In the world of interior design, where spaces are transformed into immersive experiences and aesthetics are woven into the fabric of everyday life, there exists a design maverick who has redefined the boundaries of creativity and authenticity. Ryan Saghian, a distinguished interior designer, is not just another name in the industry; he is a visionary who has successfully crafted a unique narrative through his work. In this exclusive conversation, we embark on a journey to explore the inner workings of the brilliant mind of Ryan Saghian, uncovering the roots of his distinctive design philosophy and delving into the art of storytelling through interiors. We’ll navigate the uncharted territory where tradition meets modernity, discover his unconventional path to becoming a social media sensation, and gather invaluable insights for aspiring designers. This is an exploration of how authenticity, passion, and a commitment to narrative can transform interior design into a captivating art form.
Foyer: I’ve read quite a bit about you and how you got into interiors, but I want to know how you developed your unique style. It’s very chic, it’s very raw. How did you go about developing the style?
Ryan Saghian: That’s a question I get asked often, and I think what sets me apart from many other interior designers is that I always aspired to do this. It wasn’t something I stumbled into; I pursued it by studying interior design. This deep passion made it challenging to narrow down a specific look because I found inspiration in a wide range of styles. I loved everything, whether it was the refined East Coast Hampton style or the grand Regency style. So when I describe my design style, it’s more about not adhering to a single design style but crafting it by integrating everything I love within a style parameter. I’m drawn to eclecticism, global references, high contrast, and incorporating unique, one-of-a-kind pieces that require hunting through flea markets and antique stores. These elements may span traditional, contemporary, or mid-century styles, but they always come together in a way that reads differently. Does that make sense? I think what I create is a result of this approach. It’s an intuitive process, and it’s akin to a co-creation with the universe. It’s about trusting my instincts and going with what feels right, rather than overthinking it. When you follow your passion, it works organically and authentically.
F: Very well put. Now, about your book, “Unapologetically Chic.” How did you go about writing it, and what inspired you to create this book? What key principles or ideas did you aim to convey through it?
RS: The book was born out of my growing career, expanding following, and a desire to inspire and empower young designers. I often received messages from people worldwide, especially from the Middle East and younger gay men. It’s important to note that interior design is a field that’s primarily female-dominated or dominated by the LGBTQ+ community. When someone is grappling with their career choice, coming to terms with their sexuality, and trying to keep it a secret, it becomes challenging to admit that they want to pursue a career like interior design because it doesn’t always align with traditional expectations. Many refugee families, like mine, often prefer their children to become doctors or lawyers, viewing interior design as an unconventional or less sophisticated path.
I realized that many others faced similar struggles, and there was no one in the industry with a similar background or voice as mine. While there were younger, edgier designers emerging, none quite looked like me in terms of being Middle Eastern or coming from a refugee family. The book, except for the introduction, is filled with raw, vulnerable, and honest stories about my journey, struggles, and how I arrived where I am today. I wanted this book to be a source of inspiration for someone else because I never had that growing up.
F: The title truly reflects your journey. Moving on, your design firm is known for its diverse and wide-ranging portfolio. How do you ensure that each project retains your unique aesthetic and personal touch, especially when working with different clients with various requirements?
RS: I like to compare it to a painter who can’t explain why their technique or brush strokes are distinct from those of other artists. Each artist has a unique style, much like a person’s handwriting. While I don’t follow a rigid set of rules to make my designs appear like “me,” they naturally take on my aesthetic. It’s similar to how artists paint or writers use their fonts. They all leave a distinct mark on their creations.
I don’t have a specific process to ensure that a project reflects my style. It’s an organic and innate outcome that’s guided by the client’s vision. I adapt to the client’s direction and guidance creatively, but the design lens through which I view the project always remains natural and unique to me. Just like how each artist’s work is distinct, my designs naturally carry my signature style, and it’s something you can’t fake.
F: Your approach makes the process feel truly authentic. How do you handle situations where clients insist on something that you might disagree with or believe doesn’t fit into the overall design?
