Who makes the taste of the tastemakers? Is there an éminence grise behind the scenes who helps shape the vision of fashion royalty and the rest of the benign despots who dictate style to the masses? One answer might be found inside Nilufar, the legendary gallery on Milan’s Via della Spiga, where mere displays of furniture and rugs take on the qualities of zen portals into the very heart of design. The gallery (nilufar means lotus in Farsi) is the brainchild of Nina Yashar, who for over 20 years has reigned as the high priestess of modern design in Italy. The Iranian-Italian Yashar, 55, a close friend to many well-placed fashion-industry titans, is famed as both discoverer of and impresario to an array of rising stars. In a more general sense, she is known as the purveyor of an offbeat, rarefied style of luxury home furnishing to an international circle of well-heeled and demanding clients. The fortunate pedestrians who wander into Nilufar between stops at nearby Tod’s and Lanvin find themselves afloat among three luminous floors showcasing a wildly eclectic yet strangely logical assemblage of furniture that mixes modernist masters like Carlo Mollino and Verner Panton with the work of cutting-edge young talent like Bethan Laura Wood and Martino Gamper. Somehow it all manages to be harmonious, displayed with rugs ranging from traditional Persian tribal to the avant-garde Plan B series by the husband-and-wife team Caturegli and Formica.
“I have never had the kind of taste that speaks to everyone,” Yashar said. “I have a rather small nucleus of persone illuminate—enlightened people. For me, an illuminato is one who is linked to the aesthetic world—whether for work or for passion—but above all is someone who is willing to change, to evolve, to keep on challenging the standards he or she lives by. That’s how I live: The leitmotif is constant change.”
Yashar had temporarily touched down from her peripatetic schedule of hunting for rare pieces, ideas, and ingenues—and displaying her own wares at design salons around the world—for a well-deserved week at home. She was drinking coffee and mineral water while we sat chatting in the sprawling duplex of a famous Milan building—designed by the architect Giandomenico Belotti in 1958 and owned by a friend and client of hers, a key player in the fashion business who prefers to remain anonymous. The high-ceilinged penthouse, with its views over Parco Sempione, is a trove of early-modern design, thanks to this diminutive, vibrant woman with enormous charisma and a nimbus of curly dark hair often tied back with a signature scarf. Yashar has a big laugh, along with a face that can morph from mischievous schoolgirl to steely byzantine empress; she has both a romantic, extravagant personality and a reputation as a hardheaded businesswoman who doesn’t suffer fools.