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WASHINGTON — Behnaz Sarafpour was one of an elite group of design visionaries honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Friday.
Sarafpour, who won in the fashion design category of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards, said she was moved by the experience.
“There are a couple of reasons why this is very special to me,” the Iranian-born Sarafpour said in an interview. “One is that I wasn’t born here. So for me to come here from around the world and build a career here in the U.S. and get national awareness from the Smithsonian is very moving. On the other hand, it is also very exciting because it is not a specific industry award.…I am in the company of amazing people from different design disciplines who have achieved something great.”
Sarafpour, who launched her collection in 2001, credited her mother for opening her eyes to fashion.
“When I was a child, I spent a lot of time in Europe and my mother was a big shopper,” she said. “She was probably my first fashion influence. There are really no major fashion designers from Iran, and there are also no major fashion designers from Philadelphia [where she attended high school]. I thought fashion designers had to be from Milan or Paris. It really wasn’t until I moved to New York to go to Parsons that it became a real tangible profession to me.”
She said Obama, who is honorary patron of the NDAs, has been “fun to watch” because she doesn’t “stick with one uniform.”
“Not all women in public life experiment so much and express so much with fashion,” Sarafpour said. “It has been a pleasure over the past few years to see the choices she has made.…She seems to enjoy wearing different things and different designers, and obviously many of them have been great American designers. It is great for us to have that exposure.”
Obama said, “These men and women aren’t simply designing beautiful buildings and parks and products, they’re also thinking about how they can work to help create more sustainable environments, more vibrant cities, and a more active and participatory society.”
She pointed to a sampling of the honorees’ work, ranging from 18-minute talks “that found a way to penetrate the fog of today’s 140-character discourse,” to a green, living sculpture in a Manhattan skyscraper to a museum that tells its story through oral histories of more than 100,000 people.
“They’re leaving a lasting impression on our hearts, in our minds and in the way we see the world,” she said. “They’re inviting us to push our boundaries, to stretch our imaginations, and they’re showing us that it’s OK to have a little fun, too.”
NDAs were also given to Michael Sorkin, an architect and “urbanist” from New York for the Design Mind award; TED, the nonprofit organization known for its “Ideas Worth Spreading,” for Corporate and Institutional Achievement; Studio Gang Architects, a Chicago-based collective of architects, designers and thinkers, for Architecture Design; Paula Scher, principal in Pentagram, a New York-based international design consultancy, for Communication Design; Local Projects, a media design firm specializing in work for museums and public spaces, for Interaction Design; Aidlin Darling Design, for Interior Design; Margie Ruddick, an urban landscape designer, for Landscape Architecture, and NewDealDesign, a San Francisco-based design firm combining industrial, graphic and interaction designers with engineers, for Product Design.
James Wines, founder and president of SITE, a New York-based architectural studio, won the Lifetime Achievement award, and Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, was honored as Design Patron.