The Social Impact Heroes of Social Media: Lena Späth is using design and architecture to show the world a new face of the Iranian people

With Candice Georgiadis

The prime game changer I see is media in the West. Consumers are open for new topics, for reports from different regions of the world, and especially for positive but also interesting stories. Journalists should get out and go for the exciting stories which are there. We are living in an era of ‘too much’, so people want high-quality curated content. Media has to actually take on that responsibility of how much they frame the perception of countries, regions, and people. They must want to create a better world by not neglecting reality but by balancing their reporting. Iran is just one of the countries suffering from lousy media coverage.

I had the pleasure to interview Lena Späth. Lena is a German author, traveling between Iran and Munich, Germany. Her self-published book ‘Behind Closed Curtains: Interior Design’ was endorsed by journalists from The Guardian, Conde Nast Traveller, Design*Sponge, AD Magazine and many more. Lena has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies and worked for consulting and internet companies before returning her focus to Iran.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I am a big fan of interior design and handmade things. Since I was a child, I re-decorated my space every year. I was reading decor magazines and coffee table books on design in India, Bali, or Buenos Aires. When I started traveling to far away places, I was drawn to the workshops, bazaars, and magnificent architectural sights. The same happened when I came to Iran the first time in 2008.

So I knew about the treasures you could find in Iran, and when in 2016 I left a job with some savings I decided to try an own project; something related to Iran as the sanctions had been lifted recently. A coffee table book showcasing design and architecture but also introducing the country, in general, seemed suitable, and I knew no similar book existed. A book on beautiful private places would draw attention away from politics and onto design and architecture; it would illustrate a positive and uniquely human face of Iran. It was vital for me to tell the stories of Iranians, the people behind these houses, and explain Iranian culture along with design elements. On another note, I felt a book like this would wake up Iranians and especially the younger generation to appreciate their heritage and try to keep and restore older buildings and Iranian traditions and crafts. There is still more innovation needed, but for this to happen, you need to know your own history and identity.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

A friend of mine is friends with the son of Iran’s current president Hassan Rouhani. He told me to sign a copy for him so he could forward it to the president. To make it more impressive, I was supposed to write in Farsi. We included a little message, but I ruined three of my books until the writing was looking fine and without any mistakes.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t recall how many times Iranian men tried to approach me or even proposed to me on Instagram. I am really touchy warm-hearted German, so people often got it wrong. One time at a book signing event, one man started stroking my back when we took a picture together. He said it was his best day in the life. Since then, I am way more serious about coming across self-confident, and a bit distanced.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the core focus of our interview. Can you describe to our readers how you are using your platform to make a significant social impact?

My platform developed mostly on Instagram. On my feed, I am showing examples of good Persian design which I came across in Iran or found online. This could be a traditional metal door or a nicely decorated cafe. In the past, especially young Iranians haven’t been attracted by their own heritage like handicrafts or architecture. When I started my research, I first showed the traditional elements attractive to a foreigner’s eye like mine. There are a lot! I am a big fan of craftsmanship, so I posted pictures of clay pots, village carpets, or the famous glass-stained window makers. Later I highlighted works which combine classical elements with new innovative ideas. Nowadays, you can find some good designs from young artists at galleries in Tehran or in some tourist shops. Since finishing my book, I often share pictures from homes featured in the book.

Through these efforts for the first time could not only foreigners see what great design there is in Iran but also Iranians. Many of the places I went to were private or unknown, so I literally opened the curtains hiding these spaces and people. I do believe that Iranians themselves and foreigners could understand through these images of beauty what the country has to offer in terms of stories, history, and culture.

An essential factor for informing Non-Iranians are also media and events. I often give interviews and was featured on TV and radio. During book readings and lectures, the relationship with the reader or listener is more intimate, and so the story has a stronger effect. I experienced this a lot when being a guest at the University of Irvine, a Persian center in LA, the CANOPY coworking space in San Francisco or the Persian Heritage Foundation in London. Many US-Americans are really interested in Persian culture. Being a German woman, they believe me easier than their Iranian-American friends. They are more likely to even subconsciously change the narrative on Iran to a more positive version.

Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?

There is a renown architect in Tehran who is currently shortlisted for the Agha Khan award 2019. He has an excellent connection to the Organization of Cultural Heritage and Tourism in Iran. After reading my book, he started an initiative, which is called the Iranian House. It is an open space filled with furniture and decor by Iranian designers, artists, craftsmen, and fabricants. This temporary Persian home pops up all over the country. The architect is carrying my book always with him, ready to show some real examples. Iranians, in general, have re-discovered their heritage and identity. Cafe, restaurants, and boutique hotels are sprawling up, and many have told me that they got inspired by my images.

