With architectural family roots and a vision for the future, Amir Mortazavi’s firm M-Projects is redefining the way we live and work in urban spaces.
By: Kevin Daniel Dwyer
You have to take a degree of risk to stand out, just make sure it’s cohesive,” says Amir Mortazavi, architectural designer and founder of M-Projects on his design ethos. Mortazavi, who’s been in and around the business since childhood, has made a name for his firm in recent years, thanks to its considered, sustainable approach to urban spaces both residential and commercial. “Our clients—and urban people in general—are evolving. They want unique designs, more minimal spaces and are veering away from the conventional.”
Born into a real estate development and architectural family based on the Peninsula, Mortazavi grew up around his father’s projects in Hillsborough and Atherton. A self-described idealist, Mortazavi went on to pursue electrical computer engineering on the brink of the dot-com bust. Next was environmental engineering with a short stint working for a not-so-non-profit consulting firm in Alameda before realizing his true calling was closer to home, and heart.
“My first residential design project was in Palo Alto on Cowper Street just a few blocks from Waverly Drive. My father had given me an opportunity to flex my skills and at this time I really began to focus on sustainability in my designs. This was 2002 mind you, so we were on the forefront of that thinking in the residential space,” says Mortazavi.
Sustainability, as Mortazavi suggests, is not just a buzzword or trend. In fact, it’s the opposite: “Even in 2002, sustainability wasn’t just about recycled materials. To me, it was about timelessness—materials that appeal over time and therefore last with the times. Architecture should have integrity, not be trendy or fashionable. Making design decisions and choosing materials that can live and breathe over for a long time is crucial to sustainability.”
After a series of speculative developments on the Peninsula, Mortazavi moved to San Francisco in 2007, where a deep appreciation for his immediate surroundings and environment helped to further his design approach. “I started to look around at the various past zeitgeists that occurred in neighborhoods here in San Francisco and let that inform my designs. Mainly colors, styles, lines and energy. I began to incorporate that into what I did with a respect and sustainability to a given area,” says Mortazavi.
This approach is most evident at CANOPY in Jackson Square, one of three locations of Mortazavi’s co-working concept collaboration with Yves Behar. For the Jackson Square space, there is an immediate soothing quality, thanks to a minimalism in color palette—no more than four throughout the space. Blush rose hues, copper details, green Verde Alpi marble and dark lacquered surfaces are center stage, and an open-air terrace invites collaboration while taking in views of the varied rooflines of Telegraph Hill. Mortazavi notes: “The palette mainly references the Sentinel building’s iconic copper and Café Zoetrope’s marble sidewalk tabletops, as well as the pink and peach tones throughout nearby City Lights bookstore. There’s also a gender parity to the design, which reflects the equal membership ratio CANOPY is proud of.”
Mortazavi himself is the essence of a very ‘right now’ architectural designer. There’s an immediate approachability to him; an effortless cool factor is evident as well, with his long, tightly curled locks and mix of suit and casual attire. Not surprisingly, we come to learn he was also an avid DJ occasionally spinning house music—and is a devoted surfer, hence the relaxed, cool vibe.
It’s clear that Mortazavi’s persona is manifested in his projects, especially residential, where he focuses on connecting with a client and their needs.
In Mill Valley, a home had enveloping sky and mountain views, including the almost-daily phenomenon of billowing fog shows, so Mortazavi brought the outside in with a cool palette of blues and greys. Walnut was used throughout to reference the bark and color of the surrounding redwood forests.
M-Projects has a number of speculative homes currently in the works; a home in Cow Hollow on Greenwich and a co-development residential property in NoPa. “With speculative homes, you want the audience as wide as possible, so keeping things minimal and limiting color palette is a must,” says Mortazavi. “Don’t make a home’s design too specific, especially on the high-end. Hyper-custom alienates people. At lower price points, buyers will not want to change much and at higher price points, buyers will customize regardless.”
Mortazavi explains his signature ‘less is more’ approach best when likening it to authentic Japanese and Italian cuisine: “I think of a great design like a cacio e pepe pasta. It has simple ingredients—pasta, cheese and pepper—or Japanese food, which is simple with umami for pop. Let limited, straightforward ingredients and flavors shine.”
A client’s understanding of this underlying principle is essential for Mortazavi. For the designer, establishing mutual respect from the nascent stages of a project is critical. “As a young designer, you are interviewing your potential client just as much as they are interviewing you. Trust and aligning a vision are key, as is understanding each other’s time’s worth.” The most important thing for Mortazavi’s clients to remember? “Design takes time. Let me drive.” G