[Decor] SOHO loft and French genius
The only son of an old-line, well-to-do family, Robert Couturier grew up in Paris in the 1950s. But his upbringing might just as well have occurred a century earlier. “When I was a little boy, Paris was very much still a 19th-century town,” the New York decorator recalls. “You never went to shops. Children were taken to a dressmaker who made your clothes. You didn’t see the public very much. It was very cloisonné, a divided world—not unlike India.” He was even bundled off to boarding school at the age of seven.
It comes as no surprise, then, that on the few trips he made to New York as a teenager, the city and its shiny 20th-century freedoms beckoned. At the age of 25, he moved to Manhattan.
So has Couturier held tight to his past or broken from it? Does he live in a sprawling apartment in a grand Park Avenue building? Or did he head downtown to inhabit an expansive raw loft without walls or labels or boundaries? The answer is both.
Couturier does live and work on two floors of an Italianate cast-iron loft building in SoHo. But while the layout is modern and flexible, the decor, which features French furniture ranging from Louis XIV to Art Deco, suggests the ancien régime that is his birthright.
If the place feels well balanced between old and new, formal and relaxed, the result was hard earned through a process of slow evolution. Couturier lived on the Upper East Side for some 20 years, maintaining a separate office and apartment, before deciding that he wanted to simplify his life and combine the two. He found a duplex space in SoHo in 2000 and installed his offices on one floor and his living quarters on the other. But his business soon expanded, and his own office and a meeting room for clients had to be surrendered to his growing staff. So he moved his residence to one of New York’s new all-amenities, all-glass monoliths, becoming the first tenant on a then-empty floor. The problem was, he hated the modernity; he hated his open-plan apartment. “I spent a terrible year being very upset,” he says. “It was just not me.”
Years later, the phrase “open plan” still elicits an expression of distaste. Indeed, as much as he appreciates American informality, the Couturier view is that walls serve a valuable purpose. “Americans have these fancy apartments and nice areas—living rooms, dining rooms, and so on—and then they live in the kitchen,” he says. “French people never live in the kitchen. It’s not something we grow up with. So the idea of opening up the living room to the kitchen is not something that occurs to us.”
After his experiment in modernity failed, Couturier moved back to the Upper East Side and into the Carlyle hotel. But as much as he enjoyed living in this fabled lap of luxury, he wanted a real home. So back he went, down to his space in SoHo, reclaiming the upper floor. He turned the vestibule into an elegant library and meeting room, with a set of Louis XIV chairs and a Louis XVI table, a handsome André Sornay wood cabinet from the ’30s, and a great wall of books. He styled the living room as a reception area. A long oak table by Maurice Savin and Jacques Adnet is flanked by matching white sofas designed by Couturier and enormous photographs of flowers by Ron Agam. A plaster trompe l’oeil screen that resembles billowing sheets stands in the corner.
The decorator left the kitchen as it was, a little cube of white cabinets and blue-green walls that sees so little activity it could be converted to a rec room. “Yes,” agrees Couturier. “Only spelled w-r-e-c-k. There’s really nothing in there. I eat dinner out four nights a week, and I’m never here on the weekend.”
The most ingenious hybrid, however, is the single chic space that serves as both bedroom and office. A pair of faux-bamboo English armchairs and a ’50s zebra-pattern sofa face a ’30s desk in the center, all grouped around a stunning red circular rug, an Ernest Boiceau design from the ’30s. In the corner of the room, behind a curved wall, a daybed upholstered in a crisp cotton-linen looks ideal for napping—and is, in fact, where the master sleeps. (Or doesn’t, more often: Couturier suffers from terrible insomnia.)
Et voilà. What makes the place so charming is not just its refinement, but how it embodies Couturier’s Franco-American lifestyle. “I’ve been told, ‘You’re such an uptown gentleman—to have this life downtown seems so strange,'” says Couturier, with a chuckle. “But all week I live a very formal life. So this is comfortable for me.
“I did this very consciously,” he continues. “I am not going to live the way my parents and grandparents lived, nor do I think you should. And American informality is much more pleasant—but, you know, that has its limits too. So this is a nice way to make both work together.”