Fit for a King
Interior Designer Francis Sultana creates sumptuous homes and tailored furniture for modern-day gentry.
When the Palace of Versailles was turned from hunting lodge to Royal Palace in the late 17th century, it was meant to be a showcase for France. It was the nationalised Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne, overseen by Charles Le Brun that ensured that all materials that went into the construction and decoration of Versailles were manufactured in France, including the reportedly one-tonne solid silver balustrade, marble-lined walls and expensive tapestries. If Louis XIV were around today, he might be inclined to call on Francis Sultana to design and furnish his fictitious 21st century palace. Even if Sultana is London-based and his preference for edgy, contemporary art might be a considered a little risqué for the royal court, his knack for creating fabulously elegant interiors and his penchant for French artisans would certainly make him a contender. “I come from a small place and have no formal training, and here I am creating furniture collections that will have historical significance around the world,” he reflects, without a hint of self-doubt. Sultana was born and raised on Gozo, a small island in the Mediterranean archipelago of Malta, where he says he began copying Frank Lloyd Wright floor plans at the age of five from books he borrowed from the library. His childhood dreams have now come to fruition: he is currently designing a home in Malta that he describes as minimalist, albeit with the Sultana touch. He is also active on the arts scene there. “I go every three weeks and I have clients there. And I’m involved with lots of things with the arts,” he says, citing his seat on the board of the Contemporary
Museum of Art that is being built, and his involvement in supporting Malta’s third entry into the Venice Biennale. Adding to his credibility as a design connoisseur, Sultana also sits on the development board of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where he used to run the design fund for new acquisitions. Sitting in the back of the soft-spoken designer’s studio on King Street in London’s grand St. James neighbourhood, it’s easy to imagine how Sultana’s style would appeal to the most discerning of clients: his suit is perfectly tailored and there is not one item out of place in his finely appointed office, which includes a purposefully open box of Caran d’ache coloured pencils (the same kind Karl Lagerfeld uses to sketch) and a large collection of neatly stacked leather-bound Hermès notebooks. “I need Hermès paper,” he declares, when discussing his preferred method of drafting his latest creations. Sultana uses a brown book and transfers the bound pages to orange covers once they are filled, arranging them on his bookcase that serves as a comprehensive archive of his 15-year career as a an interior designer. It’s not a large room, but we are surrounded by many of his own designs as well as modern collectibles like a lamp and table by Matthia Bonetti and a small glass table by Martin Szekely, which looks like a solid block of ice, weighs 380 kg and has an estimated market worth of about 55,000 USD. “I bought the entire edition of 20,” he confides. “This is the last one and someday I’ll find the perfect place for it,” he reflects. That table is an example of the kinds of pieces Sultana looks for: substantial and rare. He is a regular at auctions in Paris, London and New York, where he sniffs out the coolest and most desirable items using his impressive knowledge of design history, much of it acquired when he first met his partner, the gallerist David Gill, as a teenager. “He had a large collection of old black and white auction catalogues, and I absorbed them like a sponge, learning who had made every piece of furniture,” he recalls. Incidentally Gill – whose gallery is located downstairs and represents some of the world’s most cutting edge contemporary artists (he recently showed Zaha Hadid’s last furniture collection, see Bespoke issue 60) – has been a kind of protagonist in Sultana’s evolution, starting from the point he joined the gallery 25 years ago. While Sultana, now the CEO of David Gill Gallery, played an important role in the gallery’s growth and success, it could be construed that Francis Sultana the designer is who he is today because of his experience with the artists, the clients and working with Gill, a seasoned art dealer, since he met him at the tender age of 19. Yet, the brand Sultana has built, dates back to a year’s sabbatical he took in 2009, when he ambitiously set up his own studio, initially to create interiors for some of his major art collector clients. It has now mushroomed into an international business that has him overseeing projects from New York to London and an evergrowing furniture collection. “The majority of my furniture is bought by people in the industry and once they change fabrics and colourways, it forms part of their look. It’s very tailored,” he explains of the made-to-measure collection displayed in his showroom. It is eclectic and contemporary, but his use of noble materials conveys a feeling of luxury. Noteworthy is his use of Scagliola, a man-made resin that’s meant to look like marble (and incidentally was invented for Louis XIV at Versailles), which looks very current, rendered in the parsons-like Charles console table. “It takes a very special artisan to make it very well, and the process is very laborious. It’s like weaving a special cloth, you can dream a combination of colours and it can happen,” he reflects on the material, which he commissions from French craftsmen. In fact, most of his materials come to life in the land of baguettes and berets, including all his textiles. “My whole team is French, their quality cannot be compared,” he explains of his commitment to quality. “The reality is that even though we’re living in a throw away society, I like things to last.” Like Versailles, the homes that Sultana designs are meant to showcase the best furnishings and art available today and stand the test of time. Consequently, Sultana says he views himself as a purveyor of beauty, and knows what his function must be in this ever more very vapid and fast-paced life. “People come to me because they need support in creating a very sophisticated home, down to the very last detail.”
Top left: Sultana's office. Centre right: Tati stool from the Lulu Collection. Centre left: Gigi table lamp from the Lulu Collection. Bottom right: Malpensa sideboard from the Narmina Collection. Right: Candida drinks trolley from the Yana Collection.