Designer Spotlight: Q&A with Kirill Istomin

The dining room of a duplex in Moscow

With offices in New York City and Moscow and projects that take him across the globe, interior designer Kirill Istomin is a man on the go — constantly on the hunt for great antiques, which are a key component of his designs.

Since launching his own studio in 2002, the designer has carved out a niche that is utterly contemporary, especially in terms of color and comfort. Yet his designs remain Old World in spirit, right down to his penchant for drawing. It’s rare to find a designer today who still sketches by hand. If it’s not already on your bookshelf, find a copy of Leslie and Pamela Banker’s 2004 book, The Pocket Decorator, which was charmingly illustrated by the designer himself. From socialites’ collections to the importance of curiosity, below we explore what makes an Istomin interior tick. 

Left: The dining room of a country home near Moscow; Right: Portrait of Istomin by John Bessler

You’re a frequent bidder at auction—what’s one of your most memorable experiences?

The estate of Walter Annenberg’s sister Evelyn Annenberg Hall, which was sold by Christie’s in 2006. All of the contents of her large Park Avenue apartment were up for sale. Christie’s included pictures of the apartment showing exactly how furniture and other decorative objects were arranged in the rooms.

I had a client at that time who was very much interested in antiques and wanted to participate in the sale. We had several lots in mind but when she saw the catalogue with pictures of Mrs. Annenberg’s apartment, she told me she wanted to buy several “pages” of the catalogue. When I asked her what she meant by that, she explained that she liked all of the lots featured on the pages and that she wanted to get everything shown and arrange the furniture and objects in a similar way to Evelyn’s apartment. “In this case, we wouldn’t make any decorating mistakes!” she said. I thought it was hilarious! In fact, we did buy a few “pages”—we purchased all of the lots shown in two room photos. It was a very old-fashioned approach for antique shopping, but it was also very fun.

The living room of a penthouse in Moscow

Are most of your clients already antiques-savvy or do you double as an educator?

For most of our clients, working with us is their first encounter with antique furniture and decorative objects. Education is key and, thankfully, our clients are often curious to learn about and begin appreciating antiques. Even using inexpensive vintage pieces requires explanation for a client, and I am happy to guide them through the learning. I find that the more my clients buy antiques, the more they understand their significance in creating great decor! I certainly believe that antiques can always be used in a very modern and fresh way.

You frequently mix European and American antiques. What do period pieces bring to your rooms?

Antique and vintage pieces can add a great sense of layering to an interior and I am fortunate to have clients who appreciate both. Without such pieces, be it an 18th-century gilt wood mirror or a Karl Springer table, I believe interiors look flat and almost two-dimensional. But I also learned how to edit from [American interior designer] Albert Hadley. He once said, “Rooms should not be put together for show but to nourish one’s well-being.”

A residence by Kirill Istomin

Tell us a little bit about your own collecting interests and what nourishes your well-being?

My collection is small but very personal. I always liked to draw and did lots of interior renderings for many decorating firms in New York at the very beginning of my career. I started taking freelance jobs while still at Parsons School of Design, which provided interesting opportunities and a nice income during my early years in the city. Now when I see a great rendering or a drawing of famed rooms done by 20th century decorators, I buy them—if prices are good!

The highlight of my small collection is a great watercolor rendering of one of the rooms of Robert de Balkany’s Hôtel Particulier in Paris. I love that rendering—it’s masterfully done! Another gem is a set of watercolor and colored pencil renderings commissioned by San Francisco socialite Dodie Rosekrans for her iconic apartment in the Palazzo Brandolini in Venice, which was decorated by Tony Duquette. The set includes a drawing of a salon with sensational leopard curtains, as well as a rendering of my favorite bedroom—with an Italian Baroque-meets-Siamese canopy bed! But the most interesting drawing is the portrait of Mrs. Rosekrans in the palazzo gallery decorated with red corals.

Left: the living room of a seaside villa at Cote d’Azur; Right: The living room of a summer pavilion at Tsarskoe Selo

As we near the end of 2017, what has been be your favorite purchase of the year?

A pair of amazing bedside tables by famed actor-turned-decorator William Haines, which I bought from the Betsy Bloomingdale sale at Christie’s in April! Each of the tables has a shelf on a swivel base with attached Chinese lamps. They’re sheer fantasy but very practical at the same time—that’s what makes great design!

About Kirill Istomin

Kirill Istomin Interior Design & Decoration (founded in 2002) is internationally known for its high-end residential and commercial designs. The company manages projects in France, Italy, Russia, Kazakhstan, the United States, and Great Britain.

Mr. Istomin’s fine arts degree in interior design and decoration is from Parsons School of Design in New York. He began his career with one of the leading New York society interior design firms, Parish-Hadley. The client list of this venerable company includes such luminaries as Jacqueline Kennedy, Brooke Astor, Oscar De la Renta, and the Rockefeller family.