Stepping inside an 1870s hôtel particulier in Paris, where tall windows overlook the river Seine and the Musée du Louvre, is to be transported back in time, to the Third Republic that followed the fall of Napoléon III, back when courtesans set the fashion and balls were the rule rather than the exception. Walls, ceilings, beams, doors, and floors pullulate with patterns and motifs: painted, gilded, dripping with trompe l’oeil pearls, swirling vegetation, swags of faux fabric, and great lashings of wedding-cake plasterwork. Mythological narratives are recounted in polychromatic terms, with Hercules attending to his labors across one ceiling as lissome Muses, from Erato to Urania, strike attitudes on walls.
“He wanted a palace, not a house,” AD100 interior decorator Jacques Grange says of the Russian businessman who is the mansion’s present owner, a connoisseur of contemporary art who also “respects a range of artistic achievement.” Even when one of those achievements turns out to be an entire building that is protected by federal legislation. “The City of Paris won’t allow you to touch a thing,” Grange explains of the multi-story house, on which he worked in collaboration with architect Jean-François Bodin. (It will be featured in the designer’s forthcoming monograph, to be published by Rizzoli in September.) Built between 1870 and 1872, by and for a rich engineer, it was later home to Victor Laloux, the architect of the opulent train station that is now the Musée d’Orsay. Until recently, it was pressed into service as corporate offices. Still, Grange continues, “You cannot change it; you can only restore it.” That being said, an official who turned out
to be a fan of his work granted him permission to replace the skylit gallery’s “boring stone floor” with an expanse of black and white marble inlaid in the manner of Byzantine mosaics. Powerfully graphic, its outsize diamond pattern perfectly complements the gallery’s mirror-paneled Renaissance Revival envelope—as does the unexpected injection of modernity through a plump Campana brothers sofa with a spiky golden frame, voluptuous armchairs by Ernst Kühn, and the splashy 2011 canvas by American artist Joe Bradley that’s mounted behind them.
To bring the soaring rooms back to their original appearance, Grange called on Atelier Mériguet-Carrère, a third-generation Paris studio of decorative painters that is known for working with legendary French designers such as Emilio Terry and Georges Geffroy, as well as helping to restore the Palais Garnier. “All the decors on the walls were in very bad condition when I arrived, all the surfaces,” says the designer, a talent with a contemporary outlook who nonetheless is no stranger to revitalizing the glories of the past or incorporating them into his rooms: One of the designer’s recent restoration projects is the couture salons at 31 rue Cambon, which has been the headquarters of Chanel since 1918.
Since the Russian clients’ house is “a little theatrical,” Grange says with a chuckle, “you have to do something similarly strong to balance the architecture and the murals.” Neutrals would have been the safest scheme, but the owner’s stylish wife wanted “something glamorous, something couture.” Originally a boudoir, the room that artist Charles Lameire and his staff populated with the Muses in the 1870s has become a “very raffiné” salon. In colors taken from Lameire’s imagery, jewel-tone fabrics—a lavishly embroidered emerald-green silk velvet and a sapphire-blue damask—upholster the sofas and armchairs. Pale-yellow silk curtains frame the windows, the shade echoing the splendidly gilded panels and woodwork. Spread across the parquet floor is one of several carpets that Grange designed for the house, this one speckled with oversized stylized thistles and woven in multiple shades of blue relieved by off-white accents.
Despite preservation rules, Grange and Bodin, when challenged, managed to skirt them with considerable flair and no little ingenuity. “If you imagine what a room could become, then it’s easy,” the designer explains. Case in point is a spacious salon that has been nimbly transformed into a bath thanks to freestanding elements (as well as inventive plumbing solutions) that make no visible inroads into the floor or walls: Gypsum-clad cabinets designed by Grange offer storage, while screenlike fabric partitions shield the shower, the tub, and the toilet. Similarly, towering metal bookshelves turn another room into a library, their skeletal sleekness offset by quirky furnishings, such as a pair of 19th-century neo-Gothic armchairs where spikes meet curves. “I love this period, but nobody wants it,” Grange says in a tone of disbelief.
There were no restrictions on creativity, though, when it came to dealing with the mansion’s utilitarian basement level. There, Bodin and Grange carved out a minimalist swimming pool for which artist James Turrell designed atmospheric lighting that shifts from orange to white to blue. “When Turrell arrived, I stopped,” Grange says respectfully, adding that, unlike so many subterranean splashdowns, “it doesn’t look like a nightclub.” Instead, it is mysterious and otherworldly, a secret complement to a house that is a work of art designed to hold works of art.