Inside a Parisian apartment built for art

This classical Haussmannian apartment in the heart of old Paris was built as a low-profile frame for the owner’s art collection, yet its simple, elegant contemporary approach and rich textural aesthetic are all about luxury.

When architect Frederic Berthier first encountered this apartment, its classical character was completely obscured. It is in what he calls a classical Parisian building – a 19th-century Haussmannian apartment building – in ‘the real old Paris’: the historical centre of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, among the galleries and bookshops and famous cafés where everyone from Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and James Baldwin would hang out.

Frederic Berthier talks architecture

A soft space

‘The apartment had been decorated by an architect in the ’80s,’ says Berthier. ‘There were angles everywhere, very complicated volumes and corridors…’ The design was the complete antithesis of its classical character. ‘I tried to bring it back,’ he says. ‘My work was mainly to rebuild the rooms as they were before.’

He doesn’t, however, mean that he created a replica of a classical 19th-century home. To begin with, the apartment didn’t have mouldings or any of the other decorative details of the era – its character was in its proportions: ‘Big entrance, everything square or almost.’

‘My idea was to create a very low-profile architecture – very simple,’ says Berthier. His clients collect art and books. ‘They are kind people,’ he says. ‘I wanted to create a soft apartment for them.’


Property as a frame

The property, he says, was also to be a frame for the artworks. He stripped out the previous architectural intervention until he had ‘an empty box’. The walls, like those of a gallery, are white, with the notable exception of the entrance hall, where they are clad in a very dark, gloss-sealed wood. This reversal of ‘the white box’ is also in the service of art.

‘The black entrance has been created like that for the Anish Kapoor artworks,’ he explains. Kapoor’s acrylic Space as an Object sculptures, which look like rapidly rising bubbles trapped and frozen in time and space, are given their full expression in a dark setting. The dark walls make the boundaries of the entrance hall hard to define. They seem to recede, creating a sense of an infinite space that allows the full drama of the void at the centre of these remarkable artworks to find full expression.

Before Berthier established his own architectural studio, he worked for a number of very prestigious architects, including a few years with Jean Nouvel and a longer spell with Philippe Starck – ‘I loved working for him. I learnt so many things. He’s really a smart guy. His level of detail is very high.’

Frederic Berthier designs in Paris

Frederic Berthier in Paris

From simplicity to sophistication 

Berthier is responsible for the design of a significant number of the fittings and furniture pieces in home. In describing his approach, he speaks of a crossover of minimalism and classicism. ‘I start with classical features and try to erase all that is inessential,’ he says. So, no elaborate detail or decoration – the classicism comes through in the materials and proportions.

This pared-down style, again, is a way of celebrating the materials. His furniture designs are mostly timber, perhaps including marble or leather. Although he spent years working for Starck, who remains one of his design idols, he says that, aesthetically speaking, his own work is closer to the minimalism of the likes of John Pawson, Donald Judd or Rothko. ‘There is no plastic in my projects, only natural things,’ he says. ‘I love wood – it’s the perfect material.’

It’s through Berthier’s contemporary textural approach that the apartment turns simplicity to sophistication. There’s nothing ostentatious and opulent about it, and yet it provides both a calm atmosphere and a rich sensory experience. While the designs of the furniture are stripped of detail in their elegance, they nevertheless connect with the building through their classical proportions and their materials. ‘In the end,’ says the architect, ‘I think that we feel we are in a Parisian apartment.’

Words by Graham Wood
Photographs by Greg Cox
Styling by Sven Alberding (Bureaux)
This article originally appeared in Issue 39 of Private Edition.