Powerhouse Nina Yashar carves out her own, innovative space in the design world

To the Beat of Her Own Drum

By Anna Carnick

From the moment you enter Nilufar Gallery, situated on Milan’s prestigious Via della Spiga, there’s a sense that you’re on the verge of discovery. The three-story space is dotted with perfectly composed design vignettes, one leading seamlessly to the next, drawing you further and further in. Every scene is an eclectic, unexpected mix of rich carpets, exceptional historical design pieces—works by Gio Ponti, Franco Albini, Pierre Cardin , and more—and contemporary designs by the likes of Martino Gamper and Arik Levy.

The overall feel is rich, sophisticated, and glamorous—at the same time, though, the presentations feel effortless, accessible, weightless even. Thanks to the skillful curation of Nilufar founder and curator Nina Yashar, every individual piece is given its due space whilst also interacting in a larger chorus.

“Sometimes,” Yashar says, smiling, “I feel like a schizophrenic, because I like such very different things. But there is coherence. I love beauty, and that is the little thread between all my projects.”

Looking around us—we are seated at a Jean Royère card table, lit from above by Venini sconces, and demurely flanked by Gamper screens—Yashar tells me, “I like many different languages—different materials, different narratives—and I like to mix these languages in the same space. I really pay attention to how I install pieces, and which works are going to make the right conversations together; this is fundamental for me.”

These unique dialogues are what Yashar is known best for; combinations that cast new light on storied pieces and give weight to newer works. And despite the players involved, she always achieves a sense of balance and ease. As British designer Bethan Laura Wood puts it, “Nina has great passion and vision for what she creates—and she always creates spaces of such warmth, places that could be lived in and with, rather than just viewed from afar.”

Over the years, Yashar’s consistent eye and propensity to toy with traditional exhibition concepts—crossing boundaries of eras and aesthetics—have rightfully made her one of the world’s most respected design gallerists. And she’s earned that reputation step by step. Born in Tehran in the 1950s, Yashar’s father—a successful oriental rug merchant—moved the family to Milan in 1963. When she decided to launch her own business in 1979, Yashar began with what she knew best, antique carpets. As Nilufar expanded over the years, so did the provenance of her pieces. Along the way, she introduced Milanese buyers to a variety of carpets they’d never seen before—pieces from Turkey, France, Iran, Tibet, and beyond. On a fortuitous carpet-scouting trip to Stockholm in the nineties, Yashar found herself in a warehouse full of modern furniture pieces. Though she had no idea what she was looking at, Yashar bought several pieces “just for fun,” and, upon returning to Milan, learned that her gut had served her well. On pure instinct, she’d selected pieces by mid-century masters. “I showed the furniture to a friend who told me, ‘This is a Wegner! This is an Aalto! You chose amazing things!’ This was the start of a new passion for me, one that has followed me through today.”

Inside Nilufar Gallery © Mattia Balsamini for L'AB/Pamono
Yashar began presenting these vintage Scandinavian pieces alongside her diverse carpets, artfully combining them into surprising mosaics that offered viewers new ways of looking at each individual object. Over the years, bit-by-bit, she began adding objects and furniture to her collection by an array of important European and American designers—everyone from Piero Fornasetti, Gio Ponti, and Ettore Sottsass to Charlotte Perriand, Jacques Adnet, Verner Panton, and Paul Evans . As Yashar says, “I like that people encounter variety when they come into my gallery; I’d hate to always have it be the same.”

About a decade ago, the gallerist expanded her palette even farther. “When Design Miami/Basel started, I understood that we also had to move into the contemporary field,” Yashar notes. The first young designer to catch her eye? The Italian-born, London-based talent Martino Gamper, who, at that time, was just completing his breakout 100 Chairs in 100 Days project (For Chairs, Gamper reworked furniture pieces collected over two years—some from the streets, some from friends' homes—into new pieces, all designed and constructed over the course of 100 days.)

“When we started working together,” Gamper recalls, “I was so young, and I hadn’t really worked much with gallerists before. Nina would call me every day, sometimes twice a day. She was just so excited about all these ideas, and it was interesting to see someone so emotionally invested as well. It was a really exciting development for her to work with a young designer, too. It wasn’t just about the work as a transaction—it was a real relationship. Initially, I told her she was calling me more than my girlfriend,” he says, laughing. “We’ve had a lot of fun together, and I really respect what she does. She has become a great friend.”

