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Last updated: April 7, 2012 12:14 am
Charlotte Baring, an English interior decorator, recalls one of her first trips to Rublyovka, Moscow’s most exclusive stretch of residential real estate, when she was starting out in the Russian interior design business six years ago.
Although the multimillion-dollar homes were owned by the country’s richest businessmen and high-ranking government officials, the interiors were straight out of a bad 1980s movie. Rooms resembled spaceships with wacky lights, or were decked out in full-on imperial style, replete with too much gold, oversized chandeliers and green marble fireplaces. Zebra print was the go-to fabric. “What was fashionable at a certain time in Europe stuck in the minds of Russians for a long time,” she says.
The owner of Charlotte Baring Interior Design, Baring has spent the past 11 years in Moscow and has witnessed first-hand the sobering of Russian taste, with members of the elite moving away from the garish displays of wealth that characterised the first two decades of post-communist Russia – a natural response to years of austerity during the Soviet period.
With rich people spending more and more time in London, Zurich and New York – and members of the middle class travelling more frequently – Russians are adopting a more polished aesthetic that blends together different cultures and different pieces from their travels. They are looking both east to Asia, and west to Europe for inspiration, and in many cases finding it at home.
“Fifteen years ago there was no understanding of what interior design was in Russia,” says Tatiana Rogova, founder of Details, the Moscow interior design school, and executive director of Russia’s Association of Interior Decorators. “In Soviet times practically no one had the opportunity to have a big house, a big apartment. When this became possible, many rushed to a sort of palatial style ... They really wanted something done the way they saw in a hotel, something they saw during their travels, or just to have their own palace.” Rich Russians, she says, would fall in love with the crystal chandeliers and marble staircases of the Ritz Carlton, and forget that their homes were actually supposed to be liveable.
The focus on opulence and glamour was a knee-jerk reaction to modest habits in the communist period, when many Russians lived in communal apartments and had access to an extremely limited selection of home furnishings. There was an emphasis on everyone owning the same things – a theme satirised in the Soviet cult classic film The Irony of Fate, where the love interests happen to share the exact same addresses, locks and furniture, as all the stores stocked the same items.
After years of such modest conditions, the sliver of the Russian population that found itself rich during the 1990s were clueless about what to do after this “rupture” of wealth, says Irina Dymova, a local designer, referring to the post-communist boom in privatisation and entrepreneurship. Baring adds: “People rushed into it slightly in the 1990s, doing up their apartments, doing ‘yevro-remont’ [the Russian nickname for the European-style renovation that emerged in the 1990s].”
Out in Rublyovka in south-west Moscow, many well-heeled Russians still gravitate towards stucco columns and heavy drapery. The inspiration, designers say, comes straight from Rome, a favourite tourist destination for Russians.
“The main link between Italy and Russia is oil and gas. The second-biggest link is furniture,” says Pavel Zhavoronkov, editor-in-chief of Russia’s Home & Interior magazine. “Italy does the classic, expensive and intricately made furniture which stands very well in these expensive Russian homes.”
Rublyovka residents typically spend a minimum of $12,000 per sq metre on furnishings, with most homes in the neighbourhood totalling an average of 1,000 sq metre, and some as much as 3,000 sq metre, according to Capital Group, a property firm in Moscow.
While the interest in interiors is most pronounced among rich Russians, it is trickling down to the middle class, which now has a greater selection of local designers to work with. In Moscow alone there are about 500 design bureaus.
According to Nikolai Fokin, the owner of local design studio Figura, close to half of Moscow apartment owners now spend more than $2,000 per sq metre on furnishings. Ikea, which has become the staple furniture supplier of Russian middle-class homes, opened its flagship Moscow store in 2000 and now operates 12 stores in the country.
Gated communities are sprouting up outside Moscow, catering to the middle-class homeowner. One, called Hyde Park, offers an array of $1m homes that would not look out of place on an English estate.
“Before, if I was looking through an interiors magazine, I would immediately know what was done by a Russian designer,” says Nana Shakhbazyan of N-plus-N designs in Moscow. Now the Russian style is much more nuanced. “There is still a lot of unnecessary money that you can almost smell in the interiors,” she says but adds that most Russian clients are starting to judge furniture based on its quality and not on its price tag.
Shakhbazyan recently worked with a Russian couple, for instance, who asked for their entire apartment to be done in a Danish-inspired style, with all the furniture imported from Copenhagen. Rogova of Details says designers associated with the school admire the Dutch style, and frequently travel to Istanbul and Paris on piece-finding missions.
The trick, Rogova says, is getting clients to move away from the palatial style of Arab princes and multimillionaires, and into colour palettes and pieces that are less gaudy and more suited to Russia’s dark and cold climate. “We try to explain that something may be elegant but not very expensive. Or that something may be expensive but not very elegant at all.”
Some clients are even starting to embrace Russian-influenced styles that hark back to the country manors of 18th- and 19th-century nobility. “Those houses were meant and built for comfort, for communication and meetings,” Rogova says.
Dymova, the local designer, has already completed one such room: a study in one of her clients’ Moscow apartments. The room is done up in the 18th-century style with a garnet-coloured daybed typical of the time, a period-inspired desk, mirror and antique Russian portrait.
While Russian-inspired interiors have been slow to take off at home, Russian interior decorators are exporting their domestic visions to Europe. Marina Filippova, a St Petersburg-born designer, works on homes in London’s Knightsbridge, while Dmitry Velikovsky has worked in Paris and Switzerland.
Both designers are unafraid to mix an eclectic group of pieces – Asian antiques mingle with stainless steel bathtubs, for example – a style that is strangely not out of place in Moscow itself, according to Rogova.
“What is a home in Moscow? There must be atmosphere, some history. It shouldn’t be all brand new – no way.” She gestures out to the street where the 17th-century mansion that houses the Details design school mixes with Soviet concrete blocks and the art deco home of the 20th-century writer Maxim Gorky. “Moscow is such a messy place. You can harmoniously combine the old and the new.”
Rublyovka’s subtle style revolution
When residents of Rublyovka are decorating their mansions, the first place they usually look for inspiration is their neighbours’ homes.
While rich Russians are starting to put more emphasis on developing an individual style, many remain trapped by the pack mentality, says Pavel Zhavoronkov, editor of Home & Interior magazine. In the early noughties, for instance, when oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was Russia’s richest man, the English style was trendy – because Khodorkovsky was a self-confessed Anglophile. When he was arrested in 2004 and sent to prison for 14 years, the English style went out of fashion overnight.
While Rublyovka has not witnessed such a dramatic style evolution since, there is a subtler shift, with many of its businessmen homeowners investing in properties abroad. Moving into their empty residences are legions of high-ranking government bureaucrats, including the siloviki, or Russia’s ex-spies and security men.
These officials sometimes have as much money as the homes’ former owners but they have adopted a more discreet style, Zhavoronkov says. “If your boss sees you have a home nicer than they do then there will be some unpleasantness at work. The homes are now a little more modest. But still flashy.”
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