Friday, June 29, 2012

Noha Hassan-Smith

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

Designer Noha Hassan-Smith is a fully fledged member of the international tribe, definitely coming from one place but sort of coming from many other places too. In her case, she is Egyptian but spent much of her childhood and adolescence in Europe, eventually moving to London to work in finance and marketing. Her reincarnation as a designer happened after she moved to New York to be with her American husband. It was one of those uniquely New York experiences to be sitting in her sophisticated apartment near the High Line and talking to someone with such a direct connection to Middle Eastern culture and the events unfolding in the Arab world.

What do you like about this area in particular?

I moved from London six years ago – I don’t know if you know but I’m from Egypt –

Oh, I was trying to figure out the name …

Which one? The Hassan or the Smith?
In the living room a pair of 'Barcelona' faux-leather chairs from Innovations face a black oxide-and-rust metal coffee table from Desiron. The dominating 'Arc' floor light is by Flos.
On the far wall a light ladder by Kristopher Lamey from Krause Gallery leans against 'Selecta' bookcases by Lema.
Noha installed an 'EcoSmart' ethanol burning fireplace on a wall space between the living room windows. Two African sculptures, a vase and photographs of Turkey are arranged atop the fireplace mantel.
Well both together seemed an exotic puzzle.

Well, I was born in Egypt and we moved around  a lot when I was young. I grew up in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg and I also lived in Brussels. And I moved to London by myself and I lived there for ten years. Then I moved here because of my husband, who is American.

What were you doing in London?

I used to work in finance. I have a business degree. My husband and I met at Goldman Sachs.
Looking toward the light ladder by Kristopher Lamey. The yellow glass vase is from The Conran Shop.
The light ladder, illuminated.
In the far corner of the living room a work by Jordan Eagles hangs above custom steel-and-macassar ebony wood console from Desiron.
Looking into the open kitchen. Carved wooden stools provide extra seating.
Do you keep an eye on finance and the stock market still?

Yeah, I love my finance background because you do understand the stock market. And my husband likes the fact that I understand it and he’s really into design. He’s not as obsessed as I am.

So what was living in Saudi Arabia like?

Er … let’s just say I’m glad we left when I was ten. Because I was young it didn’t really impact me. I could go swimming and everything. When we moved to Saudi my mom was not veiled—she got veiled when we moved to Saudi, like a few years into living there. She kind of bought into it.

I am curious … what do you feel about the veil?

I personally do not believe in it at all—at all. I do not see why we should cover up because men can’t control themselves. I think it leads to acts of deprivation and they act strange. I don’t even know where it comes from because when I look at pictures of my mom growing up, honestly she was in like the little mini dresses and bathing suits and everything.
Looking into the dining area. 'Blood' art by Jordan Eagles hangs next to a bookcase collage by Francisco Luna.
A pendant light by Giogali hangs above a dining table from Ligne Roset. The 'Liz' dining chairs are from DDC.
Looking past the dining area 'Bookcase' collage by Francisco Luna towards text-portraits of Andy Warhol and Coco Chanel by Ralph Ueltzhoeffer.
Were you brought up as an observant Muslim?

I am Muslim. My parents are very good Muslims. I’m a little less good since I’ve lived by myself for all these years. It’s harder to practice when you’re away and no one around you is practicing.

And are your parents tolerant of your way of being a Muslim?

Yes they are.

Do you have problems with rootlessness, wondering where you belong?

No. When I was young I used to think about that because it’s hard being Middle Eastern, growing up in a Middle Eastern way in Europe with parents saying, “You’re not allowed to do this. You can’t do that.” But we found a way of communicating. I just pulled my Dad aside and said, “We need to talk.” I said that I was very responsible and that he couldn’t keep saying that I can’t go to this party or can’t do this, can’t do that.
Looking across the living room toward the kitchen eating area. Noha enhanced the look of a vertical structural beam by covering it in a slate ceramic tile from Caramina Arnon. The leather bar stools are from Design Within Reach.
Bamboo cabinetry gives the kitchen an eco-friendly, warm feel.
A fresh orchid flower stem provides a contrast to the neutral tones of the dining area. A full bar and a Nespresso machine are neatly arranged in a small kitchen niche.
Looking across the open kitchen toward the light-filled living room.
So you were saying he needed to trust you.

Yes. So now we have a really good relationship.

How often do you go back to Egypt? How are your parents?

I go back every year but last year was the first time I didn’t go back. My parents are fine but I don’t get the real scoop from them because I think they don’t want to worry me. My younger cousins were in Tahrir Square but I only found out afterwards. [Politically] it’s not as perfect as it should be but I’m definitely glad we’re trying for democracy.

