Friday, June 2, 2006

Robert Couturier

Robert Couturier unwinds at home in Soho.
The apartment is in Soho but we could have been in Paris, perhaps the Marais with a little of the 16th arrondissement throw in for good measure. Robert Couturier is as sophisticated as his home, which exemplifies his own cultured background. A confident and intellectual design sensibility, mindful of history, has resulted in a space that effortlessly brings eras together, be it a Louis XVI commode illuminated by a lamp from the 1960s, say, or piles of paperbacks stacked in an 18th century Chinese bookcase. It is worldly, un-American and that is probably just the way Robert wants it.

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

Home is my house in the country. My dogs and my boyfriend are there. Things are of no importance, I mean I like to look at them but things come and go; people don’t. Home is a place where you can rest and I don’t think anything in New York is restful.

What in your childhood might have indicated an interest in design, the way things look? Was your childhood home something you remember fondly?

The world, the universe, architecturally and decoratively that you have been brought up in has disappeared so you want to recreate or emulate it for yourself. I was raised by my grandmother and she had a glam house in the 16th arrondissement which was done by Jean Michel Frank and she had a place in the country and a place in the mountains that was done in this 1920s style by a British gentleman, very, very, very elegant. I just bought a beautiful 18th century chest of drawers which was on the cover of the Biennale four years ago and I’ve been looking at it and wanting it and I set it up in my house and said to my boyfriend, ‘Now I have the incredible, beautiful things that I was brought up with.’ Which is a little silly, I mean it’s not a competition. It’s a competition with yourself.
Above: Two eras come together with the pairing of glowing Louis XVI mahogany dining furniture and a bold Ernest Boiceau rug from the 1940s.

Left: The magnificent 18th century candlesticks are Spanish and the 1927 ebonized console upon which they stand is by Joseph Hoffman. The mirror is also by Hoffman.
Is there anything you couldn’t part with?

There’s nothing I could not part with.

What have you learned about people through the prism of your work?

 People are not always as nice as they appear but they are sometimes infinitely nicer.
An 18th century Japanese rootwood mirror above an important Louis XVI mahogany commode, all unashamedly combined with a 1960s 'escargot' lamp.
A portrait of Robert in Paris when he was in his teens (and smoking) hangs over a black lacquered bench from the 1930s.
'I love those macaroons from Payard ...' Robert works out four times a week with a personal trainer.
When accepting clients, what are the red flags that indicate the ones to avoid?

 I think there are a lot of clients who are incredibly dangerous. A single client can ruin your career. The warning signs are ‘I have very good taste. I know what I’m doing’ or ‘I can get everything for half the price.’

What would make you walk out on a client?

If someone is mean, particularly if they have inherited wealth or have huge amounts of money. I think if you are in that position then you have a duty to be generous. And I think that goes with this country.
What mistakes have you made?

I make mistakes all the time. I did one job when I first came to New York and I did everything wrong. When we closed the glass closets, the hinges were too tight and all the glasses broke. The chandelier collapsed on the dining room table. The contractor forgot to put the plumbing in the shower. The pipes were so close to the surface of the marble that she [the client] couldn’t walk. She was like hop-scotching through the bathroom. I learned that you get what you pay for. She actually sort of realized it as well and in the end we just said ‘Let’s have a valium and a martini.’

What do you find ugly?

Suburban developments should be banned. They buy these giant houses and mortgage themselves out of life. And they have these giant kitchens and family rooms that look like a cathedral and there is no furniture that fits in them either.
One of Robert's impeccably organized closet spaces.
What do you think of makeover shows?

They’re incredibly funny. They are all about America as a fairy tale civilization. It’s all about dream themes: a jungle theme or [a Peter Pan theme] for the daughter and so on. Poor child, I think. What happens when she grows up and doesn’t want to be Tinkerbell anymore? I mean how do they keep these houses and how can anything that has been built in seven days survive?

What of letting a room develop over time?

It doesn’t happen in this country because when people change social position, they change everything and they don’t grow with it. Here, if you make ten million dollars a year, then you have to have a beige house with white walls and contemporary art and then everybody who is at that level has a beige house with white walls and contemporary art and then there is absolutely nothing left of what is spontaneous about people. You see all these society ladies in New York and they look like Venus coming out of the water fully clothed. They have no families, no history, no nothing!
Robert's bed is of his own design but the gorgeous fabric is hand-embroidered by Jean of Francois Lesage. The custom motifs on the wall are handpainted by Paulin Paris and the exquisitely simple bookcases on either side of the bed are 18th century Chinese.
Left: A workspace by Jacques Adnet -- the leather desk, chair and lamp are all designed by him and date from around 1950.

Below: Looking out towards Robert's bed from his workspace; A portrait of Robert amongst a stack of reading material.
What does an interior tell you about someone?

You know absolutely everything when you walk into an apartment. The more they hide, the more you know because you see that the person is not comfortable with whatever they come from.

And minimalism?

I think minimalism is great but it’s sort of an absence of history. I’ve been doing a house in a Greenwich which is to be incredibly simple. The funny thing is it is becoming unbelievably expensive because it is totally unforgiving.
The 1950s zebra sofa sets off a brilliantly colored 19th-century rug from Turkistan and the photograph, a depiction of the Villa Malaparte, house of the author Perzel, is by Francois Halard.
Behind the white armchairs designed by Robert himself, is a bronze ladder that leads to storage space.
The oak dining table with plaster figured legs is from 1948 and was designed by Adnet and Savin and the white floor lamps are also from around the same period. The curved stool is by Ernest Boiceau.
A French wool tapestry by the artist Ferdinand Leger is called 'Rouge 9' and is flanked by a pair of late 20th century, Flemish-style octagonal mirrors. The glass chair, one of a pair that grace the living room, was designed by Coulon for the 'Exhibition des Artes et Téchniques' in 1937.
What do you do at the weekends to decompress?

I’m so curious. I read a lot. And I go to my house in Kent, where my dogs are. I have three Shitzus and I would have 25 if I could. I’m not really a country person so I stay inside with my dogs, who are not country dogs! I wanted to call the first two Paris and Andromeda but Suzy Frankfurt came to my house and said [puts on an American accent] ‘Oh Robert, these dogs are so weird you have to give them really normal names like Chuck and Lilly’ and they stuck. We lost Lilly last year and now we have Henriette of England and Bess of Hardwick – and Chuck. And of course, I am with my boyfriend. [Jeffrey Morgan] He restores houses and he is totally devoted to American 18th century but he’s one of those purists. He’s like a monk! And yet whatever we like, we like the best. I like luxury. What else do I like? I like sugar, creamy cakes. I love those macaroons from Payard.

Why do you call your boyfriend ‘boyfriend’ and not ‘partner’?

Partner sounds like business. I don’t know. He’s my boyfriend. I love him.

• Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge
• Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Couturier at home in Soho.