We wanted to describe architect and designer Shamir Shah’s work as ‘precise’ but it’s a difficult word because it so easily denotes chilly calculation and that would be a disservice to such a humane man. He has a born elegance. His work has a sure, quiet feel to it, infused by a deep feeling for the natural world, which finds design expression in his choice of textures, a subdued color palette and, as he admits, the unconscious influence of Africa, where he grew up. And, as a HOUSE first, on a horrible cold day, he had made us proper scratch chai.
We’re very interested in the fact that you grew up in Kenya and that you are Indian but that you now live here in New York … we wanted to talk to you about the whole concept of home and rootedness—how that drives your work.
A lot of people see Africa in my work. I was born when Kenya became an independent country—my parents lived there when there was colonial rule.
But would you say it’s not a conscious introduction of “Africa” to your design?
Not at all [conscious]. I’m very, very interested in African forms and textures and it’s a vast and beautiful, inspiring continent but I don’t go out of my way to place African objects at all.
There’s a precision to your work that interests me – is there some way in which precision is comforting?
Um … when you say “precision” can you be more specific?
Well, it’s very careful placement of everything, there’s something almost mathematically perfect about the distance between the arm of that chair and the next …
Well, I was trained in architecture—I think doing both [interior design and architecture] is inevitable, so maybe one informs the other. I don’t know how people do the architecture and then hand it over to somebody else.
Where do you feel at home?
Very much in New York now. I think I’m essentially a New Yorker and I think the reason that I’m more comfortable is that New York is such an amalgam of so many different countries—it truly is, and I’m not being glib about that. If I go elsewhere in the U.S. then I’m not as comfortable because it feels essentially American and I don’t think of myself as American—but I do think of myself as a New Yorker.
Do you go back to Kenya?
I do. I go back often. Most of my family lives there. Indian families tend to be very large. I have literally dozens and dozens of cousins. I think in the far recesses of my mind I still think of it as home but I’m devastated by what has happened to the country. Both of my grandfathers emigrated to East Africa at the turn of the century and they both went in search of better lives. The story is that my [paternal] grandfather started selling coffee beans in jute sacks off the back of his bicycle and by the time he died in 1976, he was a fairly big coffee farmer—and tea. He also grew sisal. My maternal grandfather was in the paper business.
So what was it like coming here? Did you come straight from Nairobi to Yale?
Yes! It was culturally a rude awakening. I’d never been to the U.S. I landed in New York in August and it was, like, 105 degrees. I’d never experienced heat like it! People say, “Oh but you lived in Africa!” But Africa, well, Kenya, never gets that hot. I took a taxi to New Haven … have you ever been to New Haven?
Yes … it’s um …
Well, when I was there it had been voted the seventh worst city in the United States, and I had this idea of what an American campus might be like. I told the taxi driver, “You’ve made a mistake. I’m supposed to be going to Yale.” Needless to say at the end of four years, I loved it. I had a fantastic time there.
I read that you were actually interested in becoming a vet.
I was. I grew up around a lot of animals. I rode a lot, growing up. Do you know who the Aga Khan is? I rode at a racing stable and I’d always heard about this fantastic stable that he had, so very naively I asked if I might intern there. I received a very nice rote response—no. I applied to vet school in the states and at that time the United States did not allow foreign students into vet schools—it was just a blanket policy—because they didn’t have enough room for American students. So the only alternative was medicine—so I got to Yale and decided to do pre-med. I was taking architecture because I enjoyed it. I had these classes where I was doing all-day art and architecture and days where I was doing organic chemistry and physics and it was so clear to me that one was a passion and one was not.
Gosh, you must be very clever! Smart, I mean, ‘clever’ is what Brits say—it’s not such a compliment here.
Oh no, no. I don’t know. I dabble.
Just to back up, what sort of career did you have in mind at the Aga Khan’s racing stable—becoming a trainer?
Yeah, you know, mucking stables to start and then getting ahead to work with a trainer. I don’t ride much here but I do when I go back to Kenya. I used to go up to those stables on the Upper West Side but … well, after riding on a coffee farm … I once went with a friend and some kid threw a rock at her horse, which then threw her. He bolted and ran back to the stable across two avenues …
So how do you get your fix of nature? I mean nature is clearly part of your work.
Both Malcolm [Hill Shamir’s partner] and I love to spend time outside so we’ve just bought a small cabin up in Litchfield. It’s very untended.
But have you surprised yourself, after spending so much time in Africa, how much you crave the city? I also grew up in Africa and miss it painfully but I need the stimulation of city life.
I grew up in Nairobi, which is of course a city, but nature was always close at hand. But when we go away, it’s always a relief to come back to New York. I belong here.
Well, you’re an architect—I guess you need to see buildings.
Actually, if you think about it there are very few architects in New York who are doing new construction, very few people building buildings.
Yes, I suppose outside of a city you get more opportunity to actually build. Can you explain what it is about architecture that drew you?
I think what I really respond to is catering to people’s needs and the way they live. It’s a very necessary thing … giving people shelter.
It’s a caring profession!
[laughs] It is!
How did you meet Malcolm?
How did we meet? We met at a salad bar.
Oh. And how does a spark develop over arugula?
[laughs] It was the freshest arugula.