In the 20 years since Mona Hajj opened her own firm in Baltimore, she has designed the interiors of the Embassy of Luxembourg in the District and a Maryland home by architect John Russell Pope (whose projects include the Jefferson Memorial and the National Archives). Last year, she was named one of Architectural Digest’s top 100 designers and architects.
In March, she released her first book, “ Interior Visions ” (Monacelli Press, $50), an elegant presentation of her projects, inspirations and personal design credos. Hajj, who operates under a set of simple, guileless tenets, designs by her gut.
“I am not attracted to bold colors that announce themselves too aggressively,” she writes in a chapter on color. She rejects the design cliche that instructs homeowners to paint dark rooms with light colors. “If it’s a dark room, paint it darker. You don’t want to fight nature.”
Born in West Africa and raised in Beirut, Hajj comes from a family of Lebanese textile merchants. She married at 17 and had three children soon after. At 23, she followed her childhood love for design and enrolled in the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Five years later, she took a job at an architecture firm upon graduation and at 30, she launched Mona Hajj Interiors.
Now Hajj, 53, is a master of weaving her cultural roots into her designs, which often feature clay pots, Turkish suzanis and artisanal rugs.
Hajj will be speaking at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Design on Wednesday about her new book. For more information about the event, visit www.getinvolved.
Hajj spoke with us by phone from her office. Here are excerpts of the conversation.
How did your cultural background influence your design aesthetic?
I was born in West Africa because my parents happened to be working there at the time, but I grew up in Beirut, which has a very international culture. Lebanon is known for its textiles, which I often incorporate into my designs, and the carpets in that region are magnificent.
Where do you turn for inspiration?
Beirut and Syria are inspiring because they have this oldness, this richness in their culture. And Americana, of course. American folk art is unbelievably charming. My inspiration stems from small, unique artists doing their thing, which is very much what my parents did.
What do you hope people learn from “Interior Visions”?
That design is a way of life, not a brand name. When you go to a designer, it should never be about their style; it is about you. Designers find ways to express the client’s way of living. We streamline it and enrich it and edit it.
Antiques are very present in your designs. What advice would you give about collecting antiques?
Just because it’s an antique doesn’t make it special. There are antiques that are for function, for visual beauty and even just for comfort. My interiors are about finding a balance. Most of all, antiques should feel easy and natural. They shouldn’t be intimidating or complicated, because at the end of the day, it is just an old piece!
What is one design cliche that you find yourself constantly working against?
I truly design the way I feel, not because a room is supposed to be a certain way. There are no rule books. It is trial, error and experience.
I just bought a beautiful 8-by-6-foot piece of art and hung it in a very small room. It occupies nearly three-quarters of the space, which is totally against the rules, but it was absolutely the best thing for it.
What is your advice for making the most out of a small space?
Be organized! Clutter is anti-design in my mind. It is painful on the eye.