Friday, November 19, 2010

Darren Henault

How entertaining to interview interior designer Darren Henault! He’s chatty and open (though admits to a ‘melodramatic’ side, which, alas, we didn’t see). Henault lives with Michael Bassett, a corporate attorney, and their gorgeous two-year-old twins, Bunny and Lulu. The family recently moved from a Soho loft into a grand 19th-century Fifth Avenue mansion in which almost all of the original mahogany paneling and detail has been retained. At home, there are, apparently only two rules—not sure if they apply equally to grown-ups and children but they’re good rules for both: food is to be eaten in the dining room and no shoes on the furniture—otherwise you’re free to climb barefoot on anything, at any time.

So how is your adjustment coming up from SoHo to Fifth Avenue?

I love it. Honestly I swore I would never move to the Upper East Side. I always lived downtown. I always said “I get a nosebleed whenever I go beyond 23rd Street” but as soon as we had kids, I hated being downtown.

Why is that?

Because the sidewalks are dirty. They’re not wide. They’re not level. You can’t push a stroller. SoHo is very cool but you try pushing a stroller over the cobblestone street without a child being propelled from the stroller. They’re so many people, so many tourists … it’s a mall.
In the front entrance hall, a stunning mirror by Hervé Van Der Straeten from Maison Gerard hangs above 19th century French table. A pair of paintings by Jaq Chartier from Winston Wachter gallery hangs above a banquette upholstered by Sandringham Ltd.
A painting by Betsy Eby in the dining room is from Winston Wachter gallery. Ornate Belle Epoque style sconces flank curved dining room window covered in a soft balloon shade.
Bunny in her highchair. Darren designed the sofa and dining room table.
The guest bathroom.
And what was your feeling about the Upper East Side before you actually moved up here?

I felt like the UES was where everybody goes to die.

Very geriatric…

Not so much geriatric but it’s incredibly genteel. There’s no funk. Not what I was looking for when I was in my twenties and thirties. But when we had kids, I thought, I don’t need cool. I’m so not interested in cool.

Can we talk about having children? How long have you been together with your partner [Michael]?

We’ve been together for 14 years. Michael from the first day that I met him, from the first date, started talking about having kids and I said, “Okay date’s over. You really should go meet somebody else because that’s never going to happen with me. You can go now.” And he never, ever mentioned it again. And then all of a sudden my girlfriends started having babies and I realized that I loved babies, that I loved being around kids. So then, ten years later, I brought it up.
The drawing room was the former library of a nineteenth-century mansion.
A small side table with an inset shagreen top from Hinson stands atop a 19th-century Kirman rug from Symourgh International.
Atop the marble fireplace mantle, Darren’s hat adorns a nineteenth-century French bust of a man he calls ‘Uncle Pierre.’ The white ceramic bird is by Ted Muehling.
Looking south across the drawing room. A detail of the ornate drawing room. Other than a bit of cleanup was ‘in excellent condition,’ says Darren.
A reflection of the drawing room and front entrance hall from a recessed wall mirror. The mahogany-and-gilt door surrounds are original to the former library of the mansion.
Reflections of the ornate living room from a mirrored fireplace wall.
Did you make a decision to have girls?

No. We went through an agency in LA, and we had a surrogate.

A surrogate mom?

You don’t say ‘surrogate mom’ because that implies she’s the mother. You just say ‘surrogate’

Okay, well that’s good to know.


It’s just a little detail. And we had a separate egg donor.
A Jansen day bed is covered in fabric from Christopher Hyland. The silk ikat pillow fabric is from Bermingham & Co. through Brunschwig & Fils.
A view across the grand living room into the front entrance hall.
A ceiling fixture from The Plaza Hotel was turned upside down to create a shade for this desk lamp. A plaster horse ‘artifact’ is by American artist Georges Kelly.
A view toward the front windows; the draperies are made out of silk taffeta from Old World Weavers. The small Biedermeir sofa is covered in Holland and Sherry fabric.
A collection of photography and other artwork (including a finger painting by Bunny) lines the top of the drawing room bookcases.
Can you tell which daughter takes after you and which takes after Michael?

Not really. Some people will look at Lulu and say “Oh God she’s a mini you!” and then two days later somebody will look at Lulu and say “She looks so much like Michael!”

Personality-wise you will know.


