Designer Spotlight

Kirill Istomin Creates Interiors from Russia with Love

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Russian designer Kirill Istomin is known for mixing American and European sensibilities (portrait by Mikhail Stepanov). Top: In a villa on France’s Côte d’Azur, Istomin took inspiration for the custom chairs from 1970s Italian design, which is the period and country of origin of the chandelier. The table is by Karl Springer (photo by Simon Upton).

Moscow-born and -based decorator Kirill Istomin began to draw at an early age. Indeed, he still has a portrait that he made of his mother when he was just four years old. (“It’s actually not that bad,” he says matter-of-factly.) He also created his own illustrations for the early-19th-century Alexander Pushkin novel Eugene Onegin. “I was not so interested in the people,” he notes of his childhood attraction to the book. “My main focus was the settings.”

Given that focus, it should come as no surprise to learn that Istomin developed a precocious passion for interiors, too. He recounts how he spent childhood art classes creating miniature versions of historical rooms from cardboard, one of which has survived: a pink salon with wall paneling. Around the age of nine, he also painted an enfilade of 18th-century rooms on one of his bedroom walls. “I did this faux perspective with consoles and commodes,” he recalls fondly.

Today, Istomin creates an almost dizzying number of spaces for real. “At any given time, I’m working on twenty-five living rooms and thirty-five bedrooms,” the designer, only half jokingly, says about the multiple projects he works on simultaneously. “It’s a lot of rooms to think of all at once.” He maintains a Moscow office of 20 employees and throughout Russia is considered to be a designer in a league of his own.

“He’s no doubt the most important Russian decorator,” notes the editor in chief of Elle Decoration Russia, Aleksey Dorozhkin. “His interiors are a refined mix of historical quotes, bold designs, outstanding craftsmanship and made-to-measure objects.”

“He dreams big, and I love it,” says the New York–based interior designer Anthony Baratta, whom Istomin initially befriended on Instagram. “He elevates the European traditional sensibility to new heights.”


Kirill Istomin Creates Interiors from Russia with Love
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Kirill Istomin Creates Interiors from Russia with Love

Recently featured in American Elle Décor, Istomin reimagined an 18th-century pavilion in the park town of Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg, as a luxe weekend retreat. The sofa and armchair are custom while the iron shell chairs are from the 1950s. Photos in this slide show by Fritz von der Schulenburg, unless otherwise noted

Chinoiserie accents abound at Tsarskoe Selo, from the secretary to the Chinese-silk lampshades. The apple-green walls set off the art, which includes neat rows of 18th-century Japanese watercolors.

In the pavilion’s master bedroom, Istomin flanked a pagoda-shaped headboard with rare 18th-century giltwood mirrors. He modeled the purple silk pillows after a classical Chinese shape that he saw in Hong Kong.

The Chinese theme continues into the dining room, where 18th- and 19th-century teapots from Sotheby’s Brooke Astor auction rest on a Chinese Chippendale–style dining table. Custom pagoda lampshades finish the vintage gilt-metal lamps on the buffet. The vintage Chinese lantern was a Paris find.

In the Côte d’Azur villa, pops of orange enliven the large living room, where custom carpets evoke river rocks. The table lamps were custom-made by Christopher Spitzmiller, and the custom club chairs were inspired by a William Haynes design. The ’70s cerused-oak armchairs in orange are the only original furnishings that remain in the redesigned house, though they set the tone for the architectural woodwork. Photo by Simon Upton

Since setting up his own practice 14 years ago, Istomin has worked on a diverse assortment of projects. Among them is a 6,500-square-foot villa on the Italian coast, whose stunning living room he refers to as “Tony Duquette-meets-SeaWorld.” It features a cornice decorated with seashells and 17th-century sconces from a Sicilian cathedral. There is also a more sedate 27,000-square-foot private house in the French Riviera town of Antibes with a marine palette and countless references to pebbles and coral, as well as a 6,000-square-foot Moscow penthouse that he describes as more urban and modern, “with lots of beiges, which is unusual for me.”

For another client, Istomin recently transformed one of the pavilions in the park town of the imperial palace of Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg, into a fanciful weekend home. Featured in the January 2016 issue of American Elle Décor, the pavilion was part of a pagoda-style Chinese Village imagined by Catherine the Great back in the 18th century. Inspired by the architecture, Istomin came up with a stylish but relaxed interior featuring numerous Chinoiserie touches, four-foot-high sconces in the style of Tony Duquette and pelmets modeled on the building’s sweeping roofs. It was a dream commission. “I’m super-fascinated with all the Russian palaces, especially Pavlovsk,” Istomin explains. “They’re just so inspirational.”

To finish the entrance hall of the Côte d’Azur villa, Istomin commissioned French artist Thomas Boog to create three shell-encrusted bas-reliefs. Photo by Simon Upton

Istomin was born in Moscow in 1976. His father, an urban planner, worked on the reconstruction of the Armenian city of Vanadzor after a massive earthquake in 1988 all but destroyed the area. Four years later, Istomin père was appointed architectural consultant to the World Bank, which led the family to relocate to Washington, D.C. There, Istomin attended the Corcoran School of Art for 12 months before switching to Parsons School of Design, in New York, where he lived in what he calls a “super-small” apartment in the West Village.

