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“All my friends thought I was crazy,” says Nina Yashar as she reclines on a curved Ico Parisi couch that sits somewhat adrift in Nilufar Depot—the enormous furniture showroom she created in 2015. Nina is serene and charming as she discusses both how she came to expand her business from a store on Milan’s luxurious Via della Spiga to this warehouse-style space, and, above all, how she came to rule the roost when dealing furniture in this most taste-conscious of cities.

As one approaches the Depot in the industrial Derganino neighborhood, the air is sweet and distinctly alcoholic; next-door is the Fernet Branca distillery. What was originally devised as an architecturally enhanced warehouse to show off Nina’s inventory has now become her prime show space. Regularly featured at Nilufar Depot are the works of Italian and international design masters such as Gio Ponti, Carlo Mollino and Arne Jacobsen; pieces that would be hard to find on display even in a design museum.

How does Nina define the Depot, which she took from concept to reality in just two years? “It’s a small, living museum, where I select historical and contemporary pieces,” she says. The word small hints at Nina’s modesty; the 1900 square feet of display space feels vast and open. The word museum is perhaps more incisive. There are approximately 300 objects on show at any one time. “Somebody once counted 415 items, can you believe,” she attests with the bemusement of someone unfamiliar with inventories. Nina sees herself as more of a curator-cum-gallerist than dealer. “Rotation is obviously subject to the selling and replacing of my objects,” she says of editing the countless pieces on offer from her ever-changing stock. But she manages not to reveal anything of what makes such a complex task appear so seamless.

A small team of young men begins moving items between the display units that architect Massimiliano Locatelli masterfully constructed in the space. Nina is distracted and excuses herself politely from the interview. She dispenses some emphatic instructions without any of the finger-snapping or castigating tone one might expect in a world dominated by aesthetic perfection. “I always tell these guys that they are artists too, that they should always try to do something creative,” she says, returning.

“I want people to follow me. I don’t want to follow them.”

For Nina, curation is innate—something that runs in her blood. It’s also entwined with how she buys—a key aspect of her business. “I would say that 85 percent of my choices are not connected to my business plan,” she says resolutely. “I’ve never bought anything just because I thought it would be easy to sell.” At Nilufar, it’s not so much that budgets are thrown out the window, it’s more that they never existed to begin with. Nina’s business strategy—based on gut feeling—yielded her little profit for a long time. But, she explains, as she smokes a cigarette and seats herself back on the Parisi couch, “I want people to follow me. I don’t want to follow them.”

Nina was born in Tehran in 1957. Her family migrated from Iran to Milan, where her father set up a business selling Persian carpets. This heritage explains a lot about her mentality, she says. “I feel there’s something genetic that allows me to make decisions. Sometimes, I’m not really conscious of what I’m doing. If I were, I wouldn’t take so many risks,” she confesses wryly. Nina started her career by displaying and, yes, curating some of the carpets from her father’s stock. “My father always asked me: ‘Why do you pick these strange, ugly things that very few people buy?’” When asked if perhaps her father unintentionally taught her what not to do, she laughs voraciously and agrees. Her reflex, she explains, is to follow her passion.

Nina now provides furniture for Miuccia Prada (an old friend) and a whole raft of Milan and Europe’s more moneyed clients. “If I hadn’t focused on an elite market, I would have been bankrupt,” she says with conviction. “My philosophy has always been to buy for only a few people.” Nina’s approach to business is based almost entirely on her own taste, which, luckily for her, presaged a global appreciation for classic contemporary design. What might appear to be a vague attitude to matters of business, a quintessentially artistic trait perhaps, in fact hides a lucid, singular approach that identifies Yashar as a true entrepreneur. “I think the aim of the dealer should be to show the client new things,” she says with a smile, finally conceding to her profession.

This story appeared in The Kinfolk Entrepreneur in 2017. 

At Nilufar, Nina displays pieces by masters like Carlo Mollino, Ettore Sottsass and Gio Ponti alongside more contemporary, cutting-edge designers that Nina has helped discover, such as Martino Gamper.

At Nilufar, Nina displays pieces by masters like Carlo Mollino, Ettore Sottsass and Gio Ponti alongside more contemporary, cutting-edge designers that Nina has helped discover, such as Martino Gamper.

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