Morton Freeman Plant built the house at 651 Fifth Avenue, known as the Cartier Mansion, for his wife, Mae Caldwell Manwaring in 1905. He was 61, she was 19. Shortly after moving in, Mrs. Plant spied a double strand necklace of 128 flawlessly matched natural pearls at Cartier. She wanted it. Her husband asked her to wait on the purchase. Within a few weeks, Mrs. Plant appeared wearing the necklace. Her husband was astonished; how could she have acquired a necklace valued at $1 million in 1905. “I traded the house for the necklace.” This was one of many insider anecdotes, Thierry Despont entertained us with yesterday at FIAF.
I was prepared to dislike the man known as the “court architect.” Despont’s clients are part of the quarter of the 1%. This year he will complete the renovation of The Ritz Paris, The Woolworth Tower Residences and The Cartier Mansion in New York. These are all iconic buildings, but to Despont they are much more. His passion for sense of place and his sense of humor (mostly directed at himself) was infectious.
To paraphrase Despont, Each project is about dreams and memory. Everyone has an image of a house or a window or shaded porch. I talk to my clients about those memories. I never take on a project, if it is not a good fit. I am a people pleaser. After two meetings with clients, I can tell if its a good fit. It’s like playing tennis. If your opponent is better than you, it makes you a better player. My clients are visionary people. They play a great game of tennis.
Despont is self-effacing and a really good story teller. “Rich people know rich people, which is lucky for me. When you have one of these clients, others will come. I’ve been called a control freak and I am. I do the architecture, the interior design and the gardens. I design the soap for the soap dish in bathroom, I choose the picture frames for the family photos and arrange where they should go and I even decorate the Christmas tree”.
The evening was filled with amusing tales. Every story reflected Despont’s love of the history of architecture. He described the work he did on the Statue of Liberty. “One of challenges was to grasp how it was built. Effiel was a genius. We did two years of research to understand how the statue was constructed… The true test of good restoration is when someone says, What did you do? everything is the same.”
One of my favorite interiors in New York is Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel. It’s not because they serve a good glass of champagne. I love the interior for the murals painted by Ludwig Bemelmans. As a child, my mother read us all the Madeline books, both in French and English. I can still recite the entire text from the first Madeline book.
Despont was asked to renovate the famous bar and add another room. He hired a painter to continue the murals in the new room. One night he was sitting at the bar and heard two elderly gentleman bemoaning the fact that the bar had been ruined. Despont asked them why they were so distressed. The murals had been restored, everything was the same. NO they said. That corner over there had two rabbits humping. It’s gone now. The next day Despont had the rabbits humping painted back in.
It’s hard not to like a guy who can tell such good stories and with a french accent.
French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF)
Monday, May 16, Thierry Despont
Conversation moderated by journalist, Melissa Ceria.
Thierry W. Despont studio includes his paintings, sculpture, works on paper, and tapestries. He did talk about the Museum of Natural History he is building in his head.
Despont’s reputation for complete control over his projects( architecture, interior design and garden)