The summer after his second year at Parsons, he obtained an internship at Parish-Hadley, then considered the grande dame of American decorating firms, famous for a style that mixed the English sensibility of Sister Parish with her partner Albert Hadley’s stricter architectural approach. Istomin segued into a full-time position. “For me, it was amazing,” he declares. “It was the leading interiors firm in New York, with clients like Brooke Astor. Aesthetically, it may not have been my style, but I would never have got to where I am now without that visual experience.”

He recalls the legendary Hadley as a hard taskmaster, with a great sense of humor. “In his interiors, you always found something quirky, something imperfect, that made them so interesting,” Istomin says. “The thing I learned most from him is how to edit — what not to put in an interior.” When the firm closed in 1999, Istomin worked for several years for Parish-Hadley alumna Pamela Banker before returning to Moscow, where he opened his own practice in 2002. His first commission, a modest two-bedroom apartment, came through family contacts. Another, the Art Deco interiors of a private bank the following year, helped attract a larger clientele.

“He dreams big, and I love it. He elevates the European traditional sensibility to new heights.”

Asked about his most interesting project, he cites a 32,000-square-foot villa on which he worked in tandem with Nicky Haslam. The British designer oversaw the public rooms on the first floor, Istomin the private spaces above. “I admire Nicky very much,” says Istomin, who was particularly struck by Haslam’s decision to cover the walls of one sitting room with horizontal bands of fringe. “There were yards and yards of it,” he remembers. “It created this almost furry, hairy effect. I’ve never seen anything like it.” For his part, Istomin created an opulent scheme upstairs that included a dressing room with plaster palm trees on the walls inspired by the Eastern-accented architectural fantasia that is the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England.


Kirill Istomin Creates Interiors from Russia with Love
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Kirill Istomin Creates Interiors from Russia with Love

For another large European villa, Istomin created an exotic chinoiserie dressing room with plaster palm columns inspired by the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England. The gilt-metal side table and floor lamp, both from the 1940s, were found in London. All photos in this slide show by Mikhail Stepanov

Mirrored panels, crystal columns and marble inlaid with mother-of-pearl create the illusion of depth in one of the villa’s bathrooms. Istomin used the slipper chair’s early-20th-century pattern as a starting point for the decorative painting on the dado and cornice.

Twentieth-century tastemaker Nancy Lancaster inspired the silk citron-colored dressmaker curtains with bishop-sleeve jabots in the home’s master bedroom. Both sides of the room are anchored by mirrored fireplace mantels that riff on a Serge Roche console. The 19th-century bedside table lamps are French.

The whimsy evidenced in those palm trees is central to Istomin’s approach. “I hope I have this sense of fantasy,” he says. “That’s what true decorating is about. You don’t take it seriously. You play with your ideas.” He avows an overriding passion for objects and a particular obsession with chandeliers, although he is at a loss to explain why. He has a very deep knowledge of antiques and regularly conceives whole rooms around a single purchase. One dressing room, for example, was based on a set of 18 early-20th-century English plates. And a bathroom in the Geneva villa was inspired by a small sample of dusty-pink brocade from the 1920s or ’30s. Another constant in his work is a deft and extremely personal use of color. “I’m not a beige-room person. Maybe it’s because I have red hair, or used to,” quips Istomin, whose head is closely shaved.

Istomin reinterpreted Tony Duquette‘s aesthetic by coordinating a marine-themed chandelier with an elaborate cornice. The 1950s sconces on the mirrored wall are Italian; the vintage cachepot on the table is from Paris. Photo by Mikhail Stepanov

While the opulence and jewel-like tones of Istomin’s interiors could be considered distinctly Russian, the influence of his time spent in the States is also present. He places great importance, for instance, on comfort and insists on all his upholstery being done in New York. “He’s the only man in Russia who can be called an ‘American Classical Style Specialist,’ ” asserts the editor in chief of AD Russia, Eugenia Mikulina. “Yet at the same time there is always a Russian twist. There’s no mistaking that we’re seeing his work, and only his.”

Istomin’s manners, on the other hand, are almost quintessentially British. “He’s always impeccably polite, a real gentleman,” Mikulina says. He also has a precise demeanor that recalls the English actor David Suchet’s depiction of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

Perhaps more than anything, Istomin is quite simply a man of the world. He is currently working on projects stretching from Kazakhstan to France; regularly visits his uncle, the Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner, in California; and keeps an apartment in Manhattan. He also spends his summers at a house in Wainscott, in New York’s Hamptons, with his charming wife, Natalia, and their young twins.

If they ever decided to buy their own country home, Istomin says, it would be something a little unexpected. “A lot of people would be surprised, but I would commission or purchase a modernist house,” he says. “I really love the architecture of the 1950s and ’60s — Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Philip Johnson and his Glass House. It’s the total opposite of what I do. But I think it’s just so beautiful.”

Kirill Istomin’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs

“I love this mid-century set of nesting tables by Giò Ponti. Colored glass and black legs create a sculptural effect. It’s a stylish accessory for any outdoor sitting area.”

“I have a thing for antique Russian chandeliers. Gilt ropes and beautiful turquoise porcelain make this one perfect for a dining room.”

“I would put this in a living room, next to a sofa side table or in a library. Faux paint and shiny gold adds ’80s glamour.”

“I adore this super-chic mirror done in homage to the famed house of Goossens. It’s the perfect starting point for decorating a room. Crystal and gold — what else could make a better statement?”

“These iron benches would add classical symmetry with a modern twist to a foyer or corridor. The tufted seats make them comfortable, too.”

“With its geometric black-and-white design, this side table could make any formal room jazzy and fun.”

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