By DANA THOMAS
The interior designer, with some of the gold-leaf trim he painstakingly restored.
Christian Liaigre doesn’t think of himself as a furniture designer—though that is what he has become best known for in his 30 years in the business. No, he sees himself solely as an interior designer—someone who creates scenes, ambience, a sensual surrounding. Only then does he sit down and design furniture to fill those spaces.
This approach is nowhere more apparent than in Liaigre’s new home on the Rue de Verneuil on the Left Bank in Paris. The soaring duplex is in an 18th-century hôtel particulier, or city mansion, originally built by the Marquis d’Aubigné, who came from the same village in the Vendée as Liaigre—Les Herbiers—and who was guillotined during the French Revolution. The ground- and second-floor apartment had sat empty for the past decade, following the death of its last elderly owner, when Liaigre heard about it and showed it to a Chinese client. The client preferred a view of the Seine, so Liaigre took the place for himself.
“My favorite period of design is the 18th century,” Liaigre says as he sits down on one of his own Mandarin chairs. This is a surprising admission, given that Liaigre made his reputation as an interiors minimalist—he effectively launched the movement in the 1990s with his sleek, dark, wenge-wood-heavy decor for the Mercer Hotel in New York City and the Hôtel Montalembert in Paris. But, he explains, “the 18th century was the time when there was the most creation in jewelry, furniture, metal hardware—everything was modern. Versailles was the force—the motor. I find it amazing that they could do so much baroque and yet keep it coherent.” He adds, “I feel it’s coming back into fashion.”
The 68-year-old Liaigre has managed to seamlessly blend these two extremes—the rococo 18th century and his modern sparseness—to create a unified design and a comfortable atmosphere in his home. He filled it with a mix of contemporary pieces from his showroom collections, such as the Mandarin chairs and a long, low Don Juan sofa, and some he custom designed, including a large, rectangular table of a dark, Jamaican dogwood and ash, finished in a thick, solid gloss, and matching ash chairs for the dining room. Yet when working at home, he sits in the Versailles-like gold-leaf-trimmed salon at a Louis XV desk that he restored and painted black. “I love Louis XV desks,” he says. “It’s a design that crosses centuries.”
Photos: Parisian Rhapsody
The entry hall of Liaigre’s Paris apartment showcases a portrait of model Kristen McMenamy and a seascape, both by photographer Peter Lindbergh, and an antique terra-cotta stag sculpture from La Rochelle.
Liaigre’s art choices are as minimalist and pure as his design; he particularly loves black-and-white photography, and his collection includes works by Paolo Roversi, Kurt Markus, Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Liaigre’s friend and fellow Left Bank resident Peter Lindbergh. Throughout the flat there are deer antlers and other hunting trophies, some of them remnants of Liaigre’s rides with the hunt for game in the French countryside of his youth. “We dressed in 18th-century period costume, and when we cornered the animal, we would get down off the horse, salute the animal and then kill it with a spear-like sword,” he says. “I still have a few scars from it.”
The new home, with its light, airy ambience, reflects a renaissance of a sort for Liaigre. Two years ago, Liaigre sold a substantial stake of his company to Edmond de Rothschild Capital Partners, a Paris-based investment fund that manages $667 million in assets and focuses on midsize French companies to nurture and grow. One of its successes is Bonpoint, the high-end children’s clothing company, which it took global.
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Liaigre realized he had no successor for his company, which he began in 1987 and has steered himself ever since. “I’m not going to wait until my son is old enough to take over,” he says. “And I didn’t want my wife to take all this on her shoulders.” So he began shopping for an investor who could guide the company long into the future.
The sale to Rothschild has given Liaigre’s business the boost it needed. The company and its image had lost prominence since the original boom years of the 1990s, in large part because his distinctive style was copied ad infinitum and because minimalism fell out of fashion as definitely as it had arrived. His American distributor, Holly Hunt, didn’t help matters—his line was subsumed among several others in its vast commercial showrooms. “Holly Hunt for me was a bit too American,” he says. “It was missing some of the glamour.” (Ms. Hunt had no comment.)
Furthermore, the company grew very little. After his initial success, Liaigre opened showrooms on Rue de Varenne, steps from the Montalembert, and on the nearby Rue du Bac as well as in London, Bangkok and St. Barts, where he has a small beach-bungalow retreat. But apart from some new decor projects (art dealer Larry Gagosian’s home in St. Barts, Valentino’s couture salons on the Place Vendôme in Paris and Rupert Murdoch’s sailing yacht, Rosehearty), his business did not evolve much in the past decade.
That has changed with his partnership with Rothschild. This year, thanks to Rothschild’s injection of capital and a new president, Christophe Caillaud, formerly of Jean Paul Gaultier and Rothschild, Liaigre is opening a company-owned showroom on the corner of 61st Street and Madison Avenue. “I was having lunch across the street and they were putting up the for-sale signs,” says Liaigre. “I took a picture with my phone and sent it to Paris, and they said, ‘Go for it.’ ” There will be three floors of furniture displays, and the rest of the building will be occupied by his new American staff. Liaigre is also opening a showroom in a 1950s building in the Design District of Miami, next to Christian Louboutin and Marni. Other luxury retailers are expected to move into the neighborhood soon, according to Caillaud, including Louis Vuitton and Hermès.
Liaigre is pleased with the partnership. “They are very respectful,” he says, explaining that they don’t want to overexpand by “opening stores everywhere.” Caillaud agrees. “There are no plans for Christian Liaigre paints or wallpaper,” he says from his office in Paris. “I know it’s a world that is focused on brand stretching, but Liaigre is naturally stretched to where it should be, and if we do too much it will be painful.”
Leaving business maneuverings to the suits has been a great and welcome relief for Liaigre. “It allows me more time to design,” he says. “They have given me the liberty I needed.” This has enabled him to take on more than a dozen new projects for private clients—primarily Russians, Indians, Asians and Americans. “No French,” he says, almost mournfully. “There is no money left in France.” The most amusing of all, he says, is a modern Indian palace in the center of New Delhi, with polo stables and a paddock.
He is also updating one of his more famous interiors, the Mercer Hotel in downtown Manhattan.
“It’s held up very well, considering how long it’s been since it opened—15 years or so,” he says. And he told me he is at work on a new restaurant by Jean-Louis and Gilbert Costes on Central Park South. Scheduled to open in mid-2013, it is the first endeavor outside of France for the famed frères Costes, who also count the Hôtel Costes and the Café Marly and L’Avenue restaurants in Paris among their many hotels and eateries. The look will, of course, be Liaigre modern. But don’t be surprised if you see a few 18th-century flourishes, too.
Category: Furniture News