Ian Phillips | October 25, 2013
They love restrained, rigorous architecture. They dislike bright colors and patterned rugs. And that’s just scratching the surface of what Elliott Barnes and his client Hélène Nguyen-Ban have in common. Perhaps most important, they are both passionate about art. Barnes recently commissioned an artist whose work incorporates words to draw portraits of five family members. Nguyen-Ban’s infatuation with art began more than a decade ago with the acquisition of one of Zhang Xiaogang’s enigmatic depictions of a Chinese child—today it hangs in the living room of her Paris apartment by Elliott Barnes Interiors.
Of course, there are differences. Barnes, who moved to Paris in 1987 to work for Andrée Putman at Écart International, is Los Angeles–born. Nguyen-Ban, the daughter of a Vietnamese father and an Alsatian-German mother, spent the first 18 years of her life in various African countries. Her professional background is in fashion, notably executive positions at Louis Vuitton and Nina Ricci.
And now for one last connection between designer and client. When Barnes arrived for his initial site meeting with Nguyen-Ban, the space looked strangely familiar. “Oh, my God!” he said. This was no mere case of déjà vu. For a previous owner in the 1990’s, he’d transformed one of the ground-level rooms into a library.
With subsequent annexations, the apartment is now 8,600 square feet divided among three levels—basement, first, and second—in a 19th-century building that once housed a printing press. The building is at the back of a courtyard, down the street from the golden dome of the Hôtel National des Invalides in the ultra-bourgeois 7th Arrondissement. “It’s great to have a quirky place in a district that is anything but,” Nguyen-Ban says. She also likes her home’s artistic links: The ground level served 20 years ago as the studio of a Spanish painter.
Barnes revamped the apartment in stages. First, he remodeled the basement spa-gym, which comprises massage and steam rooms, cardio equipment, a whirlpool, and a lap pool. Spanning two walls around the pool was a deteriorating mural attributed to Sol LeWitt. Since Nguyen-Ban had no authentication certificate, however, it was not possible to have the artist restore his work. Instead, Barnes protected it behind stuccoed cement-board partitions in which rectangular openings allow undamaged portions to be viewed peekaboo-style.
The complete overhaul occurred after Nguyen-Ban added the top level and brought Barnes back to turn it into bedrooms for her three daughters. At the same time, he added blackened-steel staircases—one angular, the other a Richard Serra–esque curve—and opened up the ground level to the rear terrace. “Before, you couldn’t really see it except from an angle,” Barnes says.
Nguyen-Ban specifically asked for a large kitchen. “She entertains a lot. She hires chefs for dinner parties,” he says. Her daughters, meanwhile, often transform the entry hall into a catwalk for impromptu weekend fashion shows. “It’s fun,” he continues. “There’s a casualness to the space, even though it’s rigorous, too.”
The materials palette is very limited. Blackened steel is the dominant metal. He not only laid quartzite from Switzerland like floorboards but also used it for the kitchen counters, bathroom vanities, a tub surround, and shower walls. As for the furniture, it clearly reflects Nguyen-Ban’s multicultural background. Among the more exotic pieces are a bench from Burkina Faso, a pair of Chinese 19th-century apothecary cabinets, and a huge Filipino drum.
Equally cosmopolitan is her art. Starting chronologically with a quartet of 18th-century teak monks from Burma, there are numerous works by Asian artists. In addition to a couple of small bronzes by Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, contemporary sculpture is represented by Antony Gormley and Anselm Kieffer. Photography includes Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. A video piece by Bill Viola is hauntingly beautiful. Evoking an English cathedral’s stained-glass rose window, a circular canvas by Damien Hirst is covered in real butterflies.
“My collection is more obsessive accumulation,” Nguyen-Ban says. In-deed, to help accommodate every-thing, Barnes went so far as to leave two rooms virtually devoid of furniture. “I have a need to buy works and live with them. They become part of my daily life, almost like family portraits,” she continues. None more so than her very first purchase, the Zhang Xiaogang painting. “Back then, people thought Chinese art was kitsch. It was worth nothing,” she recalls. Since then, prices for Zhang have skyrocketed. One of his triptychs sold at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong for more than $10 million.
Fabien Roque; Jeanie Hauss: Elliott Barnes Interiors. Ponctuelle: Lighting Consultant. Blaack France: Audiovisual Consultant. Design Box: Structural Engineer. Barbanel: MEP. Atelier 78: Woodwork. JLM Metal: Metalwork. Perrier Rolin Valignat: Glasswork. Real Marbre: Stonework. Gecer: General Contractor.