Photography by Sara Lorusso
Words by Grace O’Neill
REVERED MILAN GALLERIST NINA YASHAR ON CREATIVE IMPULSES, THE POLITICS OF TASTE AND THE JOYS OF WORKING WITH LIVING DESIGNERS.
Now well into her fifth decade in the business, Nina Yashar boasts an exacting creative eye that has made her an icon in the design world. Grace O’neill speaks to the Nilufar gallery founder at Milan design fair about creative impulses, the joys of working with designers who are still alive and the politics of good taste.
Watch the exclusive interview below.
There is something decidedly regal about Nina Yashar. Perhaps it’s the setting in which we meet—Nilufar Depot, Yashar’s sprawling three-level, 1500-square-metre design showroom-cum-art-gallery in Milan. It might also have to do with the way people treat her, from the hushed reverence of her well-dressed assistants to the feverish intensity of the fans who ask her for selfies during our time together. Or it could be as simple as the way Yashar carries herself, her signature silk turban worn with a bold magenta architectural cape by Comme des Garçons and towering Prada sandals. What’s clear is that Nina Yashar—from her slow, deliberate movements to her measured Italian lilt—is a woman who commands respect.
If the Italian design world had anything resembling a sovereign, Yashar would be it. The 66-year-old has established herself as one of the most exacting tastemakers in Milan; no small feat in a city that lives and breathes design. We meet during Milan Design Week, also known as Salone del Mobile, when more than 370,000 people descend on the city. Nilufar Gallery, the legendary studio Yashar founded in 1979, is among the most essential stops on a schedule that lists thousands of exhibitors.
In the hours before my interview with her I visit the space alongside a group of interior designers. Battle-hardened from a week of endless showroom visits, all three practically melt when they crossed paths with Nilufar, cooing and cawing at the singular splendour of Yashar’s curation. Set on the trendy Via della Spiga in the heart of Brera, Nilufar Gallery contains five rooms, including ‘Chez Nina’, a hidden upstairs bolthole curated specially for Salone.
Showcasing her ability to blend contemporary and vintage, the minimalist with the unapologetically bold, Yashar’s galleries are a kind of visual feast that demand an extended period of immersion to properly digest. In one room, we spot a set of walnut and black leather chairs by Italian designers Afra Bianchin and Tobia Scarpa (part of the Nilufar Vintage collection). In another, a chandelier of signature cone-shaped lights by contemporary British designer Joe Armitage. Elsewhere, there’s a custom modular sofa by David/Nicolas in plush emerald velvet; and a spectacular dining table made of handpainted acrylic, a glorious palette of orchid pink, seafoam green, and rich cobalt by Filippo Carandini. “It’s just so good,” I hear one of my companions mutter to themself, under the awning of a selection of sustainable lighting installations made to mimic tree branches dancing in the wind, created by the young Italian designer Maximilian Marchesani.
Yashar’s journey to design began in childhood. She arrived in Italy aged six, when her father—an oriental carpet dealer—relocated the family to escape the political turmoil that was engulfing their native Iran. The enduring impact of Yashar’s country of birth remains present in her work. “It’s something that’s in my heritage, in my blood,” she explains. We are tucked away in a quiet room in Nilufar Depot, the second Nilufar location, which Yashar opened in 2015. “Persia has always been the mother of culture, one of the most important cultures… For Persian people, everything was about ‘the house’: the art, the objects, the collections. This is a part of my DNA.”
Yashar has no distinct memories of loving design in childhood—she didn’t artfully curate her bedroom, for example. But she was inspired by her father’s work, and followed him into the carpet trade. She was just 22 when she launched Nilufar (named after her sister, whose name means lotus flower in Farsi), specialising in antique oriental and European carpets. She spent the next decade developing a sterling reputation and mayhave stayed in carpets for the rest of her career, were it not for a fortuitous trip to New York City in the late 90s. “We were there researching antique carpets, and suddenly I discovered a carpet that was like nothing I had ever seen in my life,” she recalls. The carpet was Swedish, a midcentury piece, and upon seeing it Yashar instinctively booked a ticket to Stockholm. “I was supposed to stay for three days, but after one day, I had already bought more than 20 carpets,” she laughs.
Her love affair with midcentury design had begun. To fill the remaining days, she started investigating vintage furniture, and stumbled on a “huge garage” full of midcentury Scandinavian pieces. “I didn’t know anything about it, so I started buying some Swedish historical design pieces. They were so cheap compared to carpets that, for me, it was quite easy to make a quick decision because it wasn’t a big investment.” A testament to Yashar’s eye, which was then untrained in the world of furniture, all the items she picked out turned out to be important pieces by masters of Scandinavian design Alvar Aalto, Hans J. Wegner and Bruno Mathsson.