But more often, I have seen the effect outside of Iran. Many people in Europe told me that after seeing the images from my book, they decided to finally travel to Iran. The thought had been there, but after immersing into the beauty of the country on paper, they wanted to explore it on their own.

Was there a tipping point the made you decide to focus on this particular area? Can you share a story about that?

I was always following the news on Iran even if I didn’t work in that field. I remember reading one article in a row of many similar ones which marked the tipping point. It was published in The Guardian and highlighted Tehran as a party town. The author drew the conclusion that as people would drink and dance as we do in the West, they are actually similar to us. Why the hell would an established media outlet as The Guardian jump on the bandwagon of creating fake closeness? While of course, it is true that some parts of young Iranians do drink and dance, Iranian culture is sometimes different and sometimes similar to ‘ours’. Let alone what ‘ours’ means. In the end, Iranians are human beings and deserve to be seen from different angles than the political or the religious one. Unfortunately, media coverage on Iran rarely moves outside these areas. When reading the article by The Guardian, I realized that one day, I needed to start changing the perception on my own.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The prime game changer I see is media in the West. Consumers are open for new topics, for reports from different regions of the world, and especially for positive but also interesting stories. Journalists should get out and go for the exciting stories which are there. We are living in an era of ‘too much’, so people want high-quality curated content. Media has to actually take on that responsibility of how much they frame the perception of countries, regions, and people. They must want to create a better world by not neglecting reality but by balancing their reporting. Iran is just one of the countries suffering from lousy media coverage.

What specific strategies have you been using to promote and advance this cause? Can you recommend any good tips for people who want to follow your lead and use their social platform for a social good?

The topic is crucial. Way too often people go for areas others cover already. There are many extraordinary stories yet to be told. People should find these also in the Middle East.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Get someone on board!

I recall sitting on a bench at Barcelona airport and just hysterically crying on the phone with everyone I talked to. This was only the climax of my weekly panic attacks, which were triggered by the fear of losing all my money and overall my face in front of everyone. Looking back, I should have either started the book with a friend or partner or should have looked for a mentor. Friends and family are great, but you don’t want to overboard them, and in the end, they also don’t have the professional knowledge.

Don’t be shy to ask for help!

One copy of my book weights 3 pounds and I had to carry them in boxes of 7 up to 21 all over the world. Often, I didn’t ask for help, which made my arms rival those of Popeye, but it was more tiring.

Get professional advice on stock management!

I have a hell of respect for people deciding when to start another production run. As my book was printed offset, the minimum order was 500, but it made more sense to print 1000. That is a lot of cash, and you still have to figure out which market demands how many books if you sell like me internationally. That said, I made a lot of mistakes and even have books in multiple locations.

Pay for a PR campaign (even if it is your last money)!

When I was finalizing the book, I spent the least time on preparing the launch. I just thought I would drop it, and my leads from Instagram plus some PR I generated myself would be enough. I could have made more sales with a proper marketing campaign, hiring some agency. Time is crucial in the media business, so for most, the story was not any longer interesting after some time had passed.

Don’t rush things!

One of my weaknesses is impatience. Publishing a photo book by myself was a huge financial risk, so I wanted to reach the end as quickly as I could. But with some more time, the project would have been more successful, especially from the marketing and logistics angle.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My lifetime dream was and is to build up a venture fund supporting people and companies which challenge big companies with their ideas and inventions. We need more human and greener products to create a good world. Too often they get shut off in an early stage or don’t receive the necessary funding.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Learning about the 80–20 rule or Pareto Principle in my late 20s was an eye-opener. It states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So to be happier but also more efficient, I focus on the 20%, no matter if in private or business life. In today’s fast-paced world, perfectionism drives you into a burn-out. I believe we are here on this planet to do good and enjoy what we have.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Haha! Currently, of course, Mr. Trump. I would like to hear more about his plan for Iran and the Middle East, and his 12 months, 3 years and 5 years (financial or security?) projection. Perhaps I can convince him that a war with Iran will help no one. Maybe I can invite him for a secret dinner at one of the magical homes in Iran. We have to change his look for that, but it could work to change his mind.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram @lena_spath or Facebook @spath.lena or my blog on www.LenaSpath.com

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!


The Social Impact Heroes of Social Media: Lena Späth is using design and architecture to show the… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.