Thierry W. Despont graciously offers a visitor the only chair in the room. So where will he, himself, sit down? The Interior Design Hall of Fame member simply perches on the worn leather top of an oak desk with water-gilt pilasters, French circa 1770. He speaks easily, philosophically, and at length about topics related to the mind-expanding environment surrounding him. "Le Cabinet de Curiosités" is an exhibition that he dreamed up with the help of the Marlborough Gallery, which represents him in his capacity as a painter and sculptor, and Galerie Steinitz, the venerable Paris antiquaire. Minutes pass. . .and suddenly, sheepishly, he jumps up. The desk, on loan from Steinitz, is, after all, for sale.
More than a dozen years ago, Despont persuaded members of the family behind Steinitz to purchase the entire second floor of the former New York Mercantile Exchange-a turreted redbrick 1886 edifice next door to the Office of Thierry W Despont-with the intention of turning the 1,800 square feet into another antiques gallery. That still hasn't happened. Until the three and a half months of "Le Cabinet de Curiosités," on view through February 29, the space had been used only as storage. The original Corinthian columns and maple floorboards remained intact.
Despont's last big art exhibition, combining his otherworldly paintings of imaginary planets with his fantastical sculptural creatures, took place at the white-box Marlborough Chelsea. "Le Cabinet de Curiosités" is far more ambitious. He built two perpendicular enfilades, configured as a segmented T shape, largely from Steinitz boiserie salvaged from a variety of sources dating to the 18th century. Then he filled the rooms with furniture from Steinitz and artwork by himself and two fellow Marlborough artists: Manolo Valdés, known for reinventing old masters, particularly Diego Velázquez; and the late Claudio Bravo, whose hyperrealist still lifes often mimic the surface of?crumpled paper. "You're walking through the work as opposed to just looking at it," Despont says. "Or you're stepping into my brain. My personal quest has always been to document a dream world." What he achieved is an experiential stage set for real life. As classical French viola music wafts past, the only reminder of the artifice is the void overhead-the boiserie didn't include ceiling panels, so he installed an open grid to support spotlights.
The drama begins at the top of the Mercantile Exchange's grand staircase. On the landing, tall doors open to an antechamber constructed from oak boiserie salvaged from a grand 18th-century house in Paris. "The best of the carving done at the time," he says admiringly. In a corner sits a gilt-wood throne, a replica that Jacques-Louis David used while painting his official portrait for Napoléon I's coronation. But even a throne is easily overlooked, as two Valdés sculptures draw attention to the next doorway and, seen through it, Despont's enormous imaginary sea creature swooping down from above. Onward!
Made from wooden hat forms and rusted Indonesian lobster traps, the creature is suspended over an exquisite Louis XVI center table topped in yellow marble and accented in bronze. "In my mind, nothing is incompatible," Despont says. "It becomes about the surprise of the unexpected." To wit, a seemingly disheveled bookcase is actually artwork by Valdés-filled not with bound volumes but with slabs of exotic wood. Surrounding walls in this chamber are blue-painted boiserie from an 18th-century mansion in Antwerp, Belgium. "I love the blue, because it's so modern," Despont adds. Making his selections from the Steinitz inventory in Paris was merely a matter of stating, "I like that and that." Irrespective of price, he admits with a smile.
Because the blue room, as it existed in Antwerp, was larger than the Mercantile Exchange setup allowed, some extra panels went to make a vestibule before the largest and most spectacular space. It's positioned where the stem and the top of the T meet, like a rotunda. (Yes, Despont received his architecture training at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.) Gilt moldings liberally adorn the panels' creamy surfaces, suggesting a particularly aristocratic provenance. We might have been transported to ancien régime Versailles, except that there's a map table once used by Napoléon, and the artwork is so wrong as to be utterly right.
Bookending the Versailles room, at the top of the T, are two matching cubes constructed of plain gypsum-board painted chocolate brown. One of them contains that oak desk Despont was chatting on and a Japanese 17th-century chest later owned, he believes, by the Duke of Devonshire. Despont calls this space the Astronomer's Room in honor of the trio of his planet paintings on the walls, and both cubes showcase the highest concentrations of his sculpture, practically a natural-history museum of internally lit vitrines. In addition, a Bravo triptych, suggesting wrapped packages, looks radiant against the dark brown. Saturated colors, such as those Despont famously chose for galleries at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, "act as a wonderful backdrop for artwork," he says. "It's like when a woman chooses a dress that works with her skin."
Photography by Michelle Litvin.
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