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A+D Partner Spotlight: An Interview with Mariam Mollaghaffari

Mariam Grace Design CEO, Mariam Mollaghaffari, sat down for an interview with G|M to discuss starting a new architecture firm, her unconventional path into architecture, and what separates art from architecture.

Headshot landscape

1. Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in Portland, Oregon and I went to Portland State University where I got my Bachelor of Science in Architecture. Upon graduating, I worked for a few firms doing ground-up and adaptive reuse projects, but I always had an itch to get into interiors because I felt that there was a big disconnect between architecture and the interiors world. Eventually, I moved to LA in 2017 primarily designing interiors, environmental graphics, and furniture ever since. In 2022, I opened up my own practice called Mariam Grace Design where I work as a multidisciplinary designer doing architecture, interior design, graphics, brand strategy, etc. and I absolutely love what I do!

2. That is amazing. Did you move to LA for a job?

Yes. I received an opportunity with a firm I worked with that had just opened a small satellite office in the Arts District. I always felt that Portland was a bit small for me and I wanted to move somewhere with a more diverse design community, so the opportunity gave me the push I needed to do it.

3. How did you know design was your destiny?

My path to architecture wasn’t conventional. I didn’t always know that it was my destiny. Growing up, I was very artistic and in high school, I took ceramics, painting, and sketching classes. I always had a draw (pun intended) to creative arts (laughing). My parents were very supportive of my creative side, but they gently nudged me into a field that had more of a career path. In college, I was interested in everything and took a ton of different classes. I had landed on Urban Planning, which eventually led me to take an Architecture 101 course, and that was sort of a lightbulb moment. I’m someone who really loves variety and fell in love with how architecture combines art, science, philosophy (and more!) – all things I enjoyed learning about. So, I made it my major and knocked it out.

4. Did you have any mentors who helped guide you in your career?

In my first job out of college, my boss, Ernie Staley, who was a very seasoned architect at the time and has since retired, really encouraged me to explore, learn, and ask questions. He was the first person who saw potential in me and trusted me to take on a lot more than a typical intern. At my next firm, there was a Project Manager, Jen Dzienis, who was a master on the operational side of architecture. She really helped me understand the “business” of architecture, which is extremely important because at the end of the day, that is what separates art from architecture. Learning this side of the field really helped me build a lot of trust and maintain strong relationships with clients. Since then, I’ve had many mentors. I continue being interested in the way things work and seek out people who can teach me new things — I recently reached out to a welder to learn his craft and also met with a textile designer last week to understand her process — I feel like understanding all the aspects that go into architecture and interiors allows me to be a better, more well-rounded designer.

5. What do you enjoy most about what you do?

I enjoy the variety aspect of it – from the skills themselves to the types of projects. Every project and client is so unique and different. As a multidisciplinary designer, I work on projects ranging from single-family architecture to boba tea shop interiors to strategizing a brand launch for a new woman-owned venture capital fund...and the list goes on! My next exciting potential project is converting a newspaper press in Kentucky into a co-working space. I like that design works across multiple skills and I get to wear a lot of hats!

6. Do you have a favorite or memorable project you did?

At one of my previous firms, there was a winery I worked on called Day Wines. It was an old vitamin factory that we converted into a winery – the whole building smelled like vitamins. There was a tiny office space that we converted into the tasting room and to me, it’s just a stunning little space with a beautiful custom copper-clad bar. We had this amazing client, the winery was located in a beautiful landscape and it was just a very fun space to work on. It feels like it holds the test of time. Another recent fun one that actually won a REmmy award last year was Hines' Office in LA.

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Architecture by Fieldwork Design, Photography by Jeremy Bitterman
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Architecture by Fieldwork Design, Photography by Jeremy Bitterman

7. How do you go about finding inspiration, especially in times when you may not have it?

I always start by first understanding the client’s wants and needs. And then I seek inspiration in the world. I travel a good bit and I think that helps me too. I also read a lot and recently, I have been going to a ton of art galleries and showrooms. Anytime I learn something new, it informs the work I do. I actively avoid Pinterest or looking at precedent imagery as much as I can because I feel that drawing inspiration from places like these can make my work teeter on the line of mimicking. If I ever get stumped, I typically walk away and when I come back with fresh eyes, I’m usually able to work through it more clearly.

