A Parisian house that breaks with tradition
AN EVENING IN PARIS before the pandemic, the Italian architect Andrea Tognon and his agent, Julien Desselle, who lives in the French capital, were finishing a late dinner at the famous seafood restaurant Le Duc de la rive gauche when they decided to take a night walk in Guynemer Street. Bordering the Jardin du Luxembourg, the quiet street is mostly lined with large Haussmannian buildings, but Tognon, 53, who lives and works in Milan, and who specializes in minimalist but tactile retail stores for brands like CÃ©line and Jil Sander , stopped in front of an outlier: an imposing epoxy white travertine apartment building from the 1960s. It struck the architect as spectacular, both in its form and in its juxtaposition to the iron gates of the historic park of the on the other side of the road, created in the 1600s by Marie de Medici, the widow of King Henry IV.
As they gazed through the glass facade, past the mahogany-lined entrance leading to an interior courtyard similar to Isamu Noguchi, with Japanese maples surrounding a raised rectangular lily pond, Desselle, 40, told her client that, in the end, he was trying to buy an apartment in the building: an unusually furnished triplex with an entrance on the ground floor hidden among the trees.
Just then, a chic, elderly couple emerged from the building, and the architect pulled Desselle by the arm to slip inside behind them before the door closed and locked. The two men were hiding in the middle of the vegetation – “like characters from a Jacques Tati film”, remembers Tognon – trying to see the windows of the apartment in question. âI was incredibly nervous,â Desselle says. “Someone could come out, see me as a stalker, and that would destroy any hope I had of buying the apartment.” He begged Tognon to leave. But before the architect relented, he demanded a promise: âIf you buy this place, you have to let me design it. “
The demand was great, as both men knew: Desselle, who transformed the architectural profession 15 years ago when he pioneered the concept of agent representation, modeled on the entertainment industry, has an impressive roster of talents he has helped develop, including Joseph Dirand, who has created boutiques for Balmain and Balenciaga; Studio KO, the duo responsible for the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech, Morocco; and Fabrizio Casiraghi, who reinvented the iconic Restaurant Drouant in Paris last year. Desselle offers projects like a Hollywood deal maker, connecting clients with designers, contractors and landscape architects – anyone on his list could compete for the chance to create a home for him. “I insisted until he said yes,” says Tognon, who lives and works in a former 1950s truck depot on the industrial outskirts of Milan that he has turned into a loft-like refuge. . “As soon as I saw this place – so raw – it seemed like it had to happen.”
TWO YEARS LATER, the apartment has been transformed from a bohemian mishmash with cluttered lofts and ladders into something resembling an avant-garde sculpture. Collaboration between the two men (Tognon was in charge of the architecture; Desselle, the decoration), it is now a residence of sui generis atmosphere for the agent, his wife of Spanish origin, GaÃ«lle Collet, executive at LVMH, his two young daughters from a previous marriage and the family’s Jack Russell terrier, Ludovico.
Paris is a city that fetishizes classical proportions, which the apartment happily ignores. The public spaces, with massive floor-to-ceiling windows to the garden, are long and narrow, with nine-foot ceilings. At each end, like a bar, is a stack of two-story rooms; the kitchen is below the ground, at the bottom of a staircase. It looks less like an apartment and more like a townhouse, the kind mid-century American brutalist Paul Rudolph could have deconstructed. Since his divorce from his first wife several years ago, Desselle had occupied an apartment in an 18th-century building opposite the Louvre which had “the fireplace, the moldings, the parquet,” he said, but he felt more and more disinterested. in the traditional spirit that often attracts people to the city. He wanted a place free from history.
For his part, Tognon often creates otherworldly environments that hint at faraway places and other eras – even the future – but don’t directly invoke them. His first impulse lies in the materials and forms that he instinctively shapes, sketching permanently in his ubiquitous journal. The walls on the ground floor, for example, are sheathed in steel sheets treated to appear cloudy; they catch the gloomy light of the yard without being too reflective. The floors are a mixture of dark green Brazilian avocado quartzite, interspersed with irregularly shaped sections of cement, evoking a nautical flag.
But the focal points are undoubtedly the two monumental curved cement staircases, which provide access to the bedroom wings that Tognon designed for each end of the 2,600 square foot apartment. Both graceful and imposing, they pull cork through rounded openings in the ceiling, appearing like mobiles suspended from a thread. A staircase leads to the girls’ bedrooms, stacked on top of each other, and to a playroom; the other, to a spacious dressing room and, just above, a master suite which is the additional centerpiece of the apartment: it is inside a dome, the only remaining element of the structure that is previously found on the site, a massive freestanding 1855 Renaissance Renaissance mansion which once dominated the block.
The owners of the house had it demolished to avoid inheritance disputes and developed the building under a deal that was designed before the widely vilified 1969 Montparnasse Tower skyscraper, embittered the city on the novelty, announcing preservation laws. They only left the dome, which was part of the back stables, while leveling the rest of the mansion. Now, reached from the top of the concrete spiral staircase, its walls and pointed ceiling – covered in gray plaster – lend the modern house an impressionistic echo of the past. 1950s wood and glass doors open onto the long roof, which is planted with small cherry trees, clematis, and flowering shrubs including nandina and pittosporum.
The interventions of TOGNON ET DESSELLE only highlighted the foreign qualities of the apartment, its fundamental non-Parisianity. In fact, it might adapt better to Milan, a city largely destroyed by Allied bombs in WWII and rebuilt in an often outrageous style, with bold angles and lots of cement. Interiors also reject the local idiom of Aubusson rugs and gilt-edged armchairs, instead combining Asian influences and contemporary furnishings, such as lacquered Chinese screens and metallic 1970s. objects, an intuitive mix-and-match aesthetic that Desselle honestly comes from. He grew up in London; his French father was a writer and his Franco-Swiss mother a theater agent whose career inspired that of Desselle. After attending business school in Paris, he ricocheted between Milan and New York, working in public relations for fashion companies such as Gucci and Costume National. His French mother-in-law had exquisite and intrepid taste, and his godmother is Marie Kalt, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest France; he always wanted to be a decorator.
In his previous apartments, he let others play this role, but this time he felt compelled to do it himself. In the cupola bedroom, the wall behind the bed is covered with a huge 18th century Flemish tapestry; a 1950s Venetian metal pendant light hangs from the top of the dome above. In the dining room, a steel table covered in saddle beige leather with leather banquettes designed by Halleroed – the nickname of the Swedish husband and wife team Christian and Ruxandra Halleroed, which Desselle represents (the set is the first offering from Figura Projects, Desselle’s new company producing furniture by its clients) – are juxtaposed with a pair of ornate 18th-century Chippendale mirrors and a tubular light installation by Tognon that casts a warm glow. In the adjoining living room, a 19th-century Coromandel lacquered six-panel folding screen stands behind a deep down sofa covered in leopard-print silk velvet and flanked by a pair of three-foot-high painted parchment table lamps. by hand, ordered by Desselle’s mother-in-law around 1960 from a Pakistani craftsman.
âPeople come into the living room, sink into the sofa, look out into the garden and stare at the stairs. Then they become paralyzed, they can no longer move, âexplains Desselle. As someone who has uprooted himself dozens of times over the years, he enjoys the momentary enchantment of his guests. For now, at least, he too lets himself rest for a moment, far from the past, from Paris, from the weight of history, that of the city and his own. In the modern, sullen version of Paris he built, behind the glass wall it always seems to be at dawn or dusk, a world awash in supernatural light.