“I’m not afraid of taking risks.” Iria Degen, interior designer
Iria Degen loves to combine extremes in her life: relaxation and risk, kids and career. Failure is fine – what she hates is stagnation. On Mallorca, she’s building a holiday home with interior decor you can buy.
She looks like Pocahontas, that’s the image that springs to mind the first time I meet Iria Degen: a tall, graceful woman with fine features and long, black hair she inherited from her Thai grandmother. Her face lights up with a smile: “I get that sometimes, mostly from kids. It’s a huge compliment, since Pocahontas is a warm-hearted, beautiful woman. She embodies values that I live and love, too. She goes in pursuit of love. She risks a great deal.”
Although at first glance, the 48-year-old from Zurich seems to me more cautious than daredevil, risk plays a big role in her life. “I really feel that I put 100% into everything I do. Lots of adventure, lots of new things, lots of excitement. That appeals to me. If you’re ready to take risks, you can go places no one has ever been and no one will ever get to.”
Zurich. Paris. Mallorca.
Degen’s resume is full of instances where she has deliberately gone abroad to forge a new path in a new place. The Zurich native took her first steps as a fledgling interior designer in Paris with Andrée Putman, a major name in the industry. Now, her first major building project is under way on Mallorca, the Balearic island attracting over 15 million tourists each year, half a million of them from Switzerland. “The island wasn’t on my radar at all. But in recent years, on vacation with family friends, I came to love it. I also found out just recently that the first ever flight I took as a child was to Mallorca. So I’ve come full circle. Somehow, everything that lights up your life is just written in the stars.”
We are on her building site outside the village of Ses Salines in the south of the island. This is where ‘Tres Hermanas’ (‘Three Sisters’), a futuristic building designed by the award-winning architect Gus Wüstemann, with interiors by Degen, is taking shape. A joint project, whose centerpiece is a shared space with three sleeping areas branching off it, can be rented by up to three families as vacation homes. What’s special about it? The entire interior is for sale. Art, decor, furniture. She calls it a “living experience.”
Here, far from the sea and the hustle and bustle, there are only foundation walls and an imposing mountain of excavated material, stone blocks stacked in a massive heap. Degen climbs up and down for the photographer and poses between the walls, which look like a surreal art installation. Sheep bleat loudly–the only sound that disrupts the scene.
You can make out the sea – “back there!” – a fine line on the horizon. Anyone who comes here is likely looking for a complete retreat from tourists lying towel-to-towel – even though nearby Es Trenc is one of the island’s most beautiful beaches. The view of the sea is partly concealed by a lush piece of land, home to a single dwelling. “It belongs to the family who own Banca March, the Spanish bank. That means it’s likely nothing will ever be built on the land.” Little is left to chance here. Everything has been considered.
The subtle one
While Iria Degen takes me on a tour of the building site, I think that I would use the same words to describe her as I would to describe her work: organized, peaceful, and purist. Degen thanks me for the “lovely compliment.”
“I’m at home in silence. I never go looking for the hustle and bustle, the tumult, the glamor. I wouldn’t feel comfortable in a red dress or a miniskirt – I’d feel as if everyone were looking at me.”
She always found it uncomfortable, “embarrassing,” as she puts it, being in the center of attention. She brings up her childhood: aged three or four years old, crawling under the table while people sang her “Happy Birthday.” “I didn’t want to come back out again.”
Reason and feeling
It was a safe environment. Young Iria grew up in a family of doctors: her parents, her siblings, all doctors. It was clear that she would also go to college. Although she would have liked to have taken a more unconventional path even then, she succumbed to the pressure. “Yes, of course, that’s how it is. But I must say, I’m really grateful to my mother. She raised four children, she was on her own, and she wanted to teach us that we should always have a plan B. Even when I was studying law, I knew: this is a great foundation. I have reason AND feeling inside me. I love both.”
After she completed her compulsory program of study, feeling swiftly gained the upper hand. Degen wanted to know whether her passion for designing spaces was her true calling. During her teenage years, it had already found extravagant expression in her own room, which she arranged and rearranged constantly. She packed up and moved from Zurich to make a fresh start in Paris. Away from the pressure from those around her, “so as not to provoke,” she says.
“I have a lot of architect friends and I know that interior design, particularly when it leans towards decor, can be mocked. The ways in which interior design can benefit people in their everyday lives, through good design and spaces that are functional and beautiful, helping them recharge their batteries, are totally misunderstood.”
A wonderful side effect of her studies was the large network she developed, which helped give her career a vital kick-start. Her friends quickly got good jobs and were able to buy apartments and their own homes. Early on, they entrusted Iria Degen with exciting projects when she was still finding her feet as an interior designer. “They were already asking for me when I was still in Paris. Everything moved very fast. Every project brought another with it. I never needed to go looking for work.”
Clearly she has more in common with Pocahontas than just her looks. Community once opened its doors to her, too, so they say.
Two decades later, she’s made it to the top. The designer – whose initials, ID, mirror those of her chosen career – designs hotels like the Pullman Europe in Basel, offices for companies like Novartis in Basel, and even hospitals, like the Hirslanden in Zurich.
Private individuals with the right budget can also use her services for spaces over 100 square meters in size. Why this limit? “Because at some point, the balance between planning costs and overall spending stops being a healthy one.”
The restless one
Iria Degen’s interior design business just keeps running and running. For her, “the worst feeling” would be the sense that she was treading water. That’s why she’s always on the go. After setting up her own office in Paris, she set up another in Zurich, followed last year by the most recent, in the little Mallorcan town of Santanyi.
Criticism only surfaces now and then – and even that tends to be on the gentle side. They say she’s too modest, that her style is sometimes boring and not sufficiently edgy. “I’ve certainly never been seen as a trendy star. But it’s useful, because we’ve got all this hustle and bustle in our everyday lives. So I’ve captured the right moment with my style. It’s the antithesis to this fast-moving era.”
As relaxed and cautious as Iria Degen appears, even she has moments where she steps out of her role. “Raising my kids is what really pushes me to my limits. Raising kids and relationships, that’s the hardest part for me. That takes me out of my comfort zone and I’m always trying to look back and analyze it in hindsight. I think that’s the best you can make of it: you can learn something.”
She has two children, a ten-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter. In her life, kids and career are intertwined. Her home and studio are located in the same building in Zurich’s Höngg district. Until recently, her ex-husband also lived under the same roof.
The woman in demand
“This is probably the most exhausting time of my life. I’m going through a divorce, I’m building a house on Mallorca, I’m growing an online start-up and at the same time, I want to raise my kids as best I can. There are challenges everywhere, and I’ll be glad when I’ve got some of them over and done with. I hope things will calm down for me again. More time for myself would be wonderful.”
Right now, Iria Degen, whose business model is building oases of wellbeing, has no retreat to call her own. But ambivalence seems to be the essence of her life. Relaxed and ready to take risks, cautious and ambitious. Sounds a lot like Pocahontas.
Images: Vicki McLeod