PARIS - Few interior designers work in Las Vegas and Versailles. In fact, there is probably only one who has: Jacques Garcia.
Even amongst the handful of his peers who have also reached the top rung of the design profession, the Paris-based Garcia has impressive range. He can create opulent 21st-century fantasies, as he did at the Wynn Las Vegas, the ultra-luxe hotel, or perform painstaking museum-quality historic restoration work, as he is currently doing at the Château de Versailles.
Garcia, who is also at the moment creating new galleries for the Louvre’s collection of 18th-century decorative art, has long been a favoured designer to the world’s wealthiest citizens, for whom he builds residences – not to mention planes and boats – in a broad range of styles.
On a recent morning in his sprawling design studio in Paris, on the Rue de Rivoli, overlooking the Tuileries garden, Garcia’s office was brimming with drawings and models for a dazzling assortment of projects, from an 18th-century style mansion in the English countryside built from scratch for a Russian oligarch to a 475-foot three-mast sail boat under construction for another mogul.
The salon of Garcia’s castle in Normandy exemplifies the grand style for which he is known.
Varied as these projects are, Garcia deploys his wide range of skills as needed.
“My work at Versailles is almost scientific. It is extremely precise,” he says. “We did a great deal of historical research so we can evoke to visitors in the most exact way possible how the royal family lived in the château.”
Scheduled to be unveiled soon is the first phase of Garcia’s work at Versailles, the restoration of the King’s apartments. By 2018, he will have refurbished a significant swath of the monument, including the apartments of the Dauphin and the Dauphine as well as those of the Mesdames. Throughout he is restoring paneling and metalwork, as well as recreating textiles, including the sumptuous draperies.
Once reopened, these interiors will change many people’s ideas about 18th-century French décor, he says.
“For years, visitors have been thinking that 18th-century rooms were almost empty. But they weren’t at all. It’s just that so much of the art and furnishings were dispersed in the Revolution, and by later events. At Versailles, we have been using inventories to research what was in these rooms, and bring back as much as possible of the furniture that we could find. We are trying to bring back a sense of life, and density.” The details are crucial, he adds. “We are making sure the napkins are folded the way they were, that the silver on the tables is right.”
His work at the Louvre, meanwhile, is of a different stripe, as he has been charged with creating entirely new settings for some 30 rooms in the Cour Carrée, which will present an exhibition of the Museum’s staggering collection of 18-century decorative art – royal furniture, bronzes, rugs, tapestries, gold and silver, porcelain, and jewellery – which will open to the public in 2013.
Garcia’s own home, Champs de Bataille is his most extensive project to date, and draws thousands of visitors each year.
“It’s not quite correct to call what I am creating ‘period rooms,’” says the designer. “We are starting with empty rooms and creating everything. Unavoidably, our eye of the 21st-century intervenes, so it is my vision of the 18th century. We will be presenting a chronological itinerary that will retrace changing tastes from the reign of Louis XIV to the end of the Ancien Regime with Marie-Antoinette. We will illustrate how rapidly tastes changed – and how interiors constantly were transformed. When a great financier of 1730 had his apartment decorated, he would keep nothing that he had in 1720. It was, Out with the old!”
If this modus operandi sounds familiar, it should. Today’s new rich are well known for building their houses from scratch. Garcia is only too happy to help them, of course; unlike some designers he does not mind using the term “nouveau riche.” In fact, he embraces it. “It is not derogatory at all. These are people who have made their fortunes and they can be extremely elegant.
“The big clients of today want a mix of great furniture, paintings of today and antique paintings. They want the same things really rich people of previous centuries wanted, just adapted to their needs.”
With its unabashed opulence, “le style Garcia” may be the new “le style Rothschild,” it has been suggested. Naturally, the designer does not mind the comparison. “It’s controlled abundance,” he says about the fabled Rothschild taste. “Extravagant, but things were always in their place. Varied, but everything went divinely well together.”
The Hotel Metropole in Monte Carlo is among the luxury hotels that show off Garcia’s elegant taste.
One of Garcia’s early champions was a great master of this style – Baroness Liliane de Rothschild, the Parisian doyenne who died in 2003. “It was a great compliment that she admired my taste. I liked her taste so much, too. We shared a passion for Marie-Antoinette.”
Unlike many designers at the top echelon, who work largely on private residences, Garcia has completed many commercial projects, so his style has become well known to the wider public. Particularly in Paris, many of the hotels and restaurants that bear his stamp – such as the Hotel Costes and the Ladurée tearooms – have become beloved icons. In New York, his NoMad Hotel, opened earlier this year, has been an immediate success.
Garcia’s most important and longest-running project, however, has been his own home, the 17th-century Champs de Bataille in Normandy, one of France’s grandest and largest castles, which he bought in 1992 from the Ducs de Harcourt. It has been a work in progress ever since, inside and out. Inspired by the designs of André le Notre, Garcia constructed a Versailles-scaled formal garden. One of the largest private landscaping projects of our time, it now receives more than 30,000 visitors a year.
“It has been twenty years of my life. It is something very special for me. What I wanted to do at Champ de Bataille is to give it the feeling of a house of different layers,” says the designer, who was named Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1994, and Commandant des Arts et des Lettres in 2002.
“I’m one of the last repositories, in France, of what is called the grand style. And I intend to do everything in my power to keep the chain from breaking, the spirit from being lost.” As anyone familiar with his work would agree, he’s succeeding.
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.
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