“We always start with the history: the history of the place, the location, the history of the building, the history of our clients and the history of the neighborhood. All the layers of history helps us build a narrative and a story around what we're doing.”
Pamela Shamshiri is an interior designer based in Los Angeles. Her background in production and set design informs her interior design’s focus on the history and narrative of a place. Shamshiri and her brother Ramin Shamshiri were part of the four founding partners of the design studio Commune, which received the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Award. In 2016, she and her brother left to found Studio Shamshiri. Studio Shamshiri has worked on residential and commercial properties designed by iconic architects including A. Quincy Jones, Stanford White, and Nigel Coates. Their work has been featured in Vogue, Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, Elle, and T Magazine.
In this interview, Pamela Shamshiri shares what it was like growing up between Iran and Rome, why she opened a studio with her brother, and the relationship between architecture and emotion.
TGL: How was your childhood?
PS: I grew up in Tehran, Iran. My father is Iranian and my mother is Italian from Rome. We always had a place in Rome, and we'd go back and forth. I was in Tehran until I was nine. My father had a furniture showroom, and my brother and I grew up playing in the showroom. It was six stories; one story was all living rooms, one all dining rooms, one all kitchens, and another all bathrooms. In many ways we have been playing house all our lives. After the revolution, we ended up in Los Angeles overnight. I went to high school here and Los Angeles has been my home ever since.
TGL: When was the revolution?
PS: 1979. I went to school on the East Coast for college and graduate school. After I graduated, my parents went back to living between Tehran and Rome. Those cities have always been part of our life.
TGL: How old were you when you moved to Los Angeles?
PS: I was nine. I always had great producing and management skills. I was always making everything, managing everyone, making everything happen.
TGL: Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
PS: I was very curious and wanted to be a designer from the beginning. I knew right away. My dad would take me to job sites and give me magazines. I would always go looking for antiques with my mom. They were both influential and great mentors.
TGL: What did you study in university?
PS: During undergrad I studied architecture and art history with a minor in cinema studies. Then in graduate school, I went to NYU film school and I studied production design, which is set design for film. We studied everything from housewares to costume, lighting, sets and you learned how to do period films. It was amazing. It was very research-driven. That still has an influence on how we do things here. We always start with the history: the history of the place, the location, the history of the building, the history of our clients and the history of the neighborhood. All the layers of history helps us build a narrative and a story around what we're doing.
TGL: Was Commune your first project?
PS: Before Commune, I was doing set design for commercials, music videos, and a few films. After that I worked for Virgin Records, traveling and doing events. I wanted to settle down and have a family, so I met with Ramon, Steven and my brother and we started Commune together. We worked together for 13 years.
TGL: What’s the difference between Commune and the studio you created in 2016?
PS: Commune was an incredibly creative and amazing time. There weren't many companies like us at that point, and we got the Smithsonian Award. When we finished our book, I felt like I was ready for a different chapter. I wanted a fresh start, and I knew this company would be slightly different. We do many residential and only a few commercial projects.
TGL: What is the focus of your studio now?
PS: It's probably 60% residential and 40% commercial. We do hotels, restaurants and stores, but a lot of our focus is on residential architecture.
TGL: You worked on an A. Quincy Jones house. What was that experience like?
PS: Yes, we recently started the Smalley house. It was already in great condition, but we upgraded it and brought it to a new era. It was an honor and a wonderful collaboration with the client. It's an incredible house. We added a circular kitchen into it. There are areas where we departed from the original, but we studied his drawings and his intentions. There was so much writing about that house that we were able to look at earlier renditions and lift from them.
TGL: How would you describe your creative process?
PS: We have a concept phase here where we dive into the history and into our client’s wants. Usually there's a story. I enjoy diving, I enjoy the storytelling and the narrative part. If we have something fun that we all latch onto, then we have an outline and a guide for the process. Over a span of a year and a half to three years, it's hard to keep everyone on track and focused. These strong concepts where we are trying to get an experience and a narrative communicated keep us going. The approach comes out of production design for film.
We're very, multi-disciplinary here. I'm constantly trying to say let's just break the barriers between architects, graphic and interior designers. A good idea can come from anywhere. We have so many experts in the office, but hopefully everyone's thinking in all their different disciplines and thinking holistically. We try to push for that. It’s a family business, we wanted a place where we could cook together, and everyone loves our kitchen. At the beginning and end of the day, everyone goes through the kitchen and it is very much a family environment. There are dogs, kids, and a lot of people here who have been together for over 10 years and who came from Commune. We wanted that environment.
TGL: How long have you worked with your brother?
PS: It's been over 20 years now. It's challenging, but we both work very hard at it and I'm very grateful for it.
TGL: Could you describe a moment in your trajectory when you could feel a turning point?
PS: Within the last five years. We worked on our first hotel project, Ace Palm Springs. We were reinventing the wheel, doing things without rules and Ace was growing up when we were growing up. That felt like a turning point. Leaving Commune was hard, it was very successful and celebrated. I was also getting a divorce and starting a new chapter in my personal life. It all happened at the same time.
TGL: Is your studio a link to your personality?
PS: We try not to, but it ends up being that. We always want to be about the whole and about the studio, but in the end all our different personalities come through. I love what I do, and I'm so grateful that we get to - for the most part - do it the way we want to.
TGL: What are your thoughts on design’s role in environmentalism?
PS: I have always been concerned about waste. What we do can be so wasteful and that's why I love restoring things and using what's already in place as much as possible. I see it as an added challenge. We've always been very aware of indoor air pollution. We do special air, there's surgery level air in most of the projects we do. We're all very aware of off-gassing.
We were waxing and oiling and doing things 20 years ago with Commune. W embrace aging and patina and don’t use plastic. Once you buy a plastic thing, it doesn't go anywhere. We are seeing microplastics in fish and the ocean and in all of our food. There are many contributions we make as a studio, but one of the bigger ones is really not using plastic and not allowing it to enter our jobs as much as possible.
TGL: What styles do you like?
PS: I love European expats living in California because I do it so well. I like to borrow from all different eras. I appreciate so many different styles and I don't want to be limited to one. It's weird to stamp one's style on someone else who has to live in it. I want it to feel natural, like it's their portrait and about their life. I don't like spaces that are over-designed, and because I don't think it leaves room for growth, progress, and change. I want that for everybody; our clients, ourselves, and the kids I have. We keep it casual, leaving a little room for growth and layers to come in.
TGL: What is the relationship between architecture and emotion?
PS: They are so linked, and I wish there was more writing on it. As far as geometry and wellness, I'm sure there is and I just haven't had the time to look up as many things as I'd like to. When proportions are right, it can actually help you rest. We look at a lot of golden ratio rectangles, and it's interesting to see what spaces people like and gravitate towards.
TGL: Do you have a dream project?
PS: What comes to mind for myself is creating an incredible outdoor kitchen. As far as a project, I'd love to do a creative retirement community, because I don't think we've figured out how to age well in the United States. It makes me sad to see how people are aging and living as they get older. I would love to do something that's really about wellness and staying creative into your senior years.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
PS: I would have loved to have breakfast with Eileen Gray. I would love to have breakfast with her at her house by the sea and ask her so many questions. She's one of those people that designed for essential experience early on. Her table was about eating and how it sounded. That house really changed the way I thought about things after visiting it.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
PS: Collaboration. If we can be open to each other, come to the table and have conversations where we're really listening to each other, we can arrive at a new place together. Whether it's my clients or studio members or an artist that we're collaborating with, I am open and set up a safe, respectful space where we can go on an adventure.