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To The Manners Born

It’s not just French-born Robert Couturier’s pedigree, education and experience that make him so in demand as a designer of interiors. It’s also the joie de vivre he breathes into every room he creates.

A photograph of an orchid by artist Ron Agam anchors the living area of designer Robert Couturier’s Mercer Street loft. The eclectic decor reflects the designer’s opulent mix-and-match style, with bold pieces like a Persian rug from the late 19th century, sofa by RCI, an American chandelier from the 1960s and obelisks from the 1940s by Cuban-born French artist Emilio Terry.

Gilded wall sconses and leatherbound books provide Old-World contrast to modern touches like Ron Agam’s ranunculus photograph.
 

Couturier considers his bedroom nook, with black-and-white portraits by David Seidner, his “cocoon.”

A portrait by David Seidner sits atop a 1940s cabinet, while an 18th century Danish dining table and chairs invite guests to gather.

“Couturier” is a French word for a creator of custom-made clothes for an extremely wealthy clientele. Similarly, Robert Couturier is a French man who creates custom-made interiors for an extremely wealthy clientele.

His family name was changed from something else in the 1930s for what he says are “obvious reasons.” He himself is well born, although the details are sketchy. Apparently, his mother paid him and his two sisters little attention, so his grandmother virtually raised him. His father spent a good deal of his time in Argentina. After boarding school, Couturier received a diploma from the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris. Soon after, he left France for the States, which he now calls home, dividing his time between a rambling estate in Connecticut and a 2,500-square-foot apartment in lower Manhattan.

Couturier’s career took off when he was hired by the British financier Sir James Goldsmith. For almost eight years, he practically belonged to Goldsmith, who treated him like an adopted—and handsomely paid—parent, not son. Couturier could work for no one else—which sounds like an ideal situation, considering the lavishness of Goldsmith’s lifestyle. But the advantage of this setup was the same as its biggest drawback: He could work for no one else. After Goldsmith died in 1997, Couturier had to start practically from scratch.

Today he has a thriving business based in Soho, in the same building where he lives. His clients include heiresses Anne Hearst McInerney and Elizabeth (Libet) Johnson, writer Andrew Solomon and Frederic Fekkai.

A small man with a huge personality, Couturier revels in his life and in the people who commission him to enhance theirs. One could easily envision him as a trusted advisor to Louis Quatorze in the court of Versailles, complete with powdered wig, satin breeches, waistcoat and lace jabot. But the mere mention that he could exist in any other time or place makes him cringe.

“There’s absolutely no other time, era or country I could live in better than now in New York,” he says. “I think the desire to live in the past comes from misinformation. The idea of being without doctors, running water or flushing loos repels me. Maybe if I’d been a Gaul living in France in the sixth century A.D., I would have preferred living in the Roman Gaul of the third century; but aside from that, I don’t have pointless dreams. Living in the 18th century, for instance, must have been a nightmare. Imagine the way they pulled your teeth or cured a cold! Ghastly! There’s no romanticism in re-creating a past that never was.”

Couturier recently refurbished his downtown loft. While it’s nothing like Versailles, it’s definitely the residence of a modern-day aristocrat and man of the world.

Pamela Fiori: You seem more like an Upper East Sider than a Soho bohemian. Were you always a downtowner?
Robert Couturier: I had 25 different apartments on the Upper East Side. I once moved to an apartment on Washington Street that I absolutely loathed, so I moved back uptown to The Carlyle, where I got very lonely.

How long have you lived in Soho, and how many times have you renovated the loft?
I moved to Mercer Street in the winter of 2000, and have renovated four or five times. I guess I get tired of things easily. Often I sell things, so it creates a constant circulation.

What was the space originally like?
The loft has two brick walls that divide it. All I did was repaint the whole apartment, change the furniture and move some things to my house in Connecticut. It was an opportunity to buy more stuff.

Does that mean you’re a hoarder?
I’m a civilized hoarder. Things have to have a place, and if they don’t, they go into storage.

How long did it take to transform the loft, and did you make dramatic changes?
It’s always extremely quick, since I never make changes in the footprint of the apartment.

