Robert Couturier was our very first HOUSE interview in 2006 and he helped us set the tone for the kind of column we wanted: a real conversation where you could hear the actual person speaking—no canned answers or prepared sound bites. It isn’t always easy to get that out of interviewees but it was easy to get Robert’s real voice straight away because he is candid, funny and cultured. Our second interview is just as good, if not better, and if you want to know more about him, both the introductory essay and the beautiful interiors showcased in his new book (Robert Couturier, Designing Paradises, Rizzoli) provide genuine insight into how he approaches his life and his design.
I thought the essay you wrote as an introduction to your book was rather touching. I pulled some quotes from it that I wanted to talk about. One of the things you mentioned was that we all live imperfect lives but we all fantasize about perfect rooms. I’m very interested in that idea of fantasizing about perfection, especially perfect rooms—I do it all the time.
I’ve never believed in perfection, even in interior perfection. In the work that I do, I strive to make people happy, which is why I only work with people I like … because why make people you don’t like happy?! [laughs] But the role of fantasy is hugely important and we all [fantasize] all the time. And that is true for interiors—we need fantasy.
You’re open, in this essay, about your mother being distant and your father being frightening—have you always been open about your family like that?
I think you realize that your childhood has been unhappy only when you are out of it. You do realize things are not all that wonderful but you think that’s just the way life is. I was sent to boarding school very early and all the little boys were in the same situation as I was.
How common is it to be sent to boarding school in France?
Not common at all. It was a lovely boarding school. It was in a beautiful house in the country and the old sisters who ruled it were incredibly nice—they loved us all. It was worse to be at home!
What was your grandmother like? We know that in the end, she was the one who brought you up.
She was the one who realized when I was seven years old that you didn’t raise a child that way and she took me away. She wasn’t a cuddly sort of lady—she was of that generation who were fairly distant, not huggy and lovey-dovey; but she was incredibly fair and if you did something well, you got rewarded. She would never raise a hand to us; she was very kind.
And your grandfather?
He lived with his mistress during the week and then he would come to my grandmother’s house on a Friday night and spend Saturday and Sunday and then on Monday he would go back to his mistress.
That’s very French!
One of the things I thought when reading your essay was that you really seem to have an emotional relationship to furniture—sort of like a dog doesn’t talk back, furniture doesn’t talk back either.
I remember vividly when I was very young and I was in the library in our house. It was a beautiful day and the sun was streaming in. There were lots of nice stuff all around and I felt quiet. It was that moment where you rejoice in the luxury in which you live. And not having much of other emotional [sustenance] all of that is what gave me a feeling of comfort and pleasure. Furniture and objects just comfort me.
So I wonder if people who have a normal upbringing and lots of love, care that much about furniture?
They don’t, no.
I suppose you’re protecting yourself by creating the environment that you want and need.
You want to feel warm and cozy. It’s the same thing with luxury. I think that the desire for luxury isn’t just greed—it can also come from a desire for this kind of [emotional] comfort because it’s the only comfort that you know.
If you didn’t have money, how would you establish this comfort?
My relationship with money is confusing in the sense that my parents didn’t work and my grandparents didn’t work either. All the money came from three generations ago but it was lot of money and it was always there. You never had a sense of what money really meant.
So it wasn’t reward for work?
No it wasn’t. It was like it was in a box and then you took it out of the box and more money came. The way we lived obviously cost money but you never knew how much it cost.
So you didn’t know about value?
No. Actually you’re right. We had no sense of value.
But your husband [Jeffrey Morgan] likes very plain, simple things doesn’t he?
Yes, totally spartan. I like the fact that it is so opposite of the things I like and I admire it because he can survive without money. I would be absolutely miserable without money! It sounds really awful about how much money I need—even without knowing it, in perfumes, in bubble bath, in care for the dogs, in clothes, in my socks that are especially made for me, in my underwear … it’s really stupid.
Did there ever come a time when you had to totally support yourself?
When my grandfather died, then we realized there wasn’t so much money. We began to sell things and then you realize the only thing left is your house and you have to sell that as well! Then I realized I would have to work and I had to provide for myself.
Was that terrifying?
Well you can’t go back to your mother and say, “Mother, take care of it.”
Did working then give you a sense of self?
I don’t think working gives me a sense of self. I think a sense of self comes from the things you like and know and see and from the people you love. It doesn’t come from work. It’s something that I’ve chosen to do and I’m very lucky to do what I’ve chosen—it feels rather like a gift.
How connected do you feel to France?
My relationship to France is tainted, family-wise and because of what happened during the war [to the Jews]. My family was in Paris in 1940 when the war rolled in. My mother spent five years being terrified. Everything was taken away from them. Jews weren’t allowed to go to the bomb shelters so when the bombing started they had to stay in their own house. She never recovered. When she was eighty years old, she was still eight years old.
You could have published a book of your own ten years ago—why did you do it now?
Because I don’t believe that …. how to say this? I don’t believe that I what I do is worth a book. I’m perfectly happy to do it but truth be told … it’s not that … I think [publishing a book] … it’s incredibly self-serving and I don’t want to demean what I do or demean the people who work with me but the way Europeans are raised …
Not to blow your own trumpet?
Exactly! It’s somehow rude and inelegant and self-promoting. But at the same time I’m proud of it. I don’t want to sound ungrateful.
My sense of the way you design seems to be based almost purely on instinct.
It’s very organic but I have an incredibly well-organized head. I have a very Cartesian head and, without blowing my own horn, I am incredibly cultured. My education was very formal and I like that.
We don’t interview very many designers who describe themselves as “Cartesian”.
But I am.
So you said earlier that you’re not very good at relaxing …
I think relaxation is wildly overrated – I’m not a relaxer.
Where do you like to go for dinner in the city?
I always go to the same place—La Grenouille.