Monday, June 27, 2016

A Russian Passion for Chinoiserie: Charming and Inspiring New Interiors by Kirill Istomin, and a Russian Mystery Solved

This week, I’m introducing the marvelous Russian interior designer, Kirill Istomin. He worked with Parish-Hadley, and you’ll see that Kirill has both the architectural astuteness of Mr. Hadley, and the whimsical, playful style of Mrs. Parish.

We visit a charming royal pavilion with a history dating back to 1820. It’s in a royal park near St. Petersburg and now displays delightful interiors Kirill recently designed. The imperial Russian obsession with Chinoiserie has a fascinating history and many plot twists, not to mention destruction and a phoenix-like new beginning. We’re examining Russian Chinoiserie as well.

Come with me for a chat with Kirill Istomin about this project.

And I have expert information on the Russian obsession with Chinoiserie, from my great friend, Olga Bychek, the top culture and architecture and design guide in St. Petersburg.

I was visiting the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg a few years ago with Olga and we first saw the Chinese Village at Tsarskoe Selo, as we walked in Alexander Park.

We walked across the newly restored Chinese bridge, and we wondered about the pavilions in the park, which seemed at the time to be deserted. Now we know. They were restored, after many years of neglect, by patrons of Russian architecture and history. One pavilion, a weekend retreat, is in the very accomplished hands of Kirill Istomin.

Kirill Istomin, who studied design at Parsons and worked in New York, is one of the top designers in Russia. He has offices in New York and Moscow.

If you live in Moscow or St. Petersburg, and are involved in the design, architecture, art, and style worlds there, you would be very familiar with the polished and accomplished interior design by Kirill. He seems to be in every issue of AD Russia and Elle Décoration Russia. He has clients in New York, Kazakhstan, Paris, London, and Portofino and the San Francisco area.

A Conversation with Kirill Istomin — Superb Russian Style: For the Love of Chinoiserie

DDS: Kirill, I am so happy to be publishing your Chinoiserie-inspired interiors. I am fascinated that in the late eighteenth century, Russian royalty was crazy for Chinese Imperial architecture and art and porcelains. They avidly studied books on the style.

I am thrilled to have my project featured on The Style Saloniste. Thank you for having me! Starting from the second quarter of the 18th century Russian royals and aristocracy were fascinated by European fashion of Chinoiserie. The Imperial courts of China were considered to have the ultimate taste and refinement. Russian kings and emperors were particularly influenced by French and Prussian courts. As you know, Catherine the Great was born a German princess herself, so it's was very natural she was very interested in European architecture and decor. At the early years of her reign, Chinoiserie vogue was at its peak. A kind of mania. Embroidered silk textiles, paintings, lacquerwork, fantasy pavilions, porcelains, temples, bridges, statuary, figures, doors, carving, ornament-- her architects worked with them.

DDS: I have traveled in St. Petersburg extensively, and have seen that exotic cluster of ‘Chinese Village’ pavilions in the Alexander Park. We wondered who was living there now. It’s your client—with your fantasy interiors.

My clients helped to restore the Chinese Village at Tzarskoe Selo after it was ruined during WW II. The village was originally commissioned by Catherine the Great as a series of small guest cottages for visiting nobles. It consists of a Chinese pagoda in the middle and twelve small one-story cottages around - all done in a fairytale imaginary Chinese style. My clients stay in one of the twelve pavilions. Since it's mainly used as their weekend retreat its fancy decor never gets too tiring.

DDS: With the new décor, you honor the original concept of this style—but you’ve brought it up to date with no heavy period feeling.

No records survived of how rooms looked like before the revolution. I had complete carte blanche from the client, every decorator's dream! The idea was to create fun and happy decor with some references to original historical architecture. Not the exact accurate copy of outside decor but something rather new being inspired by 18th whimsy. I wanted to keep same fairytale ambiance but make it modern and suitable for contemporary living. I hope the empress herself would have been pleased with the final decor if she lived today.

DDS: The colors and fabrics create a light-hearted feeling to the rooms.

I love color and beautiful fabrics! It's a great tool to transform rooms quickly and doesn't require a big budget. I start working on the interior architecture and furniture layout together with choosing fabrics and textures. It all happens simultaneously. It's just my way of decorating spaces! Pavilion facades are beautifully decorated with Chinese ornaments and different signs based on archival documents which show how cottages looked back in the 18th c. All outside decor is painted so my clients have to freshen it up every two years from Russian winters.

I used colors of the facade decor as inspiration for wallpapers and fabrics in the rooms. All walls except study are white which create a perfect background for fun looking antiques, Chinese export porcelain and colorful upholstery; there is nothing very expensive in the decor. We used lots of good-looking vintage and antiques pieces. While working on this project clients and I gathered a nice collection of antique Chinese export porcelain. Our pride is a fun set of antique Chinese teapots from he late Brooke Astor's estate. A set of five large Imari vases in the study is, however, museum quality. Besides this it’s all about good-looking colorful visuals rather than serious pieces. Custom upholstery adds comfort to rooms.

