A soulful collection of Italian design

A Beirut-based property developer and a cult Milanese gallerist are building a multifaceted collection of modernist design with soul. Kasia Maciejowska reports. Portrait by Valentina Sommariva

Property developer Karim Abillama and gallerist Nina Yashar in her Milan space, Nilufar Depot. Abillama sits on a Giò Ponti chair reinterpreted by Martino Gamper. Yashar stands at a dining table by Massimiliano Locatelli. Behind her are 1950s wood and cotton/satin armchairs and a wood and glass coffee table, all by Ponti
Property developer Karim Abillama and gallerist Nina Yashar in her Milan space, Nilufar Depot. Abillama sits on a Giò Ponti chair reinterpreted by Martino Gamper. Yashar stands at a dining table by Massimiliano Locatelli. Behind her are 1950s wood and cotton/satin armchairs and a wood and glass coffee table, all by Ponti | Image: Valentina Sommariva

We are supposed to be discussing furniture. Very attractive Italian furniture by some of the world’s most exceptional designers. But we keep coming back to food. To dining. And the good life. “There is nothing better than sharing a meal with friends,” reflects property developer Karim Abillama, who is sitting with gallerist Nina Yashar in her peerless Milanese space, Nilufar Depot. “This is why the right table is very important.” And we’re back on track as, thanks to Yashar, the dining table at Abillama’s 18th-century house on the edge of Beirut is a striking, 5m-long modular stone creation by Milan-based architect Massimiliano Locatelli. In addition to the table’s obvious visual charms – each of the six idiosyncratic modular sections is in varying shades of grey/green marble – Abillama admires its tactility. “The stone feels so grounding. It makes me happy to see people’s expressions when they are really enjoying a meal around this beautiful table. This is why I love Italian design; it’s curious and innovative, but also combines the warmth of the Mediterranean with the generous Italian way of life. Nina understands that. She’s all about emotion too; she does everything from the heart.” 

c1927-29 teak and fabric armchair by Giò Ponti
c1927-29 teak and fabric armchair by Giò Ponti | Image: Daniele Iodice

Yashar is a phenomenally fabulous individual – a fact announced by her appearance, pairing signature Prada by her friend Miuccia (who is a client in return) with silk turbans. Her professional commissions are equally bold and she continues the theme in conversation. Born in Tehran, she moved with her family to Milan in 1963, studied art history in Venice and helped with her father’s Persian carpet dealership for six months before branching into furniture on her own in 1979. It was her father who taught her how to handle people (“the oriental way, with warmth”), as well as with colours, and she named her gallery after her sister, Nilufar, which means “lotus” in Persian. 

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Today, Yashar is the queen bee of design gallerists in Italy: an expert in Italian design who has played a central role in the glamorous revitalisation of midcentury-modern furniture. But she insists that her secret is never specialising in one field. “I always exhibit with a carpet in the middle,” she says, with a nod to her Persian roots. “It brings everything together. I’ve always hated the white cube.” She also has a hawk-eyed foresight for contemporary design, which has led her to foster two of the scene’s most talented, now-mid-career stars, Martino Gamper and his colour-obsessed fellow RCA graduate, Bethan Laura Wood. 

Pair of 1945 low tables by Ponti from Abillama’s own collection
Pair of 1945 low tables by Ponti from Abillama’s own collection

“Nina shares all her knowledge very generously because it’s her genuine passion,” says Abillama, who was a frequent visitor to Yashar’s space in Milan before later meeting the gallerist in Beirut when she was presenting a furniture installation at the city’s Metropolitan Art Society. “I fell instantly in love with some Giò Ponti armchairs and one of his coffee tables,” says Abillama, “and bought them on the spot.” The designs (which sell for between €10,000 and €100,000) are understated, elegant midcentury archetypes: the chairs upholstered in pale dove grey and deep navy blue; the glass top of the table propped upon three wooden legs. “I also asked for Nina’s advice on which artwork to buy – and followed it,” he adds, with the resulting purchase, a painting of leaves by Sam Falls, now hanging in the entrance of his office. 

Wood and glass table by Ponti from the 1950s
Wood and glass table by Ponti from the 1950s | Image: Daniele Iodice

It was the start of an alliance that continues largely via WhatsApp calls. Yashar hates emails. “You lose the tone,” she asserts. Abillama concurs: “You live longer if you speak to people. It’s the Mediterranean way.” These calls have led to several acquisitions, both midcentury and contemporary – some understated, such as a pair of functionalist tea trolleys in plywood, teak and sycamore by Italian neo-rationalist architect Franco Albini and Franca Helg (1stdibs currently has the same model, Tea Trolley CR20, for sale at £5,183), and others all-out sensational, like Gamper’s 2007 reinterpretations of Ponti’s 1960s work for Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento. Abillama owns a headline piece from this performative series (which today attracts prices between £10,000 and £60,000), a 2m-high display cabinet of bold blue and white geometric shapes, as well as a matching chair.

Martino Gamper’s 2007 reinterpretation of a 1960s Giò Ponti chair
Martino Gamper’s 2007 reinterpretation of a 1960s Giò Ponti chair

These fantastic works are provided with a distinguished frame by the 150-year-old architecture of Abillama’s Beirut home. Set on a hill with a sea view, it features Venetian elements such as a triple arcade of elegant long windows, and besides Nilufar-sourced Italian design, it hosts furniture by such greats as Axel Vervoordt and Charles and Ray Eames, and artworks by Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Andy Warhol and Richard Serra. The interiors are an entrancing segue between geographies and periods. “She’s in touch with the old world, but is always doing research in the new one too,” says Abillama of Yashar’s curatorial influence, adding crucially: “She can directly read what I like and don’t like.” He admits that Yashar regularly informs him that his approach to collecting is overly intellectual. “He is the most intellectual customer in Beirut!” she jokes. “He likes simple things that are strong in content and concept, and is very pure in his decor, which is why he so appreciates the Italians. He’s like an architect.” 

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This is not surprising given that Abillama’s father was an architect, as is his brother Raëd, who is known for restoration projects that use impressive modernistic interventions. It was Raëd who designed the house for Karim and his wife Magda, co-founder of stylish Beirut boutique Ginette in the Gemmayzeh district, and the brothers are currently working together on their first Manhattan development, ABI Chelsea – “a dose of Mediterranean lifestyle in New York”. 

When casting for the perfect candidate to add a design aspect, they, of course, turned to Yashar. Her space for the off‑site launch last autumn featured lots of Ponti, the ever-crucial rug was by Gamper and the dining tables by Locatelli. But Yashar also included midcentury armchairs by Franco Albini, as well as an enviable selection of lighting from modernist masters Angelo Lelii and Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, and contemporary cutlery inlaid with agate by Baciocchi. “It was an empty void so we decided to put life into it,” she sums up. Abillama enthuses: “Essentially, Nina knows how to raise quality of life. She’s a genius with colours and all that, but really it’s about more than just decor. She adds good vibes. Her interiors make you feel great.”

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