Haute Sackcloth Hits Russia
By JOHN VAROLI
Andrei Dmitriev says he is on a crusade to bring taste and style to Russian interior design. And in a move away from the usual Russian tendency toward overkill, he gutted a former printing house at the Russian Academy of Sciences to create a fashionable restaurant named Restoran. He removed the glass from some of the 18th-century mirrors, upholstered the furniture with sackcloth and covered the cavernous vaulted ceiling and walls with several layers of plaster -- but left them unpainted.
If customers ask incredulously when the interior will be completed, Mr. Dmitriev waves them away imperiously. As he explained on a recent afternoon, he purposely designed the monotonous, almost sullen decor of Restoran so that the appearance of people can bring it to life.
The Russian Tea Room this is not. But then, nothing is as you might expect it these days in St. Petersburg, where a fusion of past riches, present poverty and a rising fashionista class is fueling Mr. Dmitriev's cutting-edge visions. Restoran's sleek and cold simplicity, startlingly original in the post-Soviet period, has rocketed Mr. Dmitriev to fame in the world of Russian interiors, which is grappling with freedom after decades of stagnation and state control and looking for its own identity amid an onslaught of Western influences.
''For the past 80 years, Russia has been ruled by zhlobi'' -- the uncouth and the uncultured -- said Mr. Dmitriev, 43, a former race car driver, auto mechanic and antiques dealer who took up interior design six years ago. ''Though they've lost power, it is still difficult to break the mentality they instilled in most people. But I plan to do the job, and want to create a whole new way of life, not just do interiors.''
Naturally, he often feels like a prophet without honor in his own country. Or even on his own staff. ''The workers mess everything up and then call me when it's too late,'' Mr. Dmitriev said with mock exasperation as he surveyed a work in progress, another trendy restaurant, at the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theater, formerly known as the Kirov. ''As if I am a doctor whose job it is to fight a cancer after it has spread throughout the entire body. The theater will have to either do it my way, or do it without me.''
There has never been much regard for the customer in Russia. And Mr. Dmitriev, while often impeccably charming and polite, seems imbued with this spirit. The customer does best to shut up and sit back while Mr. Dmitriev does the real work: creating.
''I will do what the client likes, the way I see it,'' he said airily as he surveyed his kingdom from a table at Restoran, which is fast becoming St. Petersburg's most popular and fashionable dining spot. In the four months it has been open, Restoran (the name is Russian for restaurant) has already seen two celebrities from France, the design-minded nation whose ties to St. Petersburg date to Napoleon's time and beyond: the uber-chic Catherine Deneuve and the rock star Mylene Farmer.
Restoran provides a spiritual home and a convenient backdrop for the theatrical Mr. Dmitriev, who often holds court there. A small sign, ''Andrei Dmitriev Design,'' thoughtfully greets English-speaking visitors at the door. For those who cannot make the pilgrimage, several dozen photos are available at Mr. Dmitriev's Web site (www.ad.sp.ru).
Criticized by some as a dictator, Mr. Dmitriev is seen by others as a blessing. In today's volatile economy, those with means are often those in sorest need of guidance in matters of taste.
Mr. Dmitriev is regarded as one of the best interior decorators in this city of five million, but then, there are only several dozen, despite growing demand for their services. In Russia, interior design has often been left to architects.
While offices, apartments and country houses form a large part of his portfolio, Mr. Dmitriev's reputation flows from his restaurant interiors. His first creation, the six-year-old Staroe Kafe, is cozy and charming, a five-table cafe decked out in 1900-era antiques. A more recent work, called Kama Sutra, serves Indian cuisine and is decorated accordingly, in a minimalist style that nonetheless includes graphic sexual drawings, phallic ornaments and Indian fabrics and sofas.
Mr. Dmitriev abhors all that is loud and gaudy. He stripped Restoran's interior to the bone, foregoing varnish on the spruce tables, floors and window frames. As he explained how people become the brightest elements in the room, his puckish smile broadened into a chuckle.
Influenced by artists like Vermeer, the 18th-century French still-life master Chardin, and David Sterenberg, a Russian still-life master of the early 20th century, Mr. Dmitriev values proper positioning.