Inside Nilufar © Mattia Balsamini for L'AB/Pamono
Asked what he thinks makes Yashar stand out from other gallerists working today, Gamper replies, “I really admire Nina’s vision for putting pieces together. I’ve always liked that she shows your work alongside amazing pieces done by designers and architects often some many years ago. I also like the fact that she is honest and gets right to the point; and when she really likes something, she gets very excited. From a designer’s point of view, there’s such a draw to working with people with passion.”

American designer Lindsey Adelman, a more recent addition to the Nilufar roster, concurs. “I adore working with Nina. She is fearless and honest, so as a designer you have to be ready for that. I love her taste and respect her historical knowledge, so when she critiques, I listen!”

Yashar’s contemporary program continues to grow with additions such as Belgian Maarten de Ceulaer, Spanish-born, Milan-based Patricia Urquiola, and London-based Studio Glithero. And as time goes on, Yashar steadily carves out new ways to innovate within her field. I love beauty, and that is the little thread between all my projects.

In the past few years, in fact, in collaboration with esteemed art galleries like Balice Hertling and Giò Marconi, Yashar has created a hit series of pop-up exhibitions under the umbrella of “Squat” that further showcase her fearless yet refined eye. The nomadic exhibition concept goes beyond the traditional gallery or fair setting by combining diverse design and art pieces in extraordinary architectural contexts—each one curated as a “fictional private living space.” The goal is to encourage observers to see the displayed art and design pieces with fresh eyes, and to view them in (fantastically covetable) residential spaces. “This is my favorite formula now,” Yashar says, “because I can express myself with my pieces inside a real environment. And ultimately, this is the sort of environment they will end up in, a home.”

Since 2012, “Squat”—or as it was known in one incarnation, “Spot”—has touched down in Paris twice, once in a 350 square meter flat on the Avenue Victor Hugo in the heart of the city (lent to Yashar by a customer), and once at the Hôtel de Miramion, a 1500 square meter, 16th-century hôtel particulier near Notre Dame. Most recently, Squat made its home in Beirut’s Metropolitan Art Society, a contemporary gallery set in the grand 19th-century Bustros Palace; that exhibition mixed pieces by design legends like Franco Albini and Gio Ponti and today’s stars—Zaha Hadid, Massimiliano Locatelli, and Studio Nucleo—with pieces by contemporary artists like Isabelle Cornaro, Alexander May, and Greg Parma Smith.

Squat is Yashar's well of inspiration. Describing the series, she says, “My problem is that I have so many different projects in my mind, but I never have space enough; so this has been really the most interesting experience in my life.”

In addition, the project is another avenue for Yashar to keep her finger firmly on the pulse of young design talent: While in Lebanon for Squat this past winter, Yashar had the chance to meet and commission work by bright, young Beirut-based design duo David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem (a.k.a. david/nicolas); now the latest additions to come into the Nilufar fold. Describing the experience of working with Yashar, the pair practically gushes. “Working with Nina is an honor. Two years ago in Milan, looking at her gallery window, we wanted just one thing: to have at least one of our pieces in her collection. This is the best thing that has happened to us, not only for the objects we’ve shown with her, but for the things we’ve learned from her.”

Martino Gamper's House Plan carpet for the Salotto show Courtesy of Nilufar
The designers’ first collection for Nilufar, called Dualita, was one of the most noted series at Milan Design Week 2014.  Its stools, chairs, and benches reference midcentury Italian design with an au courant twist, thanks to oversized proportions and mixed materials like iron, patinated copper accents, and colorful, jewel-toned upholstery. The result seems both a conscious nod to the designers’ diverse, Lebanese background and also completely Yashar. As david/nicolas note, “Nina knows exactly what she wants, and she will always give you her best advice. The hardest part is understanding Nina’s sensitivity to colors, shapes, and materials. She looks far further than we do. Nina is timeless and a true visionary.”

And this week, as Nilufar debuts its latest show in Basel, entitled Salotto (living room)—centered around a newly commissioned, unique Martino Gamper rug depicting the floor plan of a house, joined by important historical Italian and international contemporary designs—there’s no doubt Yashar’s presentation will, as usual, stand out from the pack. For as Gamper notes, “There’s a lot of trends out there, but there’s only one Nina Yashar.”

  • Text by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.
  • Images by

    • Mattia Balsamini

      Mattia Balsamini

      After a number of years freelancing while traveling, Mattia moved back to his home town of Pordenone, Italy, where he continues to pursue his passion for photography. He loves bread, apples, warm weather, and fast alpine skiing.

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