French actress Gaby Deslys was one of the Belle Époque’s greatest luminaries. A celebrated beauty and accomplished dancer, she played the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway with Al Jolson, starred in silent pictures, and was courted by some of the wealthiest men of the era, most notably Manuel II, the last king of Portugal. With her fortune, she bought herself a charming five-storey brick townhouse in Paris’s 16th arrondissement—a decidedly bold move for a woman at that time. After her death, at 38, following an infection contracted during the Spanish-flu pandemic, the home was sold and divided into seven apartments. And so it carried on, until last year, when the French interior designer Laura Gonzalez purchased the entire building and transformed it into her company’s new headquarters.
In restoring the building, “we treated it as a hôtel par ticulier”, or grand private townhouse, rather than as corporate offices, Gonzalez explains, as she nestles into a comfy armchair in the second-floor conference room and pours herself a cup of tea. She retained much of the house’s early-20th-century details, such as the rounded corners and archways, and reproduced period doors based on the one original that remained.
Yes, there are workspaces for her 45 employees, and meeting nooks, and, in the basement, the “bar à tissus”, or fabric library, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with boxes of swatches and notions. But there is a hospitable quality to the place too. Like the two kitchens—a cosy one upstairs, for staff coffee breaks and lunch, and another, larger one on the ground floor, to service the formal dining room, conservatory, and garden. Gonzalez’s husband, Benjamin Memmi, the company’s chief executive, is next door to the conference room, in a den-like study with sliding doors. Their labradoodle, Pam, roams freely about, and curls up under desks for naps. “There are dogs on every floor,” Gonzalez says, “a Jack Russell terrier, a dachshund, a Shiba Inu….” She stops to give Pam a pet. “We want the clients to feel at home,” she explains. “When they spend the day here, we welcome them for a meal. It’s part of the art de vivre in design that we love.”
Gonzalez launched her firm in 2008, at 24, while still a student at the École nationale supérieure d’architecture Paris-Malaquais, and she quickly made her reputation by sprucing up mythic Paris nightspots, such as Le Bus Palladium and Chez Régine. Her approach is a bright and cheerful maximalism that she describes as “chic mix and match”, and it is on full display in the townhouse.
Walls are covered with cloth in floral prints, toiles de Jouy, stripes, and damasks in a plethora of happy hues. “Fabric lightens up a room, gives texture and depth, and absorbs sound,” she says. Hallway sconces in the shape of nasturtium blossoms are of her design, as are the chandeliers, which are a collage of Murano-glass lily pads. Throughout the house there are her iconic Mawu chairs, with their sturdy seats covered in an array of rich fabrics, and her Rainbow dining table, in multicoloured raku marquetry, handcrafted by the French artisan Fabienne L’Hostis. (All are available through The Invisible Collection, StudioTwentySeven, and 1stdibs, as well as on Gonzalez’s website and at her gallery on the rue de Lille in Paris.) The concept is to show an abundance of possibilities to stir her clients’ imaginations and trigger ideas. “Like, this is what it can look like,” she declares with a sweeping gesture in the sunny dining room.
Her clients are the crème de la crème of luxury and hospitality, and include the Saint James Paris, a 19th-century château hotel near the Bois de Boulogne, which she swathed in soothing golds and creams, punctuated with jaunty prints; Dar Mima, the rooftop restaurant at Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arabe, where she conjured a romantic ode to North Africa and the Middle East; Noura, a beloved Lebanese brasserie on the Right Bank bathed in Mediterranean blues, smoky cumin, and pistachio green, which she notes is “a symbol of hope”; and Cartier, for whom she has reconceived several boutiques, including the historic rue de la Paix flagship in Paris and the Fifth Avenue mansion in Manhattan.
In New York, she had fun swirling the building’s original neo-Renaissance design with botanical themes and modernist touches while cheekily slipping the brand’s signature prowling panther into unsuspected spots such as the monumental staircase’s jungle-green runner. Next up: the jeweller’s space on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées; the new 54,000-square-foot, two-storey outpost of the French department store Le Printemps at One Wall Street; and hotels in Miami, Mallorca, Rome, and Paris. Many of these projects will appear in The Interiors of Laura Gonzalez: A Certain Atmosphere, which will be published by Rizzoli next month.
Gonzalez proudly wraps up her tour with a stop on the rooftop terrace, with its unobstructed views of the city. “What’s genius is the calm,” she says. “Here we are, in the centre of Paris, and we hear the birds.” She looks out over the zinc roofs and the chestnut treetops. “We’re never going to move again.
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