You could live anywhere in NYC. Why Soho?
I’ve lived and worked in every area of Manhattan except Tribeca. I find Soho the most European part—the buildings are low, the streets are paved and there’s a constant, huge, colorful stream of pedestrian traffic that amuses me to no end.

Which is your favorite room in the house?
My office/sitting room with the sleeping alcove. It’s entirely secluded, cut off from the world and could be anywhere on the planet. It contains everything I really need visually, aurally and intellectually, and it’s cozy, comfortable, warm and reassuring. When I’m there, I only miss my boyfriend and my dogs.

Which room is the least used?
Probably the kitchen. I try never to set foot in it because there’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about a tiny New York kitchen, except for the antique plates in the cupboard. Also, I don’t cook, I loathe cooking smells and I don’t really know how to use that room.

Is there anything or anyone who inspires you?
I can’t really say. It all happens very organically and instinctively. I surround myself with all the things I really like, in no particular order and in a way I can live with. It’s my own particular sense of comfort.

Did you live there while the renovation took place?
Yes, but I’m very lucky, because I travel often enough and therefore leave the apartment available for chaos-making without suffering too much.

Did you work with contractors you’d used on other projects, and if so, what was it like being the client?
I worked with people I’d always worked with before, and I consider myself a low-maintenance client. I’m most worried about the objects and the furniture. I can’t sweat the small stuff, look around with a magnifying glass. Life is too short and there’s too much living to do!

What’s your background?
I was born in France in 1955. I’m the second child, with two sisters. My mother didn’t have much time for us, so I was brought up by my grandmother. When I was 7, I was sent to boarding school in a beautiful old house with only a few kids. Because I’d had a nanny at home, I didn’t know how to dress myself, so I stood by the trunk in my new room waiting for someone to dress me. Nobody showed up.

Where did you train as a designer?
I went to Musée Nissim de Camondo, at the edge of the Parc Monceau in Paris. The mansion, built in 1911, was known for its collection of 18th century French furniture and objets d’art. But it was also a school of decorative arts. I’d always drawn as a child and was a very good draftsman—my subject was usually houses. Interior design wasn’t a profession that was forced upon me.

Did you get a degree?
In France, you get a diploma as a private architect who’s allowed to build houses no higher than two stories. Back then a “decorator” was like an upholsterer.

When did you come to the States?
The first time was when I was a child; then I returned in 1978 and discovered Studio 54. I said, “This is for me,” and decided to stay for a year. I was introduced to Adam Tihany, and worked for him for a day. He said, “I see you can draw. Go back to France, get your visa and then come see me.” I did just that, and worked for Adam for about a year.

What was that experience like?
Adam taught me everything to know about life. He was impatient in a way that forced me to learn. Adam is a chameleon who works a great deal on charm, and realizes that designing is all about selling. I learned so much from him.

Then Sir James Goldsmith entered your life. You must have felt swept up by a tsunami.
Indeed. I first did Jimmy’s townhouse in NYC—Adam had given me a limited partnership in 1983, and I left in 1987 to open my own company. I consulted on Jimmy’s place in Mexico starting in 1987. He appealed to me by saying, “The architects in Mexico don’t understand what I’m trying to do.” So I became the interpreter.

But eventually you were put in charge of the entire complex.
Yes, I worked for two years on the main house and then nearly moved down to Mexico and worked on the others for the next eight years.

As huge an undertaking as that was, did it keep you in a sort of “sumptuous captivity”?
I was taken out of circulation. Everything was so “grand à la Goldsmith”… you lose track of life. As Jimmy himself used to say, “Luxury is the most addictive substance in the world.” In some ways I was too young for such a project.

How did you extract yourself?
I tried a couple of times. I did the Goldsmiths’ house in France and yet another in Mexico, but I couldn’t work for anyone else while working for Jimmy Goldsmith. It was only when he died in 1997 that I realized I had to rebuild my whole career and get back to real life in New York.

That must have been difficult.
I took anything that came my way. People would approach me with a modicum of fear because of my Goldsmith experience, but eventually
the good jobs started coming in. By 2001 and 2002, I felt I was back.

Is there a “Couturier style”?
No. I have taste.

How do you separate yourself from your clients?
I don’t. I can’t work for people who are just clients. We have to become friends.