Sometimes in Moscow, other times in New York, but always on everyone’s minds and Instagram feeds – especially last month, when his Balenciaga sofa, presented at Design Miami fair, went massively viral. This is the usual trajectory of designer Harry Nuriev, a Russian-born, NYC-based designer with an eye for rich colours, balance, and organization within a space. We speak with him about the importance of ambience, heritage, and recycling in design.
You’ve mentioned that even as a child, you kept moving furniture around in your grandmother’s apartment and couldn’t wait to get to knocking down and rearranging the walls. Did your first design projects evolve upwards from the smallest changes to bigger ones, downwards from the immense disappointment that the walls and ceiling were immovable, or in some other way entirely?
Once I got a sense of freedom during my first actual project, I moved almost every single wall in the space, even the ones that were not necessary. Organizing walls for me is like organizing a closet – every corner needs to be in the right place.
As someone who’s shaped a wide variety of spaces – your own home, a relative’s, a home away from home for Airbnb, some restaurants, a few showrooms, an office space, etc. –, what varies and what remains the same across the board?
I love my Russian heritage and I try to always incorporate it in every project I create through colours and shapes. I like to see how my memories translate through time and compare it with the reality in my projects nowadays.
Have you ever attempted to renovate or redecorate your old family home since becoming a critically-acclaimed designer? Or is that something sacred and untouchable?
No, but I dream to change the home I grew up in one day.
The Balenciaga sofa quickly became the star of this year’s Miami Design fair, everyone’s Instagram feeds and numerous discussions about sustainability, practicality, and necessity. Do you think social media and our urges to do things ‘for the ‘gram’ or ‘for the meme’ have enhanced or dulled our understanding of these concepts? Where does the sofa fit into all of this?
Everyone has an iPhone and Instagram. It is everyone’s personal choice to choose what and what not to post. When someone posts something, it means they want to share it with others and save it in their feed. Before Instagram existed, we would save things on our desktop as the background photo. It’s the same as music: you can add a song to your playlist that you love, but at the end of the day, you will only share the song you really love.
Another one of your latest projects is an office space inspired by Soviet metro stations. Why did you decide to reimagine the starker, sleeker spaces rather than the opulent palatial corridors that weave underneath parts of Moscow or Saint Petersburg?
Soviet metro stations are pretty intriguing to me. Around seventy years ago, the best designers worked very hard to create something very extraordinary and monumental for people to make them feel a part of design. It didn’t work, and now we just use it to go to work and home, but the beauty of the stations still remains the same.
You’ve explained that your relationship with colour is very personal and that you ‘feel it’ more so than see it. Have you always felt this way? Do you think this is in some way influenced by how rich and nuanced Russia is when it comes to colour?
I think colours are very strong and interesting visual tools. Think about how many colours there are in the world, but most of the time, we can only see a select few. Also, colours are free, you don’t have to pay for them.
You’ve successfully become an artistic ambassador of sorts, infusing many of your designs with elements of personal as well as national heritage. How do you ever get anything done with one bunch of sceptics constantly going ‘I don’t get it, too outlandish’, while another grumbles back, ‘I don’t get it, my grandma has five of those’?
People get annoyed when they see something they don’t understand. It really annoys them when you don’t follow trends and develop your own design language. The thing is that yes, my grandma has five of them – that’s the point.
Before becoming a household name in interior design, you studied architecture and tried your hand at urban design. What have you learned from those experiences?
Actually, even before urban design, I was a graphic designer and it for sure didn’t hurt me. I learned how to think in both micro and large scales. I also learned how to combine them and work with both together.
You’ve presented lectures at the Royal College of Art, Harvard University, and hosted a workshop at the Strelka Institute. How did you like being on the other side of the lectern? Did the experience meet your expectations?
I used to be a terrible student, then I wondered should I become a good teacher. It was actually quite vulnerable.
You’ve mentioned that your main filter for judging if a design truly works is sexiness. Is this still your most important criteria? What are some others?
I guess design has to make you horny. Right? Not bored and depressed.
How is the portrait of Tsoi holding up in America? Surely, after Summer returning from the 2018 Cannes, a few people must’ve asked you about it or brought up the monomaniac’s Marco – Polo, Tsoi – Lives?
Tsoi – Lives! This portrait was before the Cannes and Summer, but this portrait made a lot of noise as well.
When asked about your most unusual projects, you recalled being tasked with decorating a Christmas – technically New Year’s – tree. How did that go? Has it changed how you feel about the holidays in any way?
I decorated a Christmas tree with used plastic bottles. I literally just put trash on a bare tree. If you just think about how many boxes, crystals, wrapping paper, and plastic we use for just a five-minute experience, it’s ironic to then put it all back on the tree. Of course, it’s not necessary to be so wasteful during the holidays. I wanted to invest in rethinking how to make a tree beautiful using waste and not add to the waste problem.
What’s one area of art or design that you haven’t explored yet but want to in the future?
I want to design an unforgettable hotel and an interior for a plane – not a private plane, but a commercial plane for everyone.