DDS: The fabrics and colors refer to the gardens just outside the windows.

Yes, it's exactly what the initial idea was. A weekend retreat. Fun, easy and whimsical were the key words of the project! I think we succeeded in this. 

DDS: I love the Chinoiserie style of the baseboards and the doorways. It’s a witty counterpoint.

Painted ornament on baseboards and doorways in the living room was copied from the Chinese study at Peterhof Palace - another royal palace outside St. Petersburg built by Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great's daughter. The original ornament in Elizabeth's study had touches of gold but here I decided to simplify it and use no gold but cheery colors instead.

DDS: Kirill, thank you. It’s a great pleasure to chat and learn about this interesting period in Russian style history. Bravo to you.

Thank you very for expressing interest in my work. I hope readers will enjoy the images of the rooms. The photography was done by the great Fritz Von Der Schulenburg. It was a big privilege having him shoot the project. 

The Fantasy

This Chinese Pavilion, with interiors by Kirill Istomin, is set among birch trees and meandering streams and even a highly ornamental Chinese bridge, in Alexander Park. It's adjacent to the Catherine Palace, in Tsarskoe (also spelled Tzarskoe) Selo about half an hour’s drive from St. Petersburg.

It was designed by the celebrated Antonio Rinaldi, who had already built for Catherine the superb and legendary Chinese Palace at Oranienbaum. (I've been fortunate to visit that summer pavilion several's the one with bugle-bead embroidered Chinese designs on t he walls.)

Simple upturned roofs were homage to Orientalism. The village was one of the first architectural victims of the Nazi invasion, and was completely gutted during the shelling of Pushkin in 1941, as were the Catherine Palace and the Hermitage.

The village has been fully restored, and the cottages once again serve as apartments, leased to help raise funds for the restoration of the park.

The Chinese Village consists of ten single-storey cottages surrounding an octagonal pagoda-observatory. 

The Fashion for Chinoiserie

Special insight on the Russian passion for Chinoiserie, from my great friend, Olga Bychek, the top St. Petersburg culture guide.

Olga—whom I was fortunate to meet on my first tip to St. Petersburg some years ago, recently opened her own specialist guide company, Be Happy Russia. Details about Olga and her company below.

I asked Olga about the royal Russian obsession with Chinoiserie. She told me, “From as early as the 17th century) Russian royal leaders saw art and porcelains and architectural studies from China and it became a sign of prestige to copy them.

“This love and avid admiration of Chinoiserie in Russia starts at the time of Peter the Great. There was a great interest in Chinese fine porcelain, porcelain ware, porcelain objets de fantaisie (figurines, seashells, fruit), porcelain studies/rooms. During his trip to Europe in 1712-15 the Russian tsar saw how European monarchs competed with each other – saw porcelain studies of the Prussian royal residences and the collection of his ally in the Northern war – king August II of Saxony. Peter I as usual, wanted to exceed Europe in everything. This resulted in having a Lacquer Room (1720-22) designed in Monplaisir Palace in Peterhof (viewable today) and making big orders of Chinese-inspired porcelain in Holland and directly in China to decorate palaces in St. Petersburg.

“Chinese architecture, temples, motifs, embroidery, jade, glassware, graphic imagery, lacquer screens, bugle beadwork, jewels, gold, silver, and artistry all inspired Russian as a kind of “Paradise of Enlightment”. Chinese ‘exoticism’ was a mania at the end of 18th century as reflected in Voltaire’s work). And many examples—the Chinese Pavilion at Oranienbaum, and the Chinese Village at Tsarskoe Selo) can be visited today.

“It’s interesting to see that the Swedish royal court, and French and English and German monarchs were also obsessed with Chinoiserie in the 18th century. Italians and Portuguese kings as well. None of them actually went to China. But everone wanted the status of Chinese artistry, craft, and style. They did not need to visit China—they studied books, drawings, paintings, and brought specialist artists and architects to copy.”

Thank you, Olga.

The Chinese Palace at Oranienbaum near St. Petersburg is a fine example of Chinoiserie from the eighteenth century. In particular, the legendary beaded panels of one of the rooms shows bugle beads sewn onto silk with Chinoiserie images of cranes and trees. The billiard toom there has Chinoiserie styles mixed with Russian.

I propose: make a plan to visit St. Petersburg and view the Chinese palace. But check with Olga first to make sure it is open. It is often closed for restoration.

About the Chinese Pavilions and Village

The big “Rotunda” Pavilion seen from a distance makes a compositional center of the village today.

“The Rotunda” was restored in 1990s by architect Kalikow with funds from Pushkin Development A/S which leased the Village 25 years ago (in 1991) for 49 years (the longest possible leasing period in Russia).

Now there are 28 apartments that can be used as guesthouses. They are private—but can be viewed in the park.