RS: I am assertive in such situations. I communicate clearly and professionally, letting clients know that I possess a deeper understanding of design. I explain that I cannot endorse a particular choice because it won’t contribute to a successful design, and I can’t put my name on it. Sometimes, I use humour and suggest that if they still want to proceed with their choice, they should place a sign that says, “Ryan Saghian did not approve of this.” This approach usually prompts clients to reconsider their decision.
Early in my career, I was less confident and couldn’t be as assertive. There were projects that I didn’t love and never photographed. However, as my reputation grew and people began to respect my work more, I noticed that they were more likely to heed my professional opinion.
F: Thank you for sharing that insight. You’ve mentioned engaging in a dialogue between opulence and raw authenticity. Can you provide examples of how you’ve incorporated this in your projects?
RS: Certainly. An example would be using a travertine planter with a rugged rock face texture, something that may look unattractive when viewed alone, but it adds a raw and rustic quality. When juxtaposed with a refined piece, like a Regency lacquer commode, the contrast between them is striking and intentional. This unexpected pairing infuses opulence and authenticity while preventing the design from appearing predictable or catalogue-like. It’s about making the space feel like you’ve curated it over time, rather than replicating a standard look. This approach has become increasingly important due to the prevalence of social media, where designs can start to feel homogenous and repetitive.
F: Your ability to blend these elements is impressive. Your design philosophy draws inspiration from a global tapestry of cultures. Can you share a specific project where cultural references played a significant role, and how did you ensure authenticity in the design?
RS: Cultural references are essential in many of my projects. For example, as an Iranian, I incorporate cultural elements into the homes of my friends or clients with similar cultural backgrounds. In my culture, we gather for Shabbat dinner every Friday night, often with extended family members. I create spaces that accommodate these cultural practices, including larger dining rooms and more open floor plans to facilitate entertaining on a grander scale.
Cultural practices also influence kitchen design. Persian cuisine often features ingredients like turmeric and saffron, which can be challenging to clean due to their staining properties. I create kitchens that are more durable and can withstand these culinary traditions. These cultural references play a significant role in my design process, ensuring that each space remains authentic to the client’s cultural heritage. I often come across these beautiful, handcrafted pieces covered in beads that have been passed down through generations, typically from grandparents. They hold a significant cultural and sentimental value, but sometimes they might not align with a modern aesthetic. You look at them, and it’s evident they have Middle Eastern origins, and you know they belonged to your grandma. Even though they are exquisite, they can feel very specific. At times, clients might insist on displaying these heirlooms, and while I want to honour their heritage, I also aim to create a space that feels modern.
So, my approach is to think creatively. I devise unique ways of incorporating these pieces into the design. For instance, I might frame them in Lucite boxes, which add a contemporary touch. In some cases, I might introduce neon accents, particularly yellow neon, to bring out the gold elements in the beads. This infusion of neon not only modernizes the piece but also lends it an edgy and cool vibe. The result is a fusion of the traditional with the contemporary.
What’s wonderful about these heirlooms is that they become conversation starters. When you have guests over, they inevitably inquire about these distinctive items. It opens up an opportunity to share the cultural significance and the personal history behind them. It adds a layer of depth to the space, making it more than just an aesthetic experience; it’s a connection to one’s heritage and a talking point. I also encourage clients to embrace their cultural background. For example, in Los Angeles, I work with many Persian clients, and they sometimes hesitate to incorporate Iranian art for fear of it feeling dated or resembling their parents’ homes. However, I encourage them to explore contemporary Iranian artists who infuse fresh perspectives into their work. I’ve worked with an Iranian artist from San Francisco, Mobina Nouri who incorporates Farsi poems from Rumi into photographs. It’s a stunning example of a global reference in the artwork, and it becomes a unique and captivating focal point in the space. It’s a far cry from something generic, like a mass-produced modern abstract painting.
