EVER SINCE STYLE-BIBLE Vogue labelled interior designer India Mahdavi the 'next big thing in the world of design', the Iranian-born French national has found herself hot property the world over. In the past three years, Mahdavi has applied her 'sexy chic' touch to a hip New York nightclub, a boutique hotel in Miami, luxury homes in London and the Egyptian desert, as well as ultra-cool shops for French fashion house Givenchy. Her name is uttered in the same revered tones as her mentor, top interior designer Christian Liagre, and design enfant terrible Philippe Starck. So when local party-boy cum entrepreneur Gilbert Yeung Kei-lung hired Mahdavi to style his new venture Dragon-i, a restaurant/lounge/club which will open in Central's plush The Centrium next month, it seemed a fair assumption that she'd be importing flair, finesse and ideas from Paris and New York. Not so, says Mahdavi. She found her inspiration in the streets, temples and markets of Hong Kong. And one street in particular. Mahdavi and her two project partners - former-Liagre acolytes Herve Bourteois and Guillaume Richard - were enchanted by the bird market in Mongkok, specifically the row upon row of traditional cages. 'It seemed very appropriate for us [to use]. We wanted to integrate some Chinese elements . . . we didn't want [Dragon-i] to look like a place in New York or Paris,' Mahdavi says. The designer had found a theme. A giant bird cage filled with birds will greet customers at the entrance of the 4,000-sq-ft venue, while out on the 2,500-sq-ft terrace more large bird cages will house dining tables. 'You have dinner in a cage, it's very intimate,' enthuses Mahdavi, as she smokes a cigarette in the office of Yeung's production company G-Spot in Lan Kwai Fong. 'We're all birds in cages when you think of it.' During similar foraging trips to Temple Street and in the antique bazaars of Hollywood Road, Mahdavi bought old painted postcards, fabrics and Chinese knick-knacks. She took the treasure trove back to Paris and scattered it on her studio desk, where she began drawing her vision. The result is a venue fusing her minimal style with oriental textures. Lampshades will feature classic Chinese embroidery and the dominant colours will be red, pale yellow and pale pink along with dark wood and traditional Japanese designs. The blend reflects Yeung's desire for Dragon-i to be an Asian, rather than a strictly Chinese, concept. The food will be mostly Japanese along with 'old school' Chinese food such as Peking duck and 'groovy' dim sum. Yeung's brief to Mahdavi was 'sexy and cosy', a place that would impress visitors from the world's main hub cities and make then feel at home. Says Mahdavi: 'We tried to create an energy that's very fluid. We have booths that are put together in bunches like grapes. These round shapes give another energy to the space and circular shapes are appropriate for Chinese and oriental fusion food.' Interestingly, Mahdavi found little in the city's existing design culture to inspire her. She liked the China Club and an old traditional eatery on Elgin Street, while Times Square Japanese restaurant WasabiSabi was 'interesting but in a weird location' on a high floor of a shopping mall. She describes upmarket Wan Chai bar One-fifth as 'quite nice', but says she didn't like neighbouring Italian eatery Cinecitta and rips into Starck's Felix at The Peninsula. 'It's disgus . . . I mean, it could have been anywhere in the world apart from the salt and pepper pots on the table,' she says. 'Apart from the China Club, which looks like an old place, it's either all contemporary or looks like something that could be in Europe, or is very Chinese local. It's very difficult to see successful mixes,' says Mahdavi, who hopes to have achieved that tricky combination. 'It's difficult to do it in a balanced way, that isn't gimmicky and without losing yourself in something pretentious,' she says. 'But that's what we've tried to do. We'll have to see if we've succeeded.' Yeung's vision for Dragon-i - which he says is not members-only but will have discriminating door staff - came from a visit to ultra-hip Christian Liagre-designed Hakkasan Chinese restaurant in London. He flew to Paris to meet Liagre, but the designer was too busy for the job. Yeung approached other designers du jour - such as award-winners Karim Rashid and Jacques Garcia - but found no one he considered suitable. Then his lighting consultant, industry wizard Arnold Chan, recommended Mahdavi. Mahdavi had worked with Liagre for seven years and Yeung says her philosophy matched his own. Mahdavi, 38, had never intended a career in designing interiors. She studied architecture in Paris because she wanted to do film design, then switched tack. She went to New York and studied furniture design, graphics and industrial design at separate institutions and all within 12 months. 'I had to start somewhere, so I started working with Christian Liagre,' she says matter-of-factly about her first job in Paris at the studio of one of design's biggest names. 'I liked the pace of it [interior design], architecture is very long in production . . . I needed something that was much quicker.' Cosmopolitan Mahdavi, whose nomadic childhood involved living in 11 countries with her Iranian father and half-Scottish, half-Egyptian mother, also found a sort of catharsis. 'I realised I really enjoyed doing interiors. Part of it is because I never really had a home of my own,' she says. After seven years with Liagre she struck out on her own in 1997, working on four homes for women's clothing retailer Joseph Ettedgui and other famous clients, including French international footballer Youri Djorkaeff's base near Monaco. But her big break came when she met soulmate Jonathan Morr, who had worked with hotelier Ian Schrager and who was building the 70-room Miami Townhouse hotel. It was during that project that Vogue bestowed its flattering verdict. 'You have to forget it,' Mahdavi says of the 'next big thing' tag. 'You build up an image but you never know if it's really you.' Mahdavi says she has no general design principles. 'I try to respond to a client, the brief, a space and a location. I try to take those elements and push them to the maximum to make something interesting.' She eschews the 'minimalist' tag often pinned on her. 'It's a soft feminine version of . . . ' she says, trailing off. 'Sexy chic?' interjects Bourteois. 'Yes,' replies Mahdavi. 'I like that.' Other critics have likened her partnership with Morr to that of Schrager and Starck. 'I don't like the feeling of being 'married' to somebody, but we get on very well,' she responds. But Morr has pushed her boundaries. He was making a club in New York, called APT (shorthand for apartment) and Mahdavi, with a young son and a husband, felt unable to do the design for it. 'I couldn't relate to doing a bar lounge because I wasn't going out much,' she says. But after Morr's cajoling she agreed and invented a character in her head called Bernard - an intellectual middle-aged former student revolutionary with many girlfriends - for whom she designed the apartment. 'What I liked about movies was I could tell stories, so I have always done that with my design. Using Bernard is how I put stories into my work,' she says. By the time Yeung came calling Mahdavi was separated, travelling a lot and hence going out more, so she was happy to accept. 'Anyway, it's not really a club, it's more of a loungey feel,' she says.