Passion is a pillar of success that is best defined by people who have faced challenges and reached milestones of success. This pillar gets affected by all sort of conditions; and Interior Designer Maggy Monsef — otherwise known by her famous nickname, Mag the Phoenix, rising from the ashes — is a living example of how passion can surpass any state, and any limitation.
With a PhD in Finance from Université Paris-Dauphine, Monsef decided to stir the way into another direction: interior design with clientele globally. We talk to Monsef today about her life as an Arab woman, her change of career, and advice she has for everyone following their dream in life.
Who is Maggy Monsef?
A passionate 40-something year old single mother of three teenagers, an interior designer passionate about seeking beauty in life; whether in friends I make, fashion I like, food I eat, places I travel to, or projects I take in interior design and architecture.
You studied Finance and then you are an interior designer today. How did this come to happen?
During my upbringing in an Arab society, women were expected to go into fields like marketing, fashion or graphic design, etc. I was born to break norms: I wanted to go into a field not traditional to Arab women, so I chose finance. I was studying Math, metrics, stocks; all things that were not expected from a woman to be partaking in the 1990s.
Did your parents discourage this move?
I lost my father at age of 14; and then my mother wanted me to get married at an early age to ensure that a man will be taking care of me. Ofcourse she discouraged me from studying finance; again, it wasn’t something that women did. Period.
But you did it. You studied finance against your mother’s will. How did she react?
On top of taking on a non-conventional career, I also moved to France during the Lebanese civil war. I lived in shelters in Lebanon escaping bombs, and I just wanted to flee in order to pursue an education. You see, I always realized the importance of education to empower me as a woman. So my mother and I were fighting continuously. I went to France as a teenager even to study my high-school and I always thought outside the box. One should never let circumstances overtake their determination to fulfill a dream.
So you studied Finance and then now you are an interior designer. When and why did this shift happen?
I was very close to my late father who was a well known architect in the Middle East. After completing my studies in Finance, I felt a little of emptiness. I wanted to continue my father’s journey. Non of my brothers went into the same career path my father had excelled in; so the change of mind to my career came as a result of a change of heart of a daughter longing for her father. I grew up around my father’s work in architecture so I felt I was bred into this field that was calling me at age of late 30s. My father took me with him at a young age to museums, his projects around the world; therefore I developed a critical eye for design, architecture, and art.
So how did this change happen?
I got married at age 24; and for 10 years after, I raised three children, I studied more, and in my spare time, I started developing a stronger passion to design and architecture so I helped friends with their homes and the highlight of that period was working with world renowned interior designers and architects to build my own home.
I was building my home and got involved with every step of the process: from the design to the little detail of decor around the house. I traveled with the interior designers to India, Syria, and other countries choosing antiques for my home. During these trips, they would always ask me, “are you sure you are not an interior designer?”
This whole process enabled me to set my determination to pursue a career similar to that of my father’s. After my divorce at age 34, I continued taking classes, now in the field I was set to start with.
What was your first project?
Acquaintances of mine contacted me to give them the name of the architect and interior designer who did my home. They wanted to hire him for a project, restoring an old Lebanese home and turning it into a restaurant. I asked them if I can take on the job instead. Surprised, they asked me to submit a proposal. I did, and they loved it. I got hired, I finally had my dream job. I learnt that it may be only a question between a dream and an opportunity; when you need something, you can always achieve it.
How did this project go?
From design to execution, I took on the project: La Crêperie restaurant in Lebanon. And I now let these photos show you the result. The client was thrilled, and more and more projects came my way.
So you have been in design for six years, how many projects have you done?
At least 15 between commercial and residential.
A single Arab mother, an interior design of finance background; there were certainly challenges. What were they?
[She laughs] A lot of challenges. First, the field is a man’s world: suppliers, contractors, carpenters, etc. These men found a woman being their boss, in a man dominated world; you can just imagine. I had to raise my voice sometimes, work 24/7 to be available and show them that I am up to the job. I was working on the projects on one hand, and proving myself as woman first, and an interior designer second, to them and to everyone around. They fought me, they told me that I could not succeed in such a huge project, but I did not allow them to overpower me. Only one thing I was determined on; success.
My projects started getting noticed and more and more clients approached me as a word of mouth. I was finally the interior designer I have dreamt to be.
What advice do you have for people starting a career in interior design, especially women?
I find a lot of competition in this field; so my first advice, dare to be different while utilizing trends.
Understand the client’s vision and needs and way of life. You are not building a house, you are creating a home. I am an eclectic designer which provided me with versatility to my clients from old antiques to modern materials, dare to extend your limits.
Deliver not just what you see, but what you and your client feel. A home is a nest of emotions not a bunch of bricks, be part of the holistic image of it. The outcome should always be up to the standards of your own artistic taste while ensuring your clients’ wishes, needs, and restraints.
And to women, we are faced daily by challenges. But we can achieve anything we want when we are determined. Let’s keep that in mind.
Who is your role model?
Kelly Wearstler, they even call me the “Kelly Wearstler of the Arab World”. And we look alike a bit, no? [She laughs again]
If your father were alive, what would he be telling you now?
My father always reminded me to pursue my studies, to be determined, and not to depend on a man. His voice is always in my ear, and today he would have said: I am proud; something I yearn to hear all the time. [This time, she teared up].
You can view Maggy’s work here: www.maggymonsef.com
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