When Nina Yashar began to renovate and decorate her home 23 years ago, Milan was in a deep 1980s slumber. “The architects that were trendy at the time were [Lorenzo] Mongiardino, [Filippo] Perego, [Piero] Castellini and [Piero] Pinto,” she says, rolling her big brown eyes. “Everything was covered in brocade. And I mean everything.”
Ever the rebel, Yashar snubbed the mega-architects in town and their more-is-more aesthetic. In fact, she snubbed architects altogether and made the maverick move of selecting Giancarlo Montebello, a jewelry designer, to design her home.
“He had never designed a house before,” she says. She tracked him down after zeroing in on a tiny gold-foil ring detail he had created on the inner rim of a marble column at a client’s home. “But he is a man of extremely cultured, good taste. And that is what I wanted.”
Yashar’s apartment is not grand or precious. The rooms are small, the ceilings low. But it nonetheless possesses a very cool, curated air. Her casa is a perfect example of how to transform basic bones into something of powerful beauty. Richness is everywhere you look but imported minimally thanks to the clean hand of Montebello, who engraved walls and ceilings with geometric Persian symbols and patterns, then frescoed them in varying layers of blue and white. More than two decades later, the home still feels absolutely contemporary.
Montebello, who became one of Yashar’s closest friends, now oversees all of the design doyenne’s interiors, including her celebrated Nilufar shop in Via della Spiga and the stands she builds at design fairs such as PAD in London or Design Miami. “These are obviously encounters from past lives, because clearly this doesn’t happen very often,” she says of selecting an architect on the basis of two miniscule rings.
Yashar is all about small details, intuition and making snappy, gut-decisions. That’s exactly how she got into the design world just over a decade ago. “Everyone thinks I’ve been doing this for a lifetime,” she says. “But no, I just invented this career.”
Nilufar gallery kicked off in 1979 as a specialist in antique carpets that Yashar sourced from all corners of the globe. But 15 years ago, on a third trip to Stockholm to buy a collection of Swedish rugs, her attention started to shift.
“I bought 21 carpets in two hours and didn’t have anything else to do,” Yashar recalls. “So a man brought me to a warehouse to see some Nordic design.” The eagle-eyed Yashar bought several pieces on a whim, including a wardrobe by Alvar Aalto, the renowned mid-century Finnish architect and designer. “I didn’t even know who Aalto was,” she admits.
Her entry into the sector could not have come at a better time. Just as antique carpets were losing steam, contemporary and mid-century design was igniting as a new trend. As Nilufar’s focus shifted, so too did the furniture pieces in her home, which slowly became populated with mid-century masterpieces. In place of a classic round table with a draped tablecloth in the center of her dining room, for example, she now has an enormous Bruno Mathsson table pushed at a dramatic angle, surrounded by 12 magnificent 1950s chairs by Carlo Mollino, one of the most collectible Italian furniture designers of the 20th century, covered in original red leather.
The tables in her den are by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and cult Danish designer Arne Jacobsen. The guest room bed is by the lesser-known but highly regarded Italian designer Osvaldo Borsani. Her terrace features stone benches she bought in Vietnam together with ingenious red metal cage-net tables and chairs designed by Montebello. Of course, there are still vestiges of the home’s past life. Upstairs, her 19th-century bathtub floats in the middle of her bathroom, where two Pucci vintage carpets are thrown on the floor like bathmats next to a green emerald satin slipper chair. A Biedermeier cabinet in the dining room (which can unfold into three levels) now features an artwork by the edgy Belgian contemporary artist Cartsen Holler (who also designed Miuccia Prada’s slide at the Prada Headquarters in Milan). An early 20th-century banquette that she covered in deep green cotton velvet is the one piece that is purposefully off-topic. “It’s very bon-ton,” she says with a smile, “and the only piece that feels truly ‘Milanese’ in the entire house.”
La Nina’s Design Tips for Good Investments, Spotting Fakes and Gut Instincts
- Antique furniture is about to get big. “Over the last 15 years antiques lost their value even though something from the 18th century should in fact cost more than something made in the 1950s. I am certain that in the next three years 17th to 19th century pieces will come back.”
- Mix your time periods. “The point here is not to embrace any epoch fully. Real modernity is about knowing how to synchronize and correlate different time periods. Creating synergy between them in a single house is the hardest thing to do, but when it turns out well it is the most beautiful.”
- Contemporary rugs from the 20th century are a better investment than antique rugs. Look out for early 20th-century Iranian kilims (like the one in her dining room) and Danish rugs, which are much more valuable than Swedish ones because they are rare. “The most important Danish rug designer is Vibeke Klint.”
- Spotting a Gio Ponti fake takes razor eyes and a reputation. “They’re never signed. Furniture in general is never signed. You need to be an expert who has seen many and can sense the patina of the wood.”
- Shake up the scenery to keep intrigue high. Nina bought a classically shaped vintage Andre Sornay chair but then reupholstered it in shaggy, real Mongolian fur.
- Seek out invention: Nilufar Gallery is known for its skyrocket prices and pedigreed design. But Nina also loves (relatively more) affordable, innovative pieces such as Michael Annastassiades’ ‘Tip of the Tongue’ lamps.
- Go from the gut: “Everyone always asks me, ‘What are the rules [to place design pieces together]?’ But there are no rules. I use my intuition.”
– J.J. Martin
- Creative Director- J.J. Martin
- Photographer- Alberto Zanetti
- Fashion Director- Viviana Volpicella