What a grand, incredible world Mr Molyneux lives in, but what a thoughtful, courteous and cultured man he is. His design company works on some of the most astounding design projects in the world, palaces in India, a building in Russia for the ceremonial signing of treaties, castles in the Caribbean. The drawings he showed us of just a few of his projects made our jaws drop. But all of his work, and indeed his personality, is informed by a tremendous capacity for life, and risk. He still rides his Harley Davidson motorbikes, goes heli-skiing and he simply doesn’t get people who do not have strong feelings about things. ‘Because of my personality I don’t understand someone who, if you say: Do you like red?’ and they say ‘I don’t know.’ Come on!’
You are incredibly well-traveled and we were very interested to hear that you even have an office in St. Petersburg.
Actually I moved it to Moscow. It is very true what you are saying [about traveling] …two weeks ago I went to Tashkent, then I went to Samarkand, to visit one of the most fantastic, fantastic, places in the world. I’m on the board of World Monuments Fund and I’m on the board of Versailles, so I have to do a lot with the restoration of buildings. Thanks to that I’m able to be a lot on the inside, working with the local government. So I went there to see the restoration of the old ceramic tile that you see in all the mosques. I mean you have all these sort of turquoise cupolas, the domes … so extraordinary, so extraordinary. Even though you see the ceramic ‘world’, the catalogs for bathrooms, for this, for that, whatever, this is so difficult to do because it is done in such a primitive way that no one would ever even invest in a factory like this …and then I had to go to Istanbul for another thing and then, Moscow. Last weekend I went to Qatar …
What was that like?
That again is something amazing. Most fantastic airport. [Qatar] is a construction site. Every block has at least two cranes. Instead of going through that period where the Russians discovered life, and then [for them] the best of life was like the bad part of Las Vegas … in Qatar, I mean they woke up in the early 90s, and there you see the hand of the ruler, some sort of government, some sort of discipline. Instead of doing this kind of cheap approach to the Western world, they are building the most incredible towers in the world. I mean you have every single architect working there.
People like to a laugh at the Russians and the Arab nations for being tacky.
No, no. Probably the type of people who say that, if they’re not tacky themselves, just check their grandparents … probably they were awful. I mean that’s life. You have to start somewhere. I mean the Russians [get] compared to the old American tycoons, the robber barons … and it’s not a true comparison. Because in America you start scratching and you find dirt and dirt and dirt and nothing. In Russian you start scratching and you find ormolu and malachite. It was an empire. It has history. The tacky people are not the Russians, the tacky people are the Italians, and the Yugoslavians, and the Spaniards and the French and the Germans who went there selling the cheap stuff and trying to convince them that gilding …it is done with a can.
But don’t you think there is a place for the vulgar and the tacky? I mean Las Vegas has its own iconography.
Even Las Vegas is evolving. Las Vegas will become one of the most extraordinary places in the world because it has so much money. And they’re hiring now… all these architects … Norman Foster … you know.
But I find that a shame. I don’t want good taste to invade Las Vegas.
I know, I know. Because then it’s going to be what? A Monte Carlo in the desert? But the tendency, human nature, is to upgrade.
What’s your point of departure when you decide you want to learn about a culture?
I don’t want to sound a little pompous but in all my years I’ve been very … kind of … living along with all kinds of cultural events and history. The first time I went to Moscow I was 19 years old. I was studying architecture in Paris and I used to have a deux-chevaux, you know one of those Citroen 2CV [cars], and only when you’re 19 you can think on terms of high end philosophical architectural problems and I decided that the Matisse dancers, they had a rhythm that was an architectural rhythm. I took my 2CV and I went to what was then Leningrad …what I’m trying to say is that my relations with some countries … it’s not recent.
Did you ever have to get out and push the 2CV?
Not me …but many others on the road! [laughs]
We couldn’t help but stare at your two Harley Davidson motor bikes downstairs in the entry way. They looked like they should be in the Museum of Natural History. Do you actually ride them?
[laughs] Yeah! Yeah! I’ve been all over the world with Pilar [his wife] sitting on the back. All over. We stop in all these diners and I have a blast … I have another one in Paris … that and racing cars. I have them in Europe. I’ve been stuck with Aston Martins.
Are you a thrill seeker?
Yes I am. I like heli-skiing. I still race, skiing.
Do you find that after years of being in many, many countries that you synthesize all that you’ve learned?
Again, the most knowledgeable people, you get to the point where they are all sort of the same club. So, basically it is up there where the boundaries are weaker. It’s not with the people, it is with the higher level in a society [the elites], that boundaries weaken. If you go back to history you think that that was always the case because the highest you could go was to go to the monarch, and most of the monarchs were intermarried with other families and they came from other cultures.
So you’re saying that national distinctions fall away, or are porous, at certain levels in society.
Exactly, I mean the boundaries are non-existent. Evidently we’re talking Europe, but if you’re talking Europe and the Middle East, of course there are cultural differences but you sort of start getting vague because … I mean French furniture for example, I mean the best French furniture becomes something that allows the use of chinoserie. How can you explain a masterpiece with the most incredible bronze d’oré and marquetry with a Chinese panel? It was done. Why? Because it was two riches that were at one point connected.
Do you think that’s the definition of sophistication in the end? A kind of dropping down of barriers?
I think that the barriers are a little bit to preserve your ignorance.
What do you look for when you are taking on an employee to your firm?
It’s their interest. Because if someone is here saying that I want to work from 9 to 5 and I want to make so much money …
You’re looking for passion.
Yes … even if it is wrong. It’s an expression. Sometimes the wrong becomes the right.
Is that kind of passion hard to find?
It is. You’ve no idea how many people … they are just content. It’s amazing.
How do you not feel frightened when you realize the scale of some of the projects you get to do?
[laughs] I feel sooo comfortable. I truly do. I feel things. I do, I do. I mean I don’t hear voices … I’m not that type – yet. But I have very clear ideas of things … sometimes I say I need to come back here, normally alone and most of the time I’m walking and I’m not thinking about the project, I’m thinking about something totally different!
Are you someone who is out with the old and in the new or are you happy to leave things as they are?
I’m always moving things around, but I mean my wife always tries to put things away or sell them or whatever. I always try to keep them.
Do you argue about that? And if so, who wins?
She does [mock rueful expression] – of course … of course.
Does she sneak things out so that you don’t even know?
That’s what mothers do to sons.
I know. But I have the tendency to buy things and then sometimes I don’t even remember where all these things are.
Aren’t you fascinated in some way about the play of accident and design. You spoke earlier about the placement of a tree so that it was visible in a particular way from a window but Nature has a way of not behaving. The tree might grow in the wrong direction.
Then we’ll change it.
Ah, you’re a designer to the core!
Absolutely! Absolutely! [laughs]