F: That’s a brilliant way to infuse personal history and culture into your designs while maintaining a contemporary appeal. It truly becomes the heart of the room.
RS: Indeed, it’s about striking that balance between honouring one’s heritage and creating a modern and captivating interior. The result is a space that’s not only visually appealing but also emotionally resonant and full of stories.
F: Ryan, I’m fascinated by your design process. Can you elaborate on how you approach each new project? Does it vary depending on the client, or is there a consistent method you follow?
RS: Absolutely; my approach always begins with a thorough and inquisitive conversation. I believe in asking a multitude of questions, often questions that clients may not even consider mentioning themselves. Over the years, my questions have grown in detail and complexity, reflecting the growing body of work I’ve undertaken. We document everything the client tells us, and it becomes the cornerstone of the project. It’s the only part where I allow myself to think analytically rather than intuitively.
We delve into every aspect of their lives to understand their daily routines and habits. For example, I’ve asked clients about their hair care routines, as I sometimes use oil in my hair, which can impact the choice of materials for headboards or other furniture. This detailed knowledge is crucial for sourcing the right elements for the project. While it can limit some choices, it often leads to more unique, customized solutions that align with the client’s way of living.
The key here is that we need this information to source accordingly and tailor the design to the client’s lifestyle. This stage helps us understand not just what the client wants, but also how they want to live and what they need in their space. We understand the dynamics and nuances of their daily lives, which eventually influence our design. I think that’s essential for every designer; you can’t embark on a project without truly knowing what the client wants.
We live in a time where people often expect their homes to look Instagram-perfect all the time. But in reality, homes are lived in, and there’s always a bit of mess and imperfection. It’s a designer’s responsibility to account for these nuances and design spaces that are not only visually appealing but also genuinely functional for the clients’ lifestyles.
F: I appreciate your emphasis on authenticity and understanding the client’s way of life. It’s indeed a crucial first step in the design process.
RS: Absolutely, this process is about servicing the client’s needs. Interior design is fundamentally a service industry, and to offer the best service, you have to know your client inside out. This is the foundation of creating spaces that not only look great but also enhance the client’s day-to-day life.
F: Your firm has been praised for transforming spaces into living canvases that tell stories. Can you share a memorable project where you successfully conveyed a compelling narrative through your design?
RS: Certainly. I recently worked on a project in Beverly Hills where the challenge was to blend a classic Georgian architectural style with a client’s preference for a more contemporary and modern interior. The house was an original Georgian style, rich in all those elements I adore. However, the client had a very different vision and wanted a starkly modern interior. It was a challenging situation.
To tackle this, I aimed to retain the original narrative and essence of the house but in a contemporary manner. For instance, instead of traditional fluting on columns, which is common in Georgian design, I used travertine fluting around the fireplace, bringing a contemporary material to an old-fashioned design feature. I also played with lighting to create a blend of the traditional and modern, pairing edgy contemporary lighting with classic wainscoting and ceiling panelling. This was my way of acknowledging and honouring the house’s narrative while infusing it with a fresh and contemporary twist.
It’s a testament to the importance of respecting a space’s original story while adapting it to the client’s preferences, even when those preferences might initially seem incongruent with the property’s historical style.
F: It’s clear that your ability to strike a balance between heritage and contemporary aesthetics sets your work apart. The ability to harmonize these elements is truly impressive.
RS: Thank you. It’s all about capturing the essence of a space’s history and giving it new life through a modern lens. This is a challenging yet rewarding aspect of my work.
F: You’ve achieved considerable recognition on social media. How do you leverage your online presence to connect with your audience, showcase your work, and stay connected with design trends and inspiration?
RS: My journey into the realm of social media was never deliberate. I don’t market myself as a typical influencer, and you won’t find me posting selfies constantly. What I’ve noticed is that my authenticity has resonated with my audience. I don’t strive for a facade of perfection but rather focus on showcasing the behind-the-scenes moments, the messiness, and the unfiltered aspects of my work. I’m unapologetically myself.
