sardar-Afkhami’s preference for multipurpose rooms. This preference was inspired in part by his maternal grandmother’s flat in London, which was decorated by David Hicks and had a sofa, with piping and a bolster, that doubled as a daybed. But he cites as the ultimate precedent the 18th century, when “there was no designated use for a room — it adapted to many uses.”

Sardar-Afkhami’s home may not be as grand as those of his clients, but it reflects his love of beautiful things, something he says is in his DNA. “My grandparents had an absolute devotion to beauty and pleasure. It was the culmination of a feudal lifestyle. My paternal grandparents bred canaries and played music in their greenhouse. Certain composers, like Alban Berg, were banned, because they thought the music had adverse effects on the plants.”

Sardar-Afkhami recently finished an apartment on the 35th floor of the Ritz Tower, and he is currently at work on a townhouse in Philadelphia with a 60-foot green wall; an apartment in the Shephard, a new condominium development in an 1896 West Village building; and the renovation of a 1910 farmhouse in Washington, D.C., near Dumbarton Oaks. Asked if he has a dream project, Sardar-Afkhami makes a reply that reveals the breadth of his knowledge and passions: “An earth-friendly, passive-solar but updated house with a chicken coop,” he says. “I would also love to do an outdoor theater — a garden where you could have a pastoral concert, like the green theaters of the eighteenth century.”

 

Ahmad Sardar-Afkhami’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs

“I think its a great challenge to design a contemporary room around one of these antique Persian rugs — they are so powerful and mesmerizing, with almost too much character. The other objects in the room not only complement but contrast with it.”

“I love French 18th-century furniture for its scale, craftsmanship and elegance. I would use this as a room divider with a ton of books and a few blue-and-white porcelain pots.”

“A little Chinese touch is always welcome. These contemplation stones are absolutely magnificent and have been coveted by collectors in China since Yuan times. I love them for their infinite variety, going from simple table-top objects to rocks that bring to mind soaring mountain ranges.”

“Textiles can quickly look too bohemian, so mix them with high-style 18th-century pieces for a casual elegance. I tend to use them in bedrooms to hide storage, doorways, and so on.”

“This and the Service Rousseau by Creil are my absolute favorites. They are amazing for creating elaborate table settings, along with silver, statuettes and flowers.”

“I rarely use a large coffee table in a sitting area. It has become the most boring cliché of decoration. Instead, scatter a few small tables that can be rearranged continuously.”

“I love when classic modern designs incorporate a warm materiality. The bookmatched olive-wood veneer on this is full of unexpected patterns.”

“Daybeds, both antique and modern, are my absolutely favorite pieces of furniture.”

“When things get too serious, throw in something like this to lighten the mood.”

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