Mona Hajj brings a sense of old-world elegance to her interiors — but don’t mistake her work for stuffy. The Lebanese American designer and author, who is based in Baltimore, seamlessly blends romantic Eastern influences with the modernity and comforts of the West for a look that’s layered and undeniably one of a kind.
When did your passion for design begin?
I think it started at birth, or it was close to that. I mean, I was always very interested in all sorts of design. When you’re born in a country with a lot of culture — old culture, you’re just exposed to it all the time. And I really knew since I was a kid that that’s what I wanted to do. Not necessarily interior design — anything that had to do with design, whether it’s fashion, architecture ….
What is your favorite decorative object at home?
I’ve always been, especially lately, enamored with Islamic antique art. And I have in my home a pair of old antique Syrian mosque lamps that I got before the war in Syria. And I just love them.
Are there combinations you look for when arranging decorative objects?
It’s not like I buy something for a certain place. I buy a thing because I love it. And I always end up using it, I mean, for clients, because when you’re looking for something, it’s not necessary you’re going to find it. So it’s more of an organic kind of thing. When combining art works and objects from all over the world, it is more interesting to arrange pieces so that they feel right together rather than organizing them into strict categories. Fine pieces can always keep company with fine pieces, but they work beautifully with everyday items, too.
You write in your book, The Romance of East and West: Interiors by Mona Hajj, that “Pretty is not pretty if it is not comfortable.” What makes a room comfortable?
Good quality seating, good lighting. I love using rooms and everything in them, and I am always pleased when a client makes the most of every piece in every room. Homes are for comfort. And for joy. A beautiful, comfortable, functional home is always a marriage of architecture and interiors. There are no real formulas for good design. But there are rules that provide a base for comfort and a foundation for the practicalities of living.
When it comes to upholstered seating, you prefer a modern design over an antique one. Why?
It is so much more comfortable than vintage or antique seating, although the craftsmanship of pieces with age tends to be so special. I think most people want to lounge. And when they sit, they love to feel deeply cocooned into the seating. To be able to specify comfort to such a degree is one of design’s great benefits.
You prefer refurbished antiques over replicas. Why?
I prefer to search out, rework and refurbish older pieces rather than attempting to copy something that exists. Pieces with age always have a heart and soul that is much more interesting to me than a custom design or replica. There’s always a place for some pieces of antiques just to warm up.
Are there common mistakes people make when mixing vintage with modern?
Every space is a composition. Creating a plan is like making a painting. You build it piece by piece. Sometimes the overall design combines very modern pieces with very traditional antiques. Sometimes it doesn’t. The process is always very instinctive and hands on.
You emphasize the importance of juxtaposition for creating soul and interest. What are some ways to accomplish juxtaposition?
When the strong and the subtle are well balanced, the overall effect is complete harmony. Juxtaposing something very old with something very minimalist, something very exotic with something very familiar, makes sense to me emotionally, intellectually and visually.
It has been said that great design takes time. Do you agree?
I never make a hard and fast plan, although I always know what kind of thing I need and where it will go. If it feels good, then it is good. And it works.
Are there guidelines to follow when layering rugs so that the resulting look isn’t haphazard?
From room to room, I want the rug to share a vocabulary of tones. I prefer for them to work together organically so the sequence will not jar the eye as it moves from space to space.
When do you feel like the room or the project is complete?
Never. Actually, it depends on the person. Some people, they want it done, and it’s done. And we can help them do that because they don’t have the time. But some people want to collect and add, and that’s like life experiences — it just doesn’t stop. Every now and then, they want to change something, they want to update something — whatever it takes to make the room comfortable for them.