1 October 2015
We have reached lot number 88, the next is hers. One cellphone in hands-free mode to follow the action, the other a constant succession of rings, messages, calls. Nina Yashar, one of the most important dealers on the international scene, is able to maneuver skillfully between a bid, an interview, brief interruptions by her assistant, calls from her daughter and visiting collectors. And as if that were not enough, the charming dealer, famous for the windows of the prestigious Galleria Nilufar on Via della Spiga, has just finished yet another photo shoot in her new Nilufar Depot space, on Viale Lancetti, where we met her. Born in Teheran 58 years ago, Nina Yashar moved to Milan with her family in 1963. Studying the history of art in Venice, she began to work at a very young age with her father, a wholesale dealer in antique and modern carpets. But Nina’s tastes were different. She combined French carpets from the late 19th century with pieces by Prouvé and Perriand, tables and chairs by Gio Ponti and Carlo Mollino, the colors of Sottsass, the drawings of Fornasetti and even the totems of Bethan Laura Wood and the works of Martino Gamper. She has collaborated with many art dealers, designers and contemporary artists. A lot of collectors turn to her: from her friend Miuccia Prada to Marc Jacobs, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce. A curator of exhibitions, editor of catalogues, organizer, gallerist and undisputed leader among dealers, Nina Yashar is a sort of King Midas of design.
What does your work entail exactly?
Despite appearances, it’s an inferno. Sales, acquisitions, fairs, travel. And then every time an article on display is replaced there’s a lot of work to do: you have to make an effort to substitute something for it that will create the same harmony as in the previous window display. The colors have to be carefully matched, the pieces have to answer to a common design.
Is that how the windows of the Galleria Nilufar became the most famous in Milan?
Obviously the window is the gallery’s visiting card. Every time an object is moved a new balance has to be found. And then the individual pieces are never bought by private customers. We receive the images from traders and dealers and work on those.
How was Nilufar Depot born?
Initially it was supposed to be purely a storage space, given that the warehouse I have now is 100 kilometers from Milan. I created this display for the last Furniture Fair, and people liked it so much that I’ve been forbidden to turn it into a simple depository. For the moment we are keeping it open, and every day we receive around ten people, which is really a lot because they come here just for us. A big commitment, in short.
When did the idea of this space emerge?
I was dreaming of a large space, but I didn’t think it would be this big. It has been conceived as a warehouse, with an almost industrial setup, like the railings that can be dismantled to let forklift trucks through. For the moment I’m keeping it like that, and I think I’ll use it to put on some event, such as the presentation of a book or a movie.
Like Cinema Nascosto, an event linked to the Milan Design Film Festival.
It’s no coincidence, the space was conceived by Massimiliano Locatelli, who took his inspiration from La Scala, with a curtain and balconies and all that. To tell the truth, I had imagined something completely different, and thought of occupying the central part and leaving the spaces at the sides empty. Then one evening Locatelli got me to picture the opposite solution, and I realized that he was right.
What’s it like in this area, far from Montenapoleone, from Via della Spiga and from that world?
I like it a lot, because there’s a different situation. I wouldn’t say it’s more working-class, but here you still find the local bar where you can have a chat. Let’s say that there’s more humanity. In the center, on the other hand, everyone is much more pretentious.
Quite apart from the Expo, I think Milan is going through a period of great growth, thanks in part to the Fondazione Prada, which is currently perhaps the most important artistic and cultural center in the city. In my view, a ferment is coming back, a kind of Renaissance.
On the political plane, do you think that Mayor Pisapia can take the credit?
I don’t think he’s got anything to do with it. You can sense renewal in the air, a desire to put Milan back in a prominent position. People are responding by organizing interesting events.
Are you fond of Milan?
Very. In recent years it has gone through a period of decline, in the sense that people no longer wanted to deal with each other. They didn’t want to share anything with the city, didn’t want to go out. It was a dark time, there were no interesting initiatives, but now the situation has improved.
You are Iranian, at the age of six you moved to Milan. How did you manage to adapt?
As soon as I arrived in Italy from Teheran I stopped speaking my mother tongue. Like all children I wanted to fit in, and so I immersed myself in a completely different cultural situation, but without this meaning I had to sacrifice my own culture, my habits, my origins. There’s nothing you can do about it though: the more time passes, the more you adapt to a different reality.
What memories do you have of Iran?
Very few. But I do remember that in the sixties Teheran experienced a moment of great splendor. It was the time of the Shah. Unfortunately there was great social inequality, on one side the rich, on the other extreme poverty. I have a distant memory of big houses, gold-plated faucets, in short ostentatious and magnificent things.
You arrived in Milan, but chose Venice for your studies.