''My interiors are in fact a real-life still life, which is born in my imagination,'' he said ambiguously.
The owners of Restoran said they had originally hoped for an easy tourist draw, featuring Russian-village-style decor with the usual rustic motifs like farm tools, folk art and bright red peasant clothing for the staff. But after working with Mr. Dmitriev on smaller projects and coming around to his point of view, they decided to give him free rein.
''We worried about how it would go over with customers,'' said Olga Urusova, one of the owners. ''In Russia, Andrei's interiors are a new approach to design, and we were a little frightened by his ideas. But then we thought, St. Petersburg is also a part of Europe, so why can't we take brave steps forward, as they do in London and Paris?''
For his part, Mr. Dmitriev said he was ''fed up'' with folksy decors, ''which better exemplify the tastelessness of cities such as Moscow.''
Indeed, Mr. Dmitriev has taken cues from London, where he worked with the designer Nicholas Haslam (who has done home interiors for Rupert Everett and Bryan Ferry, and party decorations for the royal family); he also spent six years in Amsterdam as an antiques dealer. But he transforms his Western European experience by giving it a distinctly Russian soul. Old and new, poverty and luxury, all figure prominently in his style. He also draws inspiration from the kabak, the popular, rough-and-tumble pre-revolutionary tavern of the lower classes.
''I search for a way to combine the old with something new and ultra modern,'' Mr. Dmitriev said, switching between Russian and English. ''It's controversial and contradictory, but such a combination allows you to see the beauty of both in the comparison. The stark difference of luxury on the background of poverty enhances its beauty.''
A chance encounter later in the day seemed to hammer home the point. Confronted by a fetid public toilet, Mr. Dmitriev howled with laughter. ''To best understand beauty,'' he said, ''one needs only to visit a Russian toilet.''
Born into a family of musicians and artists, Mr. Dmitriev spent 10 years working with cars and antiques before finally taking to interiors. He never lost his love of rallying, and spent a month last summer accompanying a Dutch rally team in two vintage Bugattis on the Silk Road leg of its world tour, from Islamabad in Pakistan to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, via northwestern China.
His interest in cars, he said, led him toward design, albeit indirectly. Running a black market garage in Soviet times, Mr. Dmitriev earned more in a day than the average worker did in a month. His off-the-books accumulation of capital allowed him to amass a sizable collection of antiques, a passion that is echoed in his interiors.
Tinkering with cars, however, may have been less a way to make a killing than a way to avoid the depressing realities of Soviet life.
''While working as a mechanic, my workshop became my own little world,'' he said, ''and this tendency has remained with me today in my interior design. I try to create something new, something my own.''
Such thinking is rare in Russia, where repetition of the past is preferred. Soviet ideas of design were often pedantic in pursuit of authentic historical styles. Mr. Dmitriev, who graduated from Leningrad State University with a degree in French, credits his success to his lack of a formal design education.
These days Russian designers can choose from a wealth of materials, but many are short on knowledge and experience.
Mr. Dmitriev suspects there are mental blocks as well. ''Sometimes Russians are too used to living in wretchedness to be able to enjoy something of quality,'' he said. ''So, when people want what they believe is top quality, it often degenerates into kitsch styles, blindly reproducing what they find in other countries. And the result is often something forced and unnatural that lacks a harmony with the Russian reality.''
His iconoclastic views are slowly attracting supporters. ''Thanks to Andrei, St. Petersburg design is strongly developing, because it was kept down for so long,'' said Andrei Pecholin, a St. Petersburg design critic. ''Under the Soviets, Russia was ruled by the lumpen proletariat, which had no taste and had no need for taste.''
Perhaps, but Mr. Dmitriev still finds Russia a lonely place. He finds solace a few times a year by visiting fairs and design shows in London, where tastes are more sophisticated and his talent is better appreciated.
Which can make life back in St. Petersburg a bit of a trial sometimes.
''This is a monument to Russian idiocy,'' Mr. Dmitriev shouted at his workers as they toiled away on the Mariinsky Theater restaurant. ''You're going to have to redo everything.''
Originally published in New York Times May 4, 2000