We arrived before Ms. de Dampierre and when she whirled in from Litchfield County where her ‘serious’ house is, she was loaded with orchids, sugar cookies and carrying a large fur purse that looked alive. Oh, and she was wearing a huge Davy-Crockett-meets-Prada fur hat, high fur-and-suede boots laced with fur pom-poms and a bright orange paisley scarf loaded with more pom-poms … potentially hideous, right? But it was fantastic—she’s wonderfully glamorous and unburdened by guilt about it. After the interview was over, she showed us a real leopard vintage coat that she had picked up in a thrift store. She was thrilled with it: “I just tell people it’s fake.”
An author as well as a designer, her books include Chairs: A History (Harry N. Abrams) and The Best of Painted Furniture (Rizzoli). Her forthcoming book Walls: The Best of Decorative Treatments (Rizzoli) will be out in March—although it’s hard to imagine her sitting and writing because we couldn’t get her to keep still …
Please sit down now. Are you always this energetic?
Yes, I’m extremely energetic. You cannot do what I do [otherwise].
So how do you describe what you do to people who don’t know you?
I have a design business. I write books. I give lectures … er … I have kids. I have a husband.
You used to have an antiques store too, didn’t you?
Yes but that was too much. I am somebody who hates to be pinned down anywhere and it’s very hard when you have an antiques store because you can never have staff that can sell the stuff properly. [The customers] want to deal with you.
Are you a good saleswoman?
Your design look is not fashionable, at least it isn’t what we call the airline lounge look. Are you unapologetic about that?
Completely unapologetic. And I’m turning clients away. I’m incredibly busy. Cold spaces are ultimately for people who don’t know what they want and who don’t know how to live … it’s a cop-out of sorts. You do it everything white and mid-century and you know you aren’t going to make a mistake.
You wrote a book about the history of chairs—it’s an interesting way to look at history, through the prism of chairs. What did you learn?
Oh! It was a social history. A chair represents the way people live and they can represent historical events. For example, during the Empire [period] ninety percent of the men were wearing pants and swords and boots and that’s why the furniture was designed in the way it was.
People are very particular about chairs.
It’s like choosing a dog. It’s very funny—a chair represents a person like a dog represents a person!
I love chairs and I don’t care necessarily about comfort but men do seem to only care about comfort…
Yes, that’s right … the recliner! [starts to laugh]
Ooh, ugly, ugly chairs … now you’re very glamorous—have you always been glamorous.
Always! I like it! I always like more things.
What did you wear when you were a girl?
I grew up in Paris, in the 7th Arrondissement and I went to a nun’s school [convent]. It was very strict and my parents were extremely strict too. We had a certain length of skirt … navy blue and white uniform. To this day I have a problem with navy and white, I have to tell you. What is good is that it gave me a really good structure and it gave me a really good mind, also. It was challenging, intellectually.
When did you come to the States?
The first time I came it was for an exchange with the daughter of one of the vice-presidents who worked with my father in Union Carbide. That memory of America … I hated it. It was very suburban. I was stuck in a house and we were eating a TV dinner at five o’clock—all frozen food. And those early dinners … at five and six o’clock! When you’re French you shoot yourself if you have to eat dinner at that time. And I was a very proper girl so I didn’t go to the fridge to help myself. All I remember was my stomach rolling the whole time …
Tell us what you don’t like about France.
The strikes. And the fact that each time you want to do something in business, the [first] answer is always no.
Do you think there’s a lack of refinement in the States?
You do have a lack of refinement but it’s changing a lot. I mean years ago you couldn’t find a decent bakery or decent cheese but in the last fifteen to twenty years, you have a whole generation that is really embracing that. Foodwise, I literally live in America the way I would live in France.
I’m always amazed at the amount of French I hear in New York, the number of French tourists … why so many?
Because America is a land of fascination to the French … it’s so big and we grew up with John Wayne and the Hollywood stars. There’s glamour.
So I read that you like Carla Bruni’s music – can you enlighten us as to why?
Oh yes. I have it here … [jumps up and puts on her iPod on] … I think she’s very good. I think she’s brought glamour back to France.
And in 1992 you were on the Eleanor Lambert’s “The twelve best-dressed women” list. Did you worry in 1993 when you weren’t on the list again?
No. I didn’t give a shit.
Okay, I have to ask you about this apartment. It’s not what I expected. To me this would be…
Like a [room for a] teenager.
Well you said it, because I didn’t want to say it.
It was the way I wanted it. It’s for fun. I have my serious house in the country.