About Kirill Istomin

Russian interior designer Kirill Istomin worked for Albert Hadley before starting his namesake firm with headquarters in Moscow and NYC. Istomin is known internationally for his colorful and playful high-end designs with contemporary takes on classical European design traditions. His design firm manages projects in France, Italy, Great Britain, Russia and the U.S. Istomin's fine arts degree in interior design is from Parsons, New York. He began his career at the iconic interior design firms, Parish- Hadley. Parish – Hadley afforded Istomin an unparalleled experience collaborating with the patriarch of American design Albert Hadley. In Russia, Istomin writes a column for Elle Decoration, and he has been featured numerous times in AD Russia as one of the top designers in the country. Istomin has received international awards, including twice being awarded by Decorators Club of New York for “Excellence in Interior Design of Residential Architectural and Historical Landmarks” and for “Best Design”.

About Olga Bychek

Olga Bychek is the top culture, architecture, art and design guide in St. Petersburg with a dazzling international roster of clients. She is the CEO and founder of BeHappyRussia Travel Company, St. Petersburg.

I’ve worked with Olga in St. Petersburg. She is an engaging and charming guide. Her English is flawless and she is devoted to creating an in-depth, custom experience for each client. I’ve referred many clients to her, including Sting and Denise Hale and Glenda Bailey and Ralph Rucci and many academics and architects and designers. She has Expert Council on the Guides’ State Accreditation, and is a Committee for Investments and Strategic Projects of St. Petersburg Government, Board Member. She is greeted by name at the entrances of the Hermitage and royal palaces, and she and her guests are welcomed and they enter first.

Most importantly for visitors to palaces and museums she is a State-Accredited Guide of St. Petersburg and its suburbs (Top category, License ID #01572 issued by the Committee for Investments and Strategic Projects of St. Petersburg Government, Russia). She engages with groups and individual travelers.

Tours she offers: Hermitage, Fabergé Museum, State Russian Museum, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress, Church on the Spilled Blood, Yussupov Palace, Peterhof palaces and parks, Faberge Museum, Catherine Palace, Alexander Palace, Pavlovsk, Peter I’s log cabin, Rivers and Canals.

In particular she offers exclusive tours on Musical life in St. Petersburg at the time of Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov; Fashion in St. Petersburg(20th century); Romantic St. Petersburg; Life of Nevsky Prospect (past and present); Art Nouveau in St. Petersburg architecture; Constructivism in Leningrad architecture; History of St. Petersburg Mansions; Memorial places of Peter I, Last Romanovs; Political murders; Bolsheviks and October Revolution.

She also offers in-depth tours of architectural styles of St. Petersburg, Parks and Gardens of St. Petersburg and its suburbs, Russian Orthodox Cathedrals, Jewish highlights. Travelers in Russia often engage with her for a week, and may include all of the top sites, with perhaps the Maryinsky Ballet or a performance or musical event in the evening. Olga also engages excellent drivers, arranges restaurants. Be sure to let her know you found her on THE STYLE SALONISTE.


Photography of Kirill Istomin's interiors by Fritz von der Schulenburg.

Kirill Istomin, Interior Design & Decoration
Moscow +7 495 645 01 36
New York +1 917 453 52 33

For all inquiries:


junewl said...

thank you for the beautiful photos and great interview. when i win the lottery i'll be calling Moscow...utterly charming, definitely over the top but since i enjoy chinoiserie soooo much, absolutely perfect.

Cynthia Lambert said...

How extraordinary! Very eye-popping and completely wonderful. I love it all, and thank you for bring it to us.

carrps said...

I love chinoiserie, too, and the restoration and decoration of these buildings is superb. The photography by Fritz Von Der Schulenburg is perfect. I could really get a feeling of being there. Cheers to Mr. Istomin!

Square With Flair said...

All of your posts are thoroughly enjoyed. They are of such high quality and always original, educational, and fresh.

This designer is brilliant. What a superb, modern yet classic, interpretation of chinoiserie. I will definitely be ordering this book and look forward to seeing more Kirill Istomin interiors.

Thank you.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear June and Paula and Cynthia…and our dear friend Square with Flair (indeed)…

I'm so happy you loved the CHINOISERIE story…and happy to hear you love Kirill's work.
The story of those Chinese pavilions is such a quirky and fascinating one.
Imagine…some few years ago, I am walking in the Alexander Park, near the Catherine Palace…and we are walking along through the trees…pretty little streams…and in the distance are some Chinese-style fantasy pavilions looking a little weather-beaten. What were they and what were they doing, and was someone going to bring them back to life?
Years passed. My friend Suzanna Allen was in the Alexander Park and went looking for them…but was not able to get any information…
Then, suddenly , out of the blue, I saw Kirill's work and got in touch with him…and realized that his Chinese interior…was at the Chinese village. His client has repaired and restored the village wonderfully, and had created a weekend retreat there. It's a lovely setting….about 30 miles south of St Petersburg…and you must be sure to go and find them when you visit St Petersburg.
And remember…you don't have to win the lottery. There are AirbnB apartments in St. P, and there are small hotels and a visit there is so compelling and so life changing. Art and architecture in Russia are vivid and exciting. People are so lovely, well-educated, and super friendly. I wish you all happy travels to Russian and especially St Petersburg…and let me know when you see these Chinese pavilions. In the meantime we have Kirill's interiors to inspire us. very best--DIANE