I studied at Ca’ Foscari, attending the university while staying in Milan. During my years there I had a great desire to be doing things, so I started to work straightaway with my papa, a wholesale dealer in antique and modern carpets. But I didn’t like what he was handling. Already I desired to be surrounded by beauty.
How did you tell your father?
I told him I wanted to open a gallery and he said to me: “All right, then look for a place.”
It didn’t take long because you found your first place on Via Bigli at once, didn’t you?
That’s right. I remember that the rent was 21 million lire a year. It was 1979. I was there for twelve long years, then the owners took the building back and I had to look for another place.
Where did you end up?
At Via Manzoni 23, in a courtyard. In that period Provençal furnishings from the late 19th century and early 20th century were in vogue. I had a lot of pieces that I found in the flea markets of Avignon. It was an immediate success.
But you didn’t stop there.
In 1989, before opening the store on Via Manzoni, I had found some spaces on Via della Spiga. At a certain point, unable to keep track of both of them, I chose the more prestigious location of Via della Spiga. Over the course of time I obtained permission to open windows, make alterations and spread out onto the upper floors. I started to show my carpets inserting a 19th-century picture here and there, because I’ve always liked diversifying.
When did the famous catalogues of your expositions first appear?
It was in the nineties that I started to create these catalogues, in which each piece is photographed on our premises. It was partly through my catalogues, which were literally snapped up, that I made a name for myself at an international level.
They call you Queen Midas, it seems that anything you touch turns to gold.
That’s too easy a thing to say. I have my own point of view, I like to take risks, set trends. But in any case it’s an exaggeration. It may be that people say it because I’ve always loved bringing completely new pieces onto the market. What I really enjoy has always been finding new things.
How do you find new things?
Clearly it’s a risk, because the market may not be ready. But this is what I’ve always loved doing and it’s my only real luxury. I’m a queen just in this sense, because I allow myself luxuries of this kind.
Can you explain that better?
If I fall in love with 16th-century Chinese furniture tomorrow, I can allow myself to take pieces and present them. I have no frontiers. And then I can change my mind. I do what I want to do.
Where does it come from, this restlessness of yours, if we can call it that?
It’s a restlessness linked to the continual desire for novelty. I get bored very easily.
How long does a passion, a fascination last for you?
It depends. If the fascination can be strengthened and if I find other pieces that converse with the object I have fallen in love with, then I create a more lasting vision. I’m interested in the overall vision, and understanding whether in a certain current there are situations that diverge completely from one another.
Give me some examples.
Let’s take a piece of Tibetan furniture from the 16th century, an Indian carpet and a piece of contemporary design, that’s really fun.
How do you put them together and understand whether a connection has been established?
I don’t have a particular system, Everyone asks me how I do it, but I don’t have a fixed rule: it’s a spontaneous, intuitive process. Everything is linked to a moment of creativity inside me.
How did you assemble the pieces inside the Nilufar Depot?
I did it all at my desk, looking through my inventory and my archives and saying to myself continually: I’ll put this, that and that too. I’ve sold the piece that ought to go there, so I’ll have to think of something else. That’s more or less how it went.
Do you have an anecdote about your activity to tell me?
I was already in Via della Spiga and I had some French Aubusson and Savonnerie carpets in the window. I’d been one of the first to propose them, and they were well suited to a phase of mine, let’s call it that, which was aesthetically rich, abundant. But in that very same period I discovered Swedish carpets, and it was a revolution. I flew to Stockholm and put myself in the hands of a gentleman who in the space of two hours got me to buy twenty carpets. I kept them for the next exhibition and I could hardly wait to pull them out.
And with the Swedish carpets you won everyone over.
Yes, but it was in part a mistake, because there is a time for everything. I had just launched the Aubussons and in less than a year I took them out of the window and replaced them with the Swedish carpets, which were poles apart! In that period, people who went past the gallery used to say: “But there must be a new owner here!” You see the risk of presenting new things that no one is familiar with?
What is the story behind these Swedish carpets?
A long one. I was in New York, strolling around with my agent, and at a certain point I looked up and saw a carpet I’d never seen before in the window of a well-known dealer. I asked around, but everyone told me not to set foot in the place because the owner was disagreeable. I went there anyway and after repeated requests obtained the answer I wanted. Two months later I was in Sweden.
Why do you say it’s better not to do things too fast?
I took out the French carpets after launching them on the market and having given other stores, which had followed my instinct, the possibility of making money. I favored the competition, while I set about selling something completely different.
What did you think when you heard people saying the owner must have changed?
I realized that it was pure schizophrenia, a bit like someone who dealt in pictures of the 18th century and then all of a sudden, the day after, started selling contemporary art. It’s not a good idea.
