The eternal optimist

Mahnaz Liaghat, a designer who is an Iran-born Bahrani citizen, tells Rima Alsammarae about her years working in the United States and her ultimate return to the Middle East. With plans to set up her own company after the completion of the Sofitel Dubai The Palm Resort & Spa, we take an in-depth look at the designer.

The first words that came out of Mahnaz Liaghat’s mouth when I sat down for a discussion were chilling. “I think what I have gone through is very unusual,” she tells. “It’s not normal.”

“I was, from childhood, working 22 hours a day. When I say work—that includes school, activities and other things. As early as I can remember, I would get up at 5a.m. and go exercise with my father by [going on hikes] in the mountains.

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I was the only child to sit with my father, have breakfast and walk to school by 7a.m. At seven, I was at practice for basketball and volleyball and by eight, the other students came into the school rubbing their eyes,” Liaghat explains.

At the age of 10 or 11, Liaghat was recognised by one of the country’s most famous artists who had set up an art workshop for young creative students. Liaghat had been pushed to attend by peers.

She says: “He came to me and put a pot on the table and told me to draw it. I drew it. Then he brought flowers and again, I drew them. He asked me if I had ever been trained by professionals and I said no, so he told me to attend his private courses. But I didn’t want to go.”

Her brother encouraged her to attend the private sessions, and after six months, Liaghat developed a wide portfolio of work that she was able to publicly exhibit.

It was a childhood marked by long work hours and character building. She explains: “I would wake up at 5a.m. to do my morning exercise and go to school. By 4p.m., I would attend my painting class and make it home by 10p.m. Then I would do fashion design, because I had a backlog of people who wanted me to create clothes for them. Around two or three in the morning, I would finally sleep. The following day it would start again, so this is the pace of lifestyle that I had.”

During the years between her adolescence and her university, Liaghat competed in a number of national competitions, winning prestigious prizes from the government for three consecutive years. By the time she was to attend university, Liaghat chose to make a sweeping move to the states.

While she was accepted into Carnegie Mellon University, the administration told her that she would first have to pay for a complete year to study English. At the time, her father, the CEO of the American Association of Iranians in Iran, had recently escaped a bomb that was planted in his office.

Liaghat felt financially strapped and decided to turn down her first offer. She ultimately attended Indiana University in Pennsylvania and began the second chapter in her life, which would be further marked by long work days, a strengthening work ethic and a booming international career.

After moving to the United States, Liaghat was recently married and with child and would soon find herself with an infant to take care of, as well as her university education to maintain. By taking on an early morning shift at her university’s cafeteria, Liaghat would be able to support the growing family while continuing her coursework.

“You have to do things and find your way,” she says. “When I had my child, I knew she had to go to the best school, so at 6a.m. I would wake up to go to the cafeteria and work. I would come home by 4p.m. and feed her and take her to her activities. During all of this, I had 27 credits to take care of.”

When Liaghat completed her university education, she applied for an internship at famous international design agency, Burt Hill Kosar Rittleman.

“After the first interview I got in and I told them in three months, I want to go open my own company. That ended up taking me 15 years, because the longer I stayed with them, the more I realised I didn’t know,” says Liaghat.

Starting her own company was an ambition that would follow Liaghat for many years. Even after she set up Mahnaz International Design and Planning in the states, she would soon accept an offer with Burt Hill again in 2005 to start the company’s new interior design department in the UAE.

But when Burt Hill was bought out by Stantec in 2008, Mahnaz would move forward by co-creating a design firm called MIRK with two other partners.

Liaghat has built an impressive portfolio of residential and commercial projects across continents. In the UAE, she is responsible for having worked on the residential projects in Motor City; Al Furjan, a development by Nakheel; a number of retail projects, such as malls and kiosks; and of course the Sofitel Dubai The Palm.

The latter project has only been recently completed and was managed by the MIRK group. “I was lead designer on the project… I had a design and procurement team of over 34 people who I was supervising very closely,” says Liaghat about the Sofitel hotel.

She explains: “Design is problem solving. Real design is when you look at the fourth and fifth dimension. That is what is unique about myself. It’s not that I trained to be a designer—it’s within me. I grew up with it from childhood.

In every which way, I can go to a site and if there’s a problem, I can solve it immediately. People on the field tell me, ‘You’re like five men.’ And it’s because I have many years of experience. Since I was a child, I have worked double-shifts and I have been many things.”

For Liaghat, the best design is silent. It isn’t abrasive and it feeds the biological needs of the end user.

She explains: “There is need, budget and there is way of nature…A lot of times you go through an area and you never know why you get depressed. Design is silent and it’s the most important thing in life.

It doesn’t tell you ‘hey, hey I am here.’ If it is done right, your biological and physical needs are met. Everything together, when it is done right, makes you feel great. And that is what I am trying to do.”

After completing her most recent project, Liaghat decided to go a separate way from the team at MIRK and now looks forward to establishing her own company once again. MDP Interiors, which will be connected to Mahnaz International Design and Planning, will be based on Liaghat’s philosophy and work ethic.

“A building can last for a life time. It may still be around 300 years after I die, so I really believe that it is a crime if it is not done properly…People always tell me, ‘Mahnaz, it is only a project,’ but it is not only a project for somebody else. That somebody else has saved all of their money and they deserve the best.

“I do not allow anything to slide because it is somebody else’s project. That is why the clients always want me involved and on their projects. It is not good for me because I spend a lot more time than other designers, but in the end, the celebration is bigger.”

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