8. Do you feel that you have a style?

Not really and that is actually something I am a bit insecure about (laughing). I feel like every project I touch is unique. When glancing at the portfolio of my work from a distance, it might seem like there is no consistent theme, but when you zoom in, you can always see a through line — spaces that are warm, inviting, and an integration of diverse materials that are thoughtfully detailed. Pushing the boundaries of what we know is a big part of my practice. Just because something is done a certain way doesn’t mean it needs to be done that way, so I try to leave a lot of room for discovery in my approach, which often leads to diverse design solutions.

9. What advice would you give to an aspiring new designer?

I would say understand that architecture is a profession. What we learn in school is very creative-heavy. Knowing what to expect in the profession of design will help prevent burnout or resentment. A lot of times you think “I will make beautiful things”, but there are a lot of non-glamorous parts of the job. Just be realistic and understanding — there will be moments and jobs along the way where you will have the opportunity to be creative! Travel, expand your mind, and try new things. Work is not everything, find outlets for yourself, fuel yourself. Your work will be so much better if you do that.

10. You mentioned being into art. Do you have a favorite medium?

Charcoal. It’s so forgiving. It’s more about the journey than the destination. Pen ink for me feels scary and so absolute. I also have a soft spot for ceramics. I love the tactile 3D elements and the versatility of what you can form it into.

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11. You also mentioned traveling a lot. Do you have a favorite recent travel destination?

I went to Japan last year and that was pretty mind-blowing. The way the past meets the future there is magical — robots will serve you a meal while a thousand-year-old temple is just around the corner. It’s beautiful + clean, and culturally people are so kind + respectful. I think I could live there. And the food is the BEST.

Japan arch
Japan deetz

12. Beyond charcoal sketching, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I get on kicks. I can knit and crochet. I dabble with whittling spoons out of wood. I also started doing blind contours (you don’t look at the paper or lift your pen) of famous chairs — the outcome is definitely not accurate but it’s very fun. I just love making things with my hands. I love listening to music, going to shows, and discovering new artists. I have also been hiking a ton. Being outside in nature is so good for my brain.

Chair Blind Contours 4x3

13. Do you have a favorite food?

I don’t discriminate but I have a soft spot for pizza and burgers. There is a burger joint near me called Burgers Never Say Die that is one of my all-time faves.

14. How about a favorite movie?

Hands down – The Fifth Element. I watch it every year and it never gets old. I also love Amelie.

15. Favorite piece of furniture?

My favorite is the Ligne Roset Togo. I have obsessed over this chair for many years and finally got one. I love how weird it is, yet casual. For being such a high-end piece, you can still throw it around.

Linet togo chair

16. Cocktail of choice?

I’m not a big drinker, but I love a French 75 or a Dirty Martini on occasion.

17. Favorite musician or band?

Lately, it’s been a producer under the name Pale Jay. That is my current favorite, but I listen to all genres tough — anything from Nicki Minaj to Carley Crockett, lots of soul and blues. If you hadn’t noticed yet, I am someone who loves variety in my daily life (laughing).

18. Coffee or tea?

I do a cup a day of black coffee to start the day. If I’m feeling crazy, I’ll add in a splash of oat milk.

19. Is there anything people would be surprised to know about you or “fun fact”?

I once rode my bike from Oregon to California down the 101 and 1 highways when I was younger. We went about 800 miles from Tillamook to San Francisco and camped in between. It was an awesome experience.

20. Ok last question. You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What color would you be and why

Oxblood. It’s a deep reddish brown and I am just obsessed with it. Its kind of a running joke between people who know me and my work because almost every project I touch has some element of this color in it. I’m not big on color, I’ve always been a little afraid of color because it feels like such a big commitment in projects. But there is something about Oxblood that goes with everything. It feels like a neutral to me. Plus, I love its scary name.

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