In the last decade or so, Russian-born interior designer Kirill Istomin has developed a reputation for his singular mix of Old World opulence and contemporary comfort. For a recent project in his native country, Istomin turned a Chinese-inspired pavilion at Catherine the Great’s summer palace outside St Petersburg into a whimsical luxe weekend cottage for its latest owners. After spending a decade honing his skills in the US by working at the firm of Parish-Hadley and collaborating with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Istomin launched his own company in New York in 2002 and also opened an office in Moscow. His love of antiques and flair for the tastefully decorative have made Istomin the go-to decorator for clients on a quest for beauty across the globe, from Manhattan town houses and Beverly Hills villas to Moscow residences and Mediterranean retreats.
You grew up in Russia but quickly became entrenched in the design world after your arrival in New York. How did that happen?
I came to New York to study at the Parsons School of Design. Albert Hadley came to one of the in-class critiques, and then I wrote him a letter. I got an interview and I brought my portfolio of renderings. Mr Hadley said he’d never seen such a colourful portfolio before. He hired me as an intern at first. I stayed there for five years, until the firm closed in 1999.
What did you take away from your five years there?
Real-life experience: What is a pillow, what is a fringe, what are curtains, how do you do the curtains, and how do you put it all together? How do you present it to the client? It was all super important for me.
How would you describe your personal style?
I’m definitely not a minimalist. I have a traditional, classical background, but overall I’d say I’m traditional-modern. I love colour. I’m not a beige person. I think it’s all about beautiful colour combinations. Colour creates a mood, and each room has an individual mood.
A WEEKEND COTTAGE IN A PAVILION ORIGINALLY BUILT FOR CATHERINE THE GREAT.
What are some of your favourite sources of design inspiration?
I love antiques. They have their own identity. And I just love the history of interior design. I’m fascinated by the whole culture of objects. As someone who will do around twenty guest bedrooms at the same time, I find it very appealing to buy something and have it right there, rather than wait for months for something to be made – although I do sometimes secure custom pieces. I find it very meditative to look through auction catalogues. I buy a lot for my own inventory. I have a big collection of table lamps, side tables – things every project needs. Having an inventory you can play with is helpful.
Do you purchase pieces with an idea of how you might use them?
I really believe that if objects are beautiful, they will look great anywhere, regardless of their time period. I have clients with multiple homes. I’ll see a beautiful bergère, for example, and I’ll say, “Let’s just buy it – we’ll find the place for it.” Recently I purchased two paintings, and in order to convince the client to take them, I made full-size colour copies and tried them on the wall. It worked.
A SYMPHONY IN BLUE FOR A CITY PIED-À-TERRE.
Are there any decorative touches you can’t live without?
I use lots of mirrors: antique mirrors, mirrored panels as surfaces. I like the sense of reflection. It’s a great material to trick the eye – you can change the shape of a room.
If you have a low ceiling, for example, you can make a visual impression that the ceiling is higher.
You describe yourself as “Old World.” What does that mean?
This comes from the Parish-Hadley experience. A lot of people don’t call themselves decorators, but a decorator is who I am. Decorating is about making the room beautiful. It’s all about beautiful things. It’s more about the approach than the style. So I think I’m a decorator in this old-fashioned way, taking a room that might be nothing and making it beautiful.
Meredith Mendelsohn writes about design and art for the Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest and other publications.