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Design Voices | Nina Yashar

To set the scene. Nilufar Depot is a cavernous, former warehouse in an industrial part of Milan, reimagined as a showroom and exhibition space by architect Massimiliano Locatelli who used the Teatro alla Scala opera house concept as the genesis of his scheme. Think scale, theatre, lighting and sweeping curtains married with creativity and desire.

The internal volume is vast, with 1500 square metres of display space including, a ground-floor atrium for gallery-style exhibits and three tiers of open box-like rooms. Like all ventures by gallerist Nina Yashar, Nilufar Depot, which opened in 2015, illustrates how she is undaunted, backing ambitious projects that have come to define her significant presence on the global design stage in driving the concept of collectible design. In the past she has described her career progress as ‘ant-like’, but then there are more gazelle- like moments where she takes brave and momentous leaps.

Pieces by design icons such as Osvaldo Borsani, Charlotte Perriand and Lina Bo Bardi sit alongside a wide range of contemporary talents – many of whom she identifies early in their careers and continues to support, such as artist Audrey Large and designer Bethan Laura Wood. In these installations, pieces speak to each other through a dialogue of rhythm, form, colour and materiality, despite their apparent lack of connection. Somehow, even when they jar, they also gel.

Majestic Nina Yashar in her signature style of bold colour and flamboyant turban. She sits, naturally, in a vintage Franco Albini lounge chair – the Ca832 designed for Cassina in 1946. Albini is a designer she has championed, creating awareness of his genius, and imbuing his pieces with a highly collectible status | Photography by Mattia Lotti

Poikilos:  new forms of iridescence by Objects of Common Interest was shown at Nilufar Depot. Through an encounter with a passionate resin expert Ovidiu Colea – who created ‘secret recipes’– Eleni Petaloti and Leonidas Trampoukis gained that knowledge when Ovidiu retired. These ethereal pieces are the result of his explorations. Trapezion, dining table and Afairesi, a console on the right | Photography by Ruy Teixeira

On the Sunday before the official opening of Milan Design Week, Nilufar Depot, and its sibling space Nilufar Gallery in Via della Spiga, present The Bright Side of Design, and open with a show called Poikilos: New Forms of Iridescence by New York-Athens-based designers Eleni Petaloti and Leonidas Trampoukis of Objects of Common Interest. Co-curated by Nina Yashar and Studio Vedèt, these mesmeric cast acrylic pieces – from sculptural vases to coffee tables – take on a shimmering white presence throughout the space, enhanced by bursts of rainbow lighting spilling from carefully placed refractors on the windows.

“My professional life is defined by curiosity,” she says. “The search for new things, new talents, meeting challenges and making discoveries – this is what feeds my soul.”

Indeed this combination of curiosity, married with instinctively knowing what has design merit and backing it with intuition, has served her well. She started selling antique carpets with her father and on a buying trip to New York, she became aware of Swedish rug designer Märta Måås – Fjetterström – and, loving what she saw, flew to Stockholm. She not only bought the rugs but, after a visit to a warehouse full of 1950s and 1960s Alvar Aalto and Hans Wegner furniture, three containers were also bought and shipped back to Milan. Her first exhibition, Swedish Rugs and Scandinavian Furniture (1998) followed and the dialogue between rugs and three- dimensional furniture pieces – that we now see as full-blown – had its genesis here.

“My professional life is defined by curiosity... the search for new things, new talents, meeting challenges and making discoveries – this is what feeds my soul.”

Photography by Filippo Pincolini
Photography by Filippo Pincolini

“You know, I think I was very lucky starting with carpet because, without carpets, I couldn’t give the ambience to the spaces and experience the kind of harmony they provide. Because if I showed you some spaces without carpet, they would be completely different; ugly, dead, even. There is a lack of energy and soul, as rugs really serve to connect everything, and you build the scenography from the floor up,” she says.

As a visitor, it is possible to wander around the series of room vignettes or scenographies. They appear logical and magical simultaneously – you marvel at the creative audacity while acknowledging their ‘rightness’. It is a fine line and is often hard-won.

Yashar tells the story of a particular ‘room’ and the creative debate around the combination of the wall and carpet colour (brown), the trial and error, the micro-movements, the shifting of a chandelier to a less logical but more impactful arrangement. Her ‘eye’ is always in, and she likes to find a quick solution while also acknowledging and encouraging her staff the need to experiment.

An example of Lola Montes Schnabel’s ceramic artichoke-shaped candle holders.

Columnae is a set of four different cabinets by Filippo Carandini where each piece is hand-painted by the designer, layering acrylic paint in a variety of tones. A final high-gloss coat protects the surface and deepens the colour | Photography by Filippo Pincolini

The interior architecture illustrates the concept of ‘gallery meets theatre’ in this photograph capturing the central zone of the ground floor of Nilufar Depot with Objects of Common Interest’s exhibition Poikilos: new forms of iridescence centre stage | Photography by Ruy Teixeira

As a strong-willed and experienced curator, she also tries to find the balance between her view and that of the creator. “I have my point of view, but I am not God, so I always try to be open to the discussion as they must be happy too.” As a lightning rod for the success of designers, she receives requests to collaborate daily. What, I ask her, sparks her interest?

“First, I need to like the object. But, I absolutely need to connect with the person – there is so much constant interaction. For me it is never just a ‘one shot’, it is about building a relationship and a career for them,” she says.

When she talks about working with artist Lola Montes Schnabel, it is a relationship of mutual respect. Schnabel learnt ceramics in Sicily and is showing a series of artichoke candle-holder sculptures in beautiful coloured glazes. Yashar is clearly delighted to work with someone who, as a painter and film maker, takes the art of scenography in her stride. This alignment of the work and the person is something that clearly makes her happy.

Now, as we sit in the magnitude of Nilufar Depot, she admits, “I don’t like ‘little’. When I had the chance to open the Depot it became a sort of continuous party for me because here I have the possibility to express myself through so many projects and, as you can see, I like to do many projects,” she says. And that is, undeniably, an understatement.

This feature originally appeared in the Milan 2023 Special Issue of est magazine. 

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