Did you realize it was brewing? I was in Egypt three weeks before it all blew up and I have to say, I kept thinking, “What’s the deal with the Egyptian people? They seem miserable.” They seemed really miserable to me.

Well there is a lot of inflation, it’s expensive and so many people are unemployed. The one thing that really makes me sad about home is the discrepancy between the rich and the poor.
In the master bedroom, artwork by BuBu de la Madeline hangs above a bed from Design Within Reach. The bedding is from the Frames 'Hotel' collection and the green silk pillows are from The Conran Shop.
A pair of lights by Josephine Repetto from Roche Bobois stand atop bedside tables made of macassar ebony wood-and-steel from Desiron . On the far wall a photo of the Prague subway was purchased from a gallery in London.
I guess we should get back to your design career. How did you shift from finance to design?

I worked in finance for eight years and I decided I wanted to pursue something a little more creative so I moved to marketing in beauty. I worked for Estée Lauder in London. Actually I joined as an intern in PR and I spoke to the brand manager and I told her I had a business degree and that I would be better in marketing. I basically told her I was not fresh out of school and that I was trying to do a career switch. And she got me working on a huge brand integration and I got hired really fast. I was there for five years.

And the design side of things?

When I moved here to be with my husband, I worked for Estée Lauder and they helped me get a position in the US. I was very, very lucky because so many people want to come to the US. I had a great ride there. The way I moved from marketing to design was when we bought this place. I was having fun … and I was pregnant at the time. In ’09 I had two babies at the same time: my business and my son. I was really passionate about it. Basically I was inspired by New York. I got hired by friends and friends of friends … and I had so much fun doing it. I vastly enjoyed the D&D!
In the guest bath, a light fixture made out of Edison bulbs is suspended near a mirror by Ligne Roset. Two colorful vases from The Conran Shop and Habitat in London stand atop the office file cabinet.
Noha carved out a home office in the apartment's dressing area. Art from a flea market in South Africa hangs above a custom 'Mercer' desk from Desiron. The Nelson Swag leg chair is from Design With Reach.
A colorful village scene purchased in South Africa during Noah and Xavier's honeymoon adorns a bedroom wall.
I must say I admired the pricing philosophy (if that’s the term) you have front and center on your website. You go straight for the delicate issue of money. Why did you do that?

I did that because I wanted to position myself as the kind of designer I would want to hire. I charge based on the scope of the work, then devise a flat rate and I pass my trade discounts … which I think is very rare. I’m a lot more advanced now in terms of figuring out what my rate should be versus my first year. I kind of know how long something takes. And I then I stick with the price I quote. It’s my business philosophy.

So your look is very clean and streamlined. Where are your son’s toys?

His toys are always in there [points to the bedroom] I promise. This is not just for you guys. He’s allowed to bring something here to play with but he knows they have to go back. And before bedtime, everything has to go back. He has a designer mom—this is just how it has to be. [Laughs]
In son Ayo's room a toy Speedster racecar and rocker from Bloom stand atop a rug from Bo Concept.
White Ikea shelves are filled with more toys, books and three Nubian dolls from Egypt.
Some of Ayo's favorite stuffed animals, Nubian dolls from Egypt, and toy trucks.
Noha affixed 'Rush Hour' wall decals from Wallcandy Arts in whimsical pattern atop a wallpaper by Elitis.
The crib from Casa Kids is made up in bedding from Dwell Studio. The chest of drawers is from Ikea, the pendant fixture is from Modernica.
Photos taken during Noha and husband Xavier's wedding and honeymoon in South Africa hang on a wall near Ayo's crib.
Is your husband just as tidy?

Very. Very. The two of us do not like clutter and we do not like looking at toys.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I like to travel.

What about your son? Does he come with you?

He’s been everywhere. He went to Germany when he was two months, he’s been to Egypt, he’s been to Paris, he’s been to London. He came to LA with us last weekend. We are the kind of parents who decided pretty much before he was born that life was going to proceed and he was going to fit right in. I grew up traveling around and I like what it did to me, and I’m going to let him have the same experience.
Views of the Hudson and the High Line are visible from all rooms of Noha's apartment.
Looking downtown towards the World Financial Center.
What did it do to you?

It broadens your mind. It’s just nice. It’s nice to feel like you can adapt anywhere. You’re just exposed to a lot. And you know when you were asking me if I feel lost because of my culture? I may have felt it when I was in high school but the minute I went to Egypt for university, I realized it’s okay that I’m not like, 100% Egyptian but I’m also not European, so I never say I’m European even though I grew up for those critical years in Europe. I’m okay with being in the middle. I’m just a cocktail. And my husband is African-American and we have a little cocktail baby.

And how about a real six o’clock cocktail? Do you need one of those?

Yes! I like caiprinhas and mojitos.