I think that’s what sets me apart and allows people to connect with my work and my persona. The interior design world often presents polished, perfect images. In contrast, I offer a more authentic and relatable view. I want people to see the real me, which includes the chaos of construction sites and everyday mishaps. This authenticity is what has grown my following. It’s a formula I plan to continue: embracing the idea of approachability and sharing the less glamorous sides of the design industry.
F: Your authenticity shines through, and it’s a refreshing approach. Many individuals in the industry present a curated and perhaps inauthentic image online.
RS: Absolutely, and I’ve noticed many influencers and bloggers sharing beautiful images, often without crediting the original designers. It’s an issue in the industry, as it can be misleading. Designers work hard on their projects, and it’s essential to give credit where it’s due. I believe in presenting a more genuine and accurate portrayal of my work and my life.
F: Shifting gears, what advice would you offer to aspiring designers looking to make their mark in the industry, particularly in building a personal brand and reputation?
RS: The foremost piece of advice I can offer is to be unapologetically yourself. Follow your passion and let it shine through your work. If you lack true enthusiasm and passion for this profession, it can be emotionally draining and demanding.
To build a personal brand, you have to be open, transparent, and not afraid of being public. In this age of social media, if you want to be a brand, you have to fully embrace it. You should not be afraid to show who you are, both as a person and as a designer. Being open and authentic is the key to branding yourself effectively.
The most important thing is to be true to yourself and to be uniquely you. Everyone is different, and that’s a strength. Don’t attempt to be someone else or follow someone else’s path. Create your path by embracing who you are.
F: Your emphasis on authenticity and staying true to oneself is valuable advice for aspiring designers. Your genuine passion has been a driving force in your career.
RS: Absolutely, your authenticity will resonate with your clients and peers, and it’s the foundation upon which you can build a brand that is uniquely you.
F: Looking ahead, what exciting projects can we anticipate from Ryan Saghian? Are there any new endeavours on the horizon?
RS: I’m currently working on a particularly large project in Del Mar, which is about 2.5 hours from Los Angeles. It’s exciting because it’s a significant departure from my usual projects in terms of scale. The project is immense, and I’m looking forward to the creative challenges it presents.
Additionally, I’m delving into the world of lighting design and working on my first lighting collection, which I can’t reveal too much about yet. However, I can promise it’s going to be epic, and I’m certain you’ll love it.
F: A larger project and a new lighting collection—those are exciting prospects for the future.
RS: Indeed, I’m thrilled about the opportunities that lie ahead and can’t wait to share more about these projects as they unfold.
F: Lastly, in three words, how would you describe yourself or your work as a designer?
RS: Exciting, eclectic, and stylish.
F: Fantastic, those three words encapsulate your work beautifully.
RS: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure sharing my insights with you.
As we conclude our conversation with Ryan Saghian, we are left with a profound sense of the transformative power of design and the unique role that Saghian plays in shaping the narrative of interior spaces. His commitment to authenticity and the fusion of heritage with contemporary elements has not only elevated his work but has also set a precedent for the industry at large.
Ryan’s journey, from a passionate interior designer to a renowned social media influencer, is an inspiring tale of how staying true to oneself and fostering a deeply personal connection with one’s audience can lead to tremendous success. In a rapidly evolving field where the intersection of design, branding, and social media is increasingly vital, Saghian’s approach stands as a paragon of authenticity and innovation. With a keen eye on the horizon, we anticipate the promising projects and collections that Saghian has in the pipeline. His story reminds us that interior design, in the hands of a visionary, transcends mere functionality to become a compelling narrative, an exquisite blend of art and emotion that speaks to the soul.
In a world where design is both a profession and an art form, Ryan Saghian embodies the spirit of a creator who paints narratives with furnishings, weaving stories into the fabric of spaces. His unapologetic approach to design has left an indelible mark, and we eagerly await the next chapter in his journey of design innovation.
Image Credits: Michael Allen (Ryan’s headshot) and Anthony Barcelo (interior photography)