Louis XIV, the Sun King, famously said, “I am the state.” Although he’s not given to boasting, the French interior designer Jacques Garcia would be justified in saying, “I am taste”—his influence and reputation are that unquestioned.
Perhaps most famous for his renovation of Paris’s Hotel Costes in 1991—a project that is still influential in the decorating world—Garcia’s latest and most ambitious project just happens to involve Louis XIV and his immediate successors.
He has spearheaded, alongside architect Michel Goutal, the design of the totally revamped 18th-century Decorative Arts Galleries at the Louvre, covering the period from 1660 to 1790 and some 2,000 objects spread over 35 rooms. (And in truly regal fashion, he didn’t even ask to be paid for his work. He did it for l’amour.)
The collection—covering the gilded glory of the Regency, Rococo, and neoclassical styles, and the high points of European royal patronage—reopens this month after almost a decade hidden from view. It’s fitting that the Louvre would entrust such a project to Garcia, who says, “The rules of beauty defined by the antique world are a solid foundation to me,” adding that they never bore or disappoint him.
“My goal was to best help the visitor grasp how unique in the history of decorative arts this period was,” Garcia says. “So the visitor is like a child who would progress across time and see the creative discoveries.”
Thanks to the star designer (and museum curators), the Louvre’s new and improved Decorative Arts Galleries opened June 6 after a nine-year restoration. Jacques Garcia created new settings for 35 rooms in the Sully wing to display the Louvre’s astonishing collection of 18th-century antiques—royal furniture, carpets, tapestries, bronzes, silver, marbles, ceramics, and jewelry. The American Friends of the Louvre gave $4 million to restore a drawing room from L’Hôtel Dangé-Villemaré (above), but other rooms, such as the Bas de Montargis (sketch, below), thrill as well.
The assignment of remaking these iconic galleries, where, as Garcia notes, “everything is a treasure,” did not intimidate the designer at all. It’s just the logical next step for Garcia, who is also in the middle of directing a restoration of large swaths of Versailles, the ultimate in French grandeur (and home to many a Louis).
“A life of passion and developed knowledge for this period brought me here,” he says simply. And Garcia has a great sense of humor, too, especially when it comes to his longtime obsession with style: “As a baby, I already wanted to redecorate my nursery!”
The past infuses Garcia’s everyday life. He lives in a 17th-century Normandy castle that he has painstakingly restored, and it’s the subject of his new book, Twenty Years of Passion: Château du Champ de Bataille.
Although he says he lives in a “relaxed” way at home, his version of relaxed may be different from yours or mine: Château du Champ de Bataille has acres of formal gardens that Garcia has spent 20 years creating, and the interior is a riot of marble and ormolu. As Garcia puts it, “My thing is not to economize with decor, but to celebrate it.”
In his commercial work, particularly for hotels, Garcia also shows a distinct flair for connecting shapes and styles of the past to modern needs, something the French have always shown a knack for. “This is actually the essence of the French taste,” he says. “It naturally developed across centuries.” In addition to the Hotel Costes, Garcia’s talent is on display across Paris at the Royal Monceau; at Marrakech’s top lodging, La Mamounia; and at the NoMad in New York.
And nowhere is Garcia’s take on the past more practically updated than in the Jacques Garcia Collection for Baker Furniture, an extensive line introduced last fall. “You could say that the new Baker collection is a mix of very different, or even opposite universes,” he says of the elegant settees, chaises longues, and ottomans. “As a specialist of the curve, I had fun sketching geometric shapes and making them radical, angular and aerodynamic.”
Garcia takes his cues from the masters of traditional forms, and then turns them up a notch, like the inward-facing legs on his “Odyssée” table for Baker. “A challenge to the center of gravity!” he says. “I like taking risks. Similarly, the effect of friendly surprise is a game I play well, as with trompe l’oeil. There is no need to overdo it. Or how I evoke the trajectory of shooting stars in the large arabesques of door handles.”
Monsieur Garcia proves that great French design continues through the 21st century. For Baker, he created a clean, lean side table with silver sabots. His design philosophy is clearly evident: Always elegant, always relevant.
Garcia has staked out a unique position in the world of decor, one that he says is “unlike some designers, who are intent on a break with the past so that the purity of their visions can triumph.” He looks forward and back at the same time, and if you think he’s done conquering the world, think again.
“I cherished the idea of Versailles; it is done,” he says. “I cherished the idea of the Louvre; it is done. Now, how about the great monuments of the United States?” Keepers of the White House and the Smithsonian, take note.
Produced by Doris Athineos
Photographs: Eric Sander; book, Karla Conrad