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.

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