Yes. Lulu is a tad on the high-strung, melodramatic side, which would be me. Bunny [sometimes] likes to be left alone and that’s more like Michael. Michael is a lawyer—he is the ultimate diplomat and is calm, cool and collected. But that whole nature-nurture thing: it’s nature. Nurture has nothing to do with it. They come out full-fledged little human beings, without a doubt.

So this must be a wild new adventure for you …


Well, it’s really interesting—I mean do we run to Paris for three-day weekends? No. It’s okay … it was fun but I don’t need to do it now. [This] is fun now. You get to pay attention and you’re present … and we’re not racking our brains trying to figure out our careers (of course we’re working) but it’s not as stressful as when you’re in your twenties trying to figure out what you’re going to do with your life. I don’t understand people who have kids in their twenties. I think they’re insane!
One of a pair of Louis XIV-style armchairs is by French mid-century designer André Arbus. Family photos.
Another view of the drawing room. A bronze bust of Michael, Darren’s partner, by George Kelly stands in the corner of the drawing room.
So you’re okay with them spilling grape juice on this Fortuny sofa?

No! But if a two-year old spills something it’s either a) my fault for giving them grape juice in the living room or b) they’re two—it’s nobody’s fault. There are two rules actually: food is in the dining room and no shoes on the furniture. If they’re barefoot they can climb all over anything.

This apartment is extraordinary to grow up in. If I was growing up here, I would think I was a princess!


Yeah? I don’t know what to say about that. They will grow up being taught that this is pretty amazing … and there may come a day when we can no longer live in this and that’s fine too. And we have the house in Millbrook too—that’s a real country house. It’s not fancy.

But the community of Millbrook is fancy.


Well … it’s a tony crowd. We hang out with the horsy crowd … we both foxhunt. We both have horses. That’s how we ended up in Millbrook. Michael has been riding since he was very small.
Looking down the apartment staircase. The rug is from Stark. An oversized family portrait in the playroom can be seen all the way from the bedroom hall.
Lulu and Bunny’s bedroom, ‘pretty in pink’. The painting of the teddy bear is by Jasiu Krajewski. The twins’ beds are from Pottery Barn; the linens are Leron.
Darren chose to create a cocoon-like feeling in master bedroom by upholstering the wall in a crewel fabric. The gouache on the right wall is by Michele Charles. An antiqued brass lamp from Restoration Hardware stands atop a French chest of drawers purchased in New Orleans. A pair of alabaster lamps each atop a bedside tables from Maison Gerard. The upholstered bed is covered in linens from Leron; the pillows are from Ann Gish.
A shimmering area rug from Patterson, Flynn and Martin is made out of mercerized cotton.
A Napolean III, Duchesse Brisee chaise flanks a French 19th-century mahogany table from New Orleans. The lamp is from John Saladino.
Where did you grow up?

In Massachusetts, in North Attleborough, this little hoe-down nothing town but we had a lot of land and I had horses. Truth be known, I had horses because my dad thought they would look really nice in the yard.

Oh, so perhaps your father had the gene, I guess, that you inherited, for making things look nice.

My dad was in the textile industry and from the time I was very little we would come home from clothes shopping with my mom. And he never asked who made it or where was it from—he would touch everything and by touching everything, he knew if it was good quality or not. And so I always do this thing where I obsessively touch everything. I have an obsession with how things are made.
A family portrait is by Millbrook photographer Pat Ike. The sofa is covered in fabric from Old World Weavers.
Lulu and Bunny’s toys and books are neatly arranged on the playroom bookcases.
The downstairs study and playroom. In the corner a table from William Wayne stands next to leather chairs from Paris.
The underground wine cellar with nary a bottle in sight.
A glass ceiling in the wine cellar gives a view of the study/playroom – also with a glass ceiling – above.
How did you get into design?

I was an account executive for an advertising agency and I was really, really unhappy. My friend’s dad who was an architect had rented a house in the south of France and I went to stay with them, and he said, “You know there’s so many things that you notice, and the way that you talk about things. You really should become an interior designer.” And I thought that was the dumbest suggestion I’d ever heard … but he talked me into taking a class at FIT, and that was it. I quit my job. That was 15 years ago.

And now I suppose it’s impossible to imagine your life without either being a designer or having kids …

The kids mean there’s always inbuilt joy.

I have to tell you something interesting about the apartment next door to you. Do you know it once belonged to Shere Hite, who wrote The Hite Report about women’s sexuality?

I have no idea who that is.
• Sian Ballen
• Photographs by Jeff Hirsch