I

n Asian-American literature, the search for home is often a central trope. It usually goes something like this: The protagonist discovers that after emigration one can never really return home. Home becomes an imagined space, a relic of the mind. But acclaimed architect and interior designer Shamir Shah doesn’t quite have this problem—he sees himself instead as a “citizen of the world”—and lets that outlook infuse his work .

Raised in the bucolic countryside of Kenya, Shah recalls that his father “was arty without knowing it.” Indeed, Shah the elder was a “much misunderstood Gujarati man because he was terrible at business.” He took more readily to golfing, singing, drawing and painting secretly in the dark cover of night to the chagrin of his own parents with their high expectations.

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Shamir Shah

Shah’s path to becoming a design denizen has been quite circuitous—initially, his passion for animals (and riding in particular) led him to consider working at the Aga Khan ranch in France, until he decided to study at Yale so that he could practice veterinary medicine. But a major that focused purely on science didn’t inspire him, and so he “fell into” the architecture program—partly because of his longstanding love for art.

“Dropping pre-med lifted a load off my shoulders,” he says admitting that it was “a big decision” nonetheless.

But he knew it was the right decision when fellow students started to visit his room—just to look at his décor. “I guess it was somewhat unusual because most people could care less about the inner design workings of a dorm room. Even when I lived in tiny apartments, I could never slum it—I liked to have them look a certain way,” he explains.

After graduating, Shah went on to work for more than a decade with Costas Kondylis, one of New York’s leading residential design firms, eventually launching his own namesake design company. Shamir Shah Design has garnered critical acclaim and brought forth a steady stream of high-powered commercial and private clients, including Trump and Related Properties as well as famed sculptor Jonathan Adler’s first retail space.

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The melting pot that is Manhattan has been home for soft-spoken Shah since the early 1990s. His current abode is a space that was originally an industrial print house—now entirely renovated by Shamir Shah Design. The centerpiece of the loft is anchored by what can only be described as a large sculptural painting by artist Malcolm Hill who also happens to be his partner. Serene yet masculine, pared down and modern, the loft’s aesthetic is signature Shah.

Shah elaborates on his signature style, marked by Zen-like quietness and the mix of natural elements with continuity in form and function. Indeed, as he points out, “I grew up in Africa and India and of course that experience colors my work,” but “I certainly don’t strive to set myself apart from other designers … I just think of it as being a world look and nowadays people travel everywhere and it’s just become such a world culture.” He adds, “My feeling has always been that you want to create a shelter from the city. It feels very otherworldly when compared to the streets of New York City.”

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When asked about his decision to do both architectural and design work—somewhat unusual in this business—he responds, “I don’t see how you can separate the two frankly. How can you possibly do architecture and not think about the way people are going to use it?” To that end, Mr. Shah has been praised by clients as “a one-stop shop,” providing everything down to the furniture and lighting fixtures.

For Shah, the sexiest part of the process “is the spark of an idea, putting it on paper and watching it come to life.” And though he doesn’t have children, he imagines this is the closest he’ll ever come to watching a creation grow and assume its own personality.

One of his creations is Savoy House project. Shah was given that rare thing, carte blanche, while designing the home for a young rock star client with a family whose only requirements were that the house include a well-insulated music room and a quiet office.

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Quintessentially Shah, the Savoy House “was a gift”—especially in light of his own personality: “I’m a control freak and I could never allow for that.”

And though Shah may be a citizen of the world, his architecture still relies on the idea of making a particular place your home: “Being a foreigner on American soil, and the incredible satisfaction that comes with giving a piece of myself to every project, and leaving that mark on the city undoubtedly has some hidden significance. My Kenyan citizenship was confiscated while I was here and that brief period of being in exile—literally—were pivotal in wanting to put down roots, create a sense of belonging.” Judging by his progress as a designer and even his current loft abode, it seems that Shah has done just that.n

Mili Narayen, though petrified of large wild animals, has always wanted to go on a Kenyan safari.
Published on March 26, 2007.
Photography: Courtesy of Shamir Shah.
Comments are closed.
  1. March 26, 2007, 12:34 pm Mrs. Robert daly

    Shah, are you selling that apartment? I’d like to place my bid.

  2. March 29, 2007, 6:06 am rekha misra

    hi mili

    great article very well articulated- and awsome interiors.