“PERSIA HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE MOTHER OF CULTURE […] FOR PERSIAN PEOPLE, EVERYTHING WAS ABOUT ‘THE HOUSE’: THE ART, THE OBJECTS, THE COLLECTIONS. THIS IS A PART OF MY DNA.”
“I later found out the Alvar Aalto piece was a wardrobe he designed for the Paimio Sanatorium,” Yashar says, referring to the former tuberculosis infirmary in southwest Finland that Aalto designed in 1929. “It’s something so minimal, so simple. I don’t know why, but I was attracted to it. And when I came back, I was so surprised by the story of this piece. Because it’s curved, it’s wide, it’s simple, but it was for people who were going to hospital. It’s raised 50 centimetres off the ground, and the way you hung clothes in it wasn’t practical. I don’t know why, but aesthetically I just decided [I needed] to buy it.” Those pieces—now highly valuable and still a part of Yashar’s personal collection—became the basis of a groundbreaking show at Nilufar Gallery in 1998, Tappeti svedesi e mobili scandinavi.
The exhibition brought together mid-century Scandinavian furniture and juxtaposed it with Middle Eastern carpets from the Nilufar archive. It marked the beginning of a new chapter in Yashar’s creative life. In 2005, Yashar made another bold career pivot, deciding to put antique and vintage collecting on hold in order to jump head-first into the still-emerging world of contemporary design. This was pre-GFC, when a trend was emerging of newly wealthy finance bros investing millions of dollars in contemporary art and hanging the pieces in “poorly decorated homes”, Yashar says. She saw an opportunity to educate this clientele that contemporary design was just as valuable as contemporary art.
Art Basel Miami, then still in its infancy, was to be the centre of this re-education. Yashar championed the early work of London-based Italian designer Martino Gamper, purchasing his now-iconic 100 chairs installation in 2006. A year later, the pair worked together again on a risky project that saw Gamper “re-appropriate” pieces of furniture designed by Gio Ponti for the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento. There were fears the end result would be seen as sacrilegious to the great master, but Gamper’s pieces, unveiled as part of that year’s Art Basel Miami, were a huge hit, even earning the acclaim of Ponti’s family. “My real passion is always to find new creators,” Yashar says.
“It’s not always easy, because sometimes I can see the origin of a future project, but sometimes [the creator] doesn’t really know the power of their idea. So, my work is […] the advice that I give to them, and those conversations really nourish me. It feels like giving birth to something.” Above all, what everyone wants from Nina Yashar—her private clients, the young creators who consult with her, the brands that tap her to curate their spaces—is access to her taste. Which brings us to an inevitable question: is that level of good taste learnable? What is it that gives a person the ability to pick an Alvar Aalto out of a room of furniture before they have even learned who Alvar Aalto is?
Both bring a rich intellectualism to their craft that sets them apart from their peers. To look at, they could pass for sisters. “We bonded over a curiosity, a dialectic,” Yashar says. “We have always had an interesting conversation with each other. It helps you to go forward.” Their friendship has developed into a professional dialogue too. Miuccia Prada is a longtime client of Yashar’s, and Yashar is, in turn, often decked out in head-to-toe Prada. Fashion is, in many ways, as much a passion for her as design. “In the late 80s, the Nilufar Gallery was on Via Bigli opposite the Saint Laurent store. I remember I spent all of my money on those amazing clothes,” Yashar says. “They are all iconic now and I still have them all. They are still very contemporary, very modern.
I am a collector of fashion as well. I like special pieces […] that’s why I’ve bought so much from Prada. She has an incredible eye.” After a rambling discussion about fashion (Yashar’s other favourite designers include Fendi, Miu Miu, and Valentino, she loves Rei Kawakubo and has her turbans made by a Roman milliner called Atlalen), we finish our interview and Yashar makes a move to leave. She is quickly swamped by calls of “Nina” and a mix of faces, both familiar and unfamiliar, politely asking for photographs. I know she is exhausted— it’s the penultimate day of Design Week—but she greets each of them with the grace and patience of a benevolent monarch. Having now spent time with the space’s curator, I make a point of revisiting the Depot’s 28 rooms.
It strikes me this time around that what Nina Yashar does is not as simple as designing interiors, scenelogy, or mise en scène; she creates entire worlds, dozens of them, hundreds over her lifetime, each rich with its own narrative, hinting at some imagined past lives, or brimming with the potential of future lives to come. It’s a marvel of a thing that human beings have a natural compulsion to place beautiful objects together in this way. Remarkable that the sum of so many parts can create something so spectacular. I asked Yashar if she could explain the impulse, but she was unable to. “It’s just instinct,” she offers. “It comes out when your mind is empty. It’s freedom.”