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O’Brien Van der Steen Hunt: ‘Furniture and the interior are the natural extension of an architectural project’

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Founded in London and now based in Moscow, O’BVDSH takes care with every aspect of their recent rejuvenation of Rustaveli Theatre, Tbilisi, Georgia

As the revolution raged in neighbouring Russia in 1917, down in the basement of a theatre in Tbilisi, Georgia, art stirred in the darkness. Originally built in 1887, the café in the basement of the Rustaveli National Theatre – named the Kimerioni, or ‘chimera’ – was, like many cafés across Europe at the time, a salon for avant-garde arts and culture. Artists fleeing the Russian Revolution found refuge here, with walls bristling with mythical creatures, beautiful dancers and garlands of vivid blossoms painted by Russian émigré Serge Sudeikin.

During the four short years of its lifetime – closing when Georgia succumbed to Soviet Russia in 1921 – the Kimerioni was ‘the thriving, beating heart of the avant-garde movement in Georgia’. A hundred years after it first opened its doors to Tbilisi’s artistic community, the Rustaveli Theatre hopes to resurrect its legacy as a setting for cultural dialogue and exchange. ‘The intention is to provide less formal uses that allow people to engage more easily with the theatre itself’, explains architect James O’Brien, one third of British practice O’Brien Van der Steen Hunt.

‘We see a strong connection between the place in which a project will be made and the people who will make it, and how the project is conceived and thought about and then built’

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Source: Nik Klahre

The tapered oak joists of the mezzanine echo the design of the furniture which was inspired by a common Soviet-era stool

Founded in London by James O’Brien, Joseph van der Steen and James Hunt, O’Brien and Van der Steen are currently based in Moscow and teaching at the Moscow School of Architecture and the British Higher School of Arts & Design. ‘Russia is a very stimulating place to be historically,’ O’Brien insists, ‘even if there is something somewhat depressing about the rampant, mafioso corruption that shapes all social, political and architectural decision-making in Russia at the moment.’

Their clients at the Rustaveli Theatre, however, were looking for something different. The first phase of a project including re-establishing a restaurant and community space in the basement as well as an education studio, the Skola café on the ground floor showcases ‘the best of Georgian skills, craft and culture’. The clients requested a space that wouldn’t be out of place in London, Paris or New York: a design of an international standard.

But far from a bland, soulless bistro, the architects created a space deeply rooted in Georgian history and culture. The café is ‘a place of gathering, of sharing food and wine’, central to the local way of life. With walls coated in traditional gaji render and fitted with an intimate mezzanine up in the heights of the brick barrel-vaulted ceiling, the café creates an informal space, right on Rustaveli Avenue, for the discussion and celebration of arts and theatre.

Rather than the architecture taking centre stage, however, it is the café’s furniture that steals the show. The architects started with a common stool from the Soviet era, or taburétt. This surprisingly gentle, triangular-topped stool with rounded corners and three tapered legs looks more Alvar Aalto than Vladimir Tatlin. O’BVDSH’s dining chair is a modern adaptation of this humble stool, preserving the same distinctive shape, made of the same light oak and crafted with foxtail joints in hardy mahogany. The chair embodies the DNA shared by the café’s family of furniture, including a three-legged round table, long slender benches and simple stools, all constructed with the same tapered legs, the same beautiful joints, and from the same sandy oak.

Built-in furniture, such as the stunning wine cabinet (complete with curved cupboard doors and a matching ladder to reach the highest bottles), helps to modulate the small spaces and was ‘a core part of the design process from the beginning’. The same oak is used in the joyfully robust joists that support the mezzanine – tapered at their tips like the chair legs below. ‘Furniture and the interior are the natural extension of an architectural project – it tends to be the stuff you touch and engage with physically, so there is a natural relationship between the design of a building and the furniture that populates it.’

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Rustaveli National Theatre Tbilisi Georgia Nik Klahre

Source: Nik Klahre

All furniture – from chairs and tables to built-in cabinets – was designed by the architects

All carpentry was undertaken by four local joiners. Apart from the light fittings (manufactured in Germany), concrete tiles and timber joists (Russia), all elements were sourced from specialists in Georgia. ‘We see a strong connection between the place in which a project – be it a building or a piece of furniture – will be made and the people who will make it, and how the project is conceived and thought about and then built’, O’Brien continues. The architects spent a good deal of time in the workshops of artisans across Georgia, understanding craftsmen’s methods, skills and materials.

As O’BVDSH embarked on this project, there was a tacit resignation that the high-quality craftsmanship desired by the architects and clients alike was going to be difficult in a post- Soviet state, with an artisan workforce slowly ravaged by the the strains of communism. What this project proves is that a wealth of traditional skill and craftsmanship is hiding invisible in workshops all over Georgia, ripe for discovery by ambitious architects and their clients.

As Georgia embraces a closer relationship with the European Union – without severing economic and cultural ties with nearby Russia – this British practice offers an international approach to design of the Skola café (and the future phases to come), embodying an engagement with a broad, outwardlooking, progressive community, in the same way the Kimerioni did one hundred years earlier.

Lead image: The Skola café on the ground floor of the Rustaveli National Theatre in Tbilisi, Georgia, has an intimate mezzanine level with a painted brick vaulted ceiling. Photograph by Nik Klahre

This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to get a copy.