On the subject of the familiar and the unfamiliar, at a certain point I was faced with another important choice: I began to understand the contemporary, in art and in design. I asked myself, shall I throw myself into the ring or not?
We come to a crucial question. Do you think design can be assimilated to art or does it have to be purely functional?
Personally, I’ve always wanted to maintain a consistent attitude. As far as I’m concerned design has to be functional, period.
There are special situations, obviously. The “biggest” piece I’ve ever bought is the set of a hundred of Martino Gamper’s chairs. A purchase that gave me an incredible feeling. I took just a few seconds to buy them, I didn’t even want to look at them because the first had already won me over. Well, that’s a work that I would place between art and design, because Gamper was the first to use recycled elements, creating a system.
Tell me about Martino Gamper, then.
We’ve been working together for about ten years, we have an excellent relationship. In a sense I was the one who launched him on the market. Today he has acquired a great reputation, is highly thought of and works with many contemporary art galleries. Because he has a very intuitive, almost instinctive, way of doing things. Just like me.
Like attracts like.
We are alike, but we take a complementary approach to the work we do: he is the mind, I am the heart. I see a piece, I like it and I buy it, that’s all. I don’t have to think too much about it.
So if you like it then it doesn’t matter who it’s by?
Unfortunately things are different now. I don’t enjoy myself quite as much as before, because in a gallery of design there’s not that much wriggle room. At the international fairs everything has to be of a certain type, even if I still look at the works of young designers. What I like more than anything is the beautiful piece, if you want the truth.
If only it were as simple as that. Let’s try to give beauty a definition.
For me beauty is first of all functionality. It has to be consistent with what it does. This desk of Gio Ponti’s (she points at the nearby piece of furniture, author’s note), for instance, it’s not a matter of liking it or not. It’s simply divine. How can I explain to you why it’s beautiful?
We could talk about canons of beauty.
For me beauty is an object that is extremely conceptual or, on the contrary, that expresses a refined, intrinsic luxury. For example, these two chandeliers are by Ico Parisi: they are highly intellectual and converse with equally conceptual pieces, Carlo Mollino’s tools.
Why do you use the word converse?
There is a continual conversation and synergy between the objects and the people that inhabit a space. I delight in creating visions, atypical conversations between pieces of furniture. I like things that clash. I don’t follow a precise formula, I like to roam freely: American, French design, dining-room furniture, contemporary pieces, the sixties.
What was your hobby when you were young?
Going out, escaping. I was always heading down the stairs, I could never keep still. I had a basic restlessness.
You are an important figure on the Milan scene. What do you think of the women who have a leadership role in the city? I’m thinking of Miuccia Prada, Franca Sozzani, Marina Berlusconi…
A woman, if she has the luck to be able to express what she has inside her and to do what she wants, if she has passion and intuition and a job that she likes, she goes ahead, she doesn’t stop. When a woman is feisty, she’s feisty. She doesn’t give up.
Is it true that your father called you the wild one?
Yes, because I always did the opposite of what he told me.
This too is part of being a woman.
Absolutely, being combative, indomitable, determined to pursue your own dream, what your inner voice tells you.
Women, though, compared with men, still face greater insecurity in the workplace.
It’s passion that conquers all. It’s with passion that you overcome insecurity. In the beginning my papa did everything he could to get me to change the way I worked. He used to say that out of a sample of a hundred people I was capable of buying an object that only three would like.
Those three are the ones that make the difference.
My father criticized my approach. For twenty years he made me cry. He used to ask me why I bought strange carpets that nobody liked. For him, difficulty of interpretation simply didn’t make commercial sense.
Can we go into this question of “interpretation?”
For me everything that is difficult and rare, everything that people can’t see, is like a gift. I discover it and put it on show, I reveal it. Even my husband (a consultant to Prada, author’s note) says the same. He’s come with me a couple of times and told me: “You’re crazy, when are you ever going to be able to sell it?” It’s always been like that, I’ve always bought very strange things. Which then are the first to sell.
You sell them to a select few.
I’m not interested in interacting with everyone, just with those who understand my language.
Who are the people who understand your language?
People connected with the world of creativity. Fashion designers, for example, accustomed to questioning their own work and so very open to new things. My focus is on those are continually honing their own creativity.
What do your customers think of this space?
People love this space because it feels like someone’s home, you don’t have the impression you’re entering an industrial place. This too is fusion.
How many young designers and artists come to you in a day?
Once I was always ready to see them, but I can’t do it any longer because I have too many things on my plate.
Do you have any rule or advice to give?
Who am I to suggest rules or give advice?