Strictly speaking, Nata Janberidze and Keti Toloraia began their creative collaboration in a vacuum.
When they started designing objects and interiors a decade ago, fresh out of art school, their hometown Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, a small country on the Black Sea that spent much of the 20th century as part of the Soviet Union, had no creative community for two young designers to gain inspiration from, or any local market for the one-of-a-kind groundbreaking pieces they designed under the distinctly Western, purposefully plain name Rooms.
Looked at another way, the two women, both 35, may have been in exactly the right place at the right time. Tbilisi, which claims origins as far back as the fifth century and was a stop on the Silk Road, provided Janberidze and Toloraia with an unparalleled set of deep references that inflects their work.
That depth and the craftsmanship they used to express it caught the eye of Dutch design entrepreneur Marcel Wanders, co-founder of Moooi, who commissioned them early on to create the popular Position lamp, and David Alhadeff of the Future Perfect, the influential store on Great Jones Street in New York City that now champions them in the United States.
From their own ancient Southern Caucasus heritage to layer upon layer of conquerors’ imprints — the Romans, the Persians, the Ottomans, the Russians, the internet — the two women are voracious in their often avant-garde and frequently ironic interpretation of history. In their hands, Georgia is the center of the universe, and the universe is gorgeously in flux. “There is so much here,” says Janberidze, “and everything is changing very fast.”
The resurrection of Tbilisi itself is a major chapter in their story. A city of 1.1 million that is among the economic success stories of Eastern Europe, it has rapidly become a mecca for adventurous tourists over the past few years.
It has a pleasant climate, eclectic architecture, throaty wines, innovative cuisine and an art scene reminiscent of Prague in the 1990s. While at the beginning of their collaboration the two women felt a bit isolated, they are now part of a local aesthetic moment, a sort of Williamsburg-on-the-Kura, to name the river that runs through Tbilisi.
Janberidze and Toloraia both live and work in the Old Town, which has winding alleyways and balconied 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Their rambling 3,300-square-foot studio, with high, whitewashed walls, is a suitably subtle canvas for their work, including sketches for a Starwood hotel in Batumi, a Georgian seaside resort, and their most recent collection, called Wild Minimalism. It was inspired by native Georgian crafts, which, before the Communist takeover, thrived. Using natural materials like stone and rough-hewed surfaces, the pair gives the mostly black and white works a witty postmodern edge.
A coffee table combines a stone zigzag base, a brass diamond and a metal top in a way that seems both ancient and up-to-date; the upright frame of the Lovers sofa, topped with rounded ornaments, has a tribal primitivism. It’s common for young designers these days to take inspiration from Memphis and Pop, but for Rooms that whimsy is often transformed into sculptural work both sober and substantial: A large bust of Batman is rendered in white plaster that gives the caped crusader the gravitas of a Greek god.
In their apartments, the designers, both of whom have children, have incorporated into their pared-down aesthetic the distinctively Soviet style they grew up with. When they were younger, they rejected all that — the heavy dark-hued pieces, often identical to everyone’s on the block; the freighted associations — but now they recognize the era’s place in the history of Modernism and in their own psyches. Their homes are meditations on Georgia’s complex past and, perhaps, its future; an Adolf Loos-inflected journey into a new century.
“As we’ve gotten older and it is further away, we are a little nostalgic for the Soviet style,” says Toloraia, who hasn’t changed much about her 1970s-era apartment, including the bathroom, in which virtually every surface is tiled in a light-blue industrial grid. A centerpiece of the living room, in addition to a chandelier from the early 20th century that once hung in her in-laws’ home, is a pair of boxy, wood-framed “Stalin” chairs, which she has had restored and covered in pale green velvet. “Some things are timeless and it does not matter from which era, if it is a good piece and it carries some history, it will remain forever,” she says.
Janberidze’s apartment on the top floor of a brick 1930s building was dark and cavernous. But instead of creating a tabula rasa white loft, she chose to braid together strands of history while lightening the mood. She replaced one of the walls — the one that separates the hallway from the living room — with floor-to-ceiling mullioned glass that lends a Modernist geometry. Although there are white curtains to provide privacy, for most of the day the light streams in from a large new skylight.
Among her friends is Barnaba Fornasetti, the Milan-based designer, and her bedroom is wallpapered in the iconic cloud pattern designed by his famous father, Piero. Although she owns some iconic pieces, including a set of early Philippe Starck barrel chairs around the dining table and a tea set by one of her idols, Giò Ponti, they sit in juxtaposition with Soviet toy soldiers and a vitrine she has fashioned by replacing the leather top of a Communist-era table with glass.
“You can’t wipe away the past,” she says. “You have to use it, change it, make peace with it.”