From Russia With Love

The "Venice of the North" gallerist is passionate about design

Unlike Moscovites, St. Petersburg’s professionals tend to be industrious first, glamorous second. A former Olympic gymnast for the Soviet Union, Marina Gisich brings that same level of determination and solid work ethic to her thriving businesses. The gallerist and interior designer expertly guides her clients through Russia’s budding contemporary art scene. A recent conversation with the businesswoman took place over Khachapuri (baked bread stuffed with cheese) in an authentic Georgian restaurant near her gallery in St. Petersburg.

How do you define Russian design style? The typical style of Russia is very rustic, since 
it was first developed in the countryside. But since St. Petersburg was built by the Italians and 
influenced heavily by the French and the Dutch, it hasn’t been very popular to keep things looking “Russian.” If I had to pick one authentic element, it is the original stucco work found in many of the older buildings. I often highlight that element when designing for my clients.

Is there a difference between Northern Russian contemporary artists and those from Moscow? Oh yes. Northern artists love to showcase beautiful life and nature. For example, the contemporary artist Vitaly Pushnitsky is really great at representing the mood of a place. The colors he uses are very transparent and cold, but very beautiful. When I see pictures by artists from St. Petersburg, they often incorporate 
grays, greens and blues—and every time there 
is a transparency to it.

How do you scout artists for your gallery? Before I owned my gallery, I worked as an art dealer with teachers like Michail Urievich Herman, Chechet and Borovsky, who taught me perspective. When I returned to Russia after my studies, I tried to meet with artists in St. Petersburg whom I felt were contemporary and going somewhere. Sometimes I chose right, sometimes not so right. I like artists who can change the emotion of a room with their art.

Do you see a trend within Russian design right now? Russian people are traveling more these days. So they are drawn more to European design, especially Italian. Russians love Italian things, especially beautiful fabrics, like Rubelli. They see it as historic and beautiful, and thus relative to St. Petersburg with its imperial style. Here, the trend is to not be as flashy as the Moscovites. If you compare apartments from 
10 years ago to apartments today, you’ll see 
much more sophistication. There are still people who want the flashy gold stuff, but it’s getting better. Even middle-country Russians are going to Milan to buy furniture. But this just started about 15 years ago.

What is one of the more common requests from your design clients? I’m not exactly a typical designer catering to the average, wealthy Russian. Today’s wealthy Russians are often interested in building or designing something flashy, with lots of gold. But that is exactly what I detest. My clients tend to be a bit different. They are mainly buyers of contemporary art and want to learn how to mix what they’ve inherited with what they see in my gallery, along with some international influences. Like mixing a German-style kitchen with Italian furniture and beautiful oak parquet floors together in a restored building space. They want to combine the past, using either antiques or details like marble mantelpieces and silver candelabras, with the current, through contemporary art and fabrics—creating a bridge between the past and the present.

Is there a particular room that tends to be your main focus? Traditionally, Russians love to eat at home. They often invite friends and family over and enjoy being together around the table. For all my clients, it’s very important to design an open living space that is attached to 
the kitchen, so that people can interact during dinner preparation. And I’m often on the 
hunt for big dining room tables. I tend to favor modern designers like B&B Italia.
What is your approach to designing? Whenever I start a new project, I first think about a color. Once I have chosen the color, then I incorporate various fabrics and materials. From there, everything mixes in—door frames, ceiling color and window style—but it all derives from that first color. I build the interior backward, starting with color and then going to the floors. It’s important to see texture, color, form and height of the wall. I like to know who built the building. I try to restore and keep the space as original as possible. Only then do I 
try to change the emotion with colors and by adding contemporary art.

What sort of colors do you gravitate toward? Colors depend on your emotion and a bit on trend. Of course, color choice also depends on the clients and how risky they want to be. For my own apartment, I chose a graphite 
color, almost black. Since our city doesn’t 
have very much light in wintertime, I worried that I would become depressed. But the art 
pops against the dark walls. Once people see 
my apartment, they realize that strong colors 
are good. I also like the color of clay. It’s so 
beautiful because you can move it in ways by adding ochre or green tones. It’s very St. Petersburg and rather aristocratic.

Is there a type of design style that you would never do? I would never do a brand new apartment in a Neoclassical style. I find it ridiculous to repeat a style that no longer exists in the building. Many clients buy apartments in new buildings, and then they want a classic style inside. If you are in a modern building, you have to have a modern style. You can only create a classic interior style inside a classic building.

Do you often feel a struggle between 
yourself and your clients? Every time I start a project with new clients, I ask them how much room they will give me. I go step by step with them and assure them that if you don’t take some risks, your apartment won’t have any character. In any case, you can always repaint. It’s hard to convince people, especially in Russia, where the style was always very simple with basic wallpaper. But in the last 15 years, people are getting a bit more interested. They like to travel and visit boutique hotels. However, they tend to remain timid when decorating their own home. Sure, they have lots of label items—Tiffany dishes, Prada fabrics—but they don’t have their own sense [of style]. I try to push people to see their own vision and to take risks.

Is Russian style exportable? Could I design my home in Russian fashion? For sure, no. You can bring beautiful Russian girls or gold detailing, but when you start to discuss Russian style as a whole entity, it’s much too folkloric. With my gallery, I try to show that Russians from the past 20 years are far more similar to citizens of other countries than people think. We enjoy the same music, books, and we spend money on the same things. Although my parents cannot relate to people their age in America, I can. I feel very much the same.