Inside a History-Rich Parisian Apartment by AD100 Designer Pierre Yovanovitch
In the mid-1920s, young French interior designer Jean-Michel Frank moved into an 18th-century apartment on a short, narrow street on the Left Bank. He tackled its renovation as he would the homes of his haute societé clients, such as the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles and the English writer Nancy Cunard, respecting the original construction but banishing the froufrou. It was the Roaring Twenties—the decade of excess—but for Frank, spartan was modern.
Frank instructed his workers to strip the paint off the Louis XVI oak paneling, leaving the wood pale and raw. With his friend, and later business partner, the cabinetmaker Adolphe Chanaux, he created a decor so spare it could rival a monastery. The predominant palette was of the palest neutrals, from the white marble with dark gray streaks in the bath to the leather sofa, even the sheet Frank threw over the Louis XIV dining table. He left the Versailles parquet floors bare, and art and bibelots were verboten. So denuded was the home, when Jean Cocteau visited, he reportedly quipped, “Charming young man; pity he was robbed.”
Frank gave up the apartment in 1940, moved to Buenos Aires, and, tragically, during a trip to New York in 1941, was seized by depression and died by suicide. The storied duplex has since changed hands and been redone many times—including by the maximalist Jacques Garcia—and much of Frank’s imprint has been erased.
But not all, as Paris-based designer Pierre Yovanovitch discovered when he took on its most recent redesign for a French family. The unfinished oak paneling and bookcases remained, as did the pale pink marble in the entrance hall. For Yovanovitch, this was enough to fulfill the clients’ wish to return the home’s atmosphere “to something more Jean-Michel Frank—something more contemporary,” he says.
The assignment was quite humbling, and an immense challenge. “I had to find the essence of Frank’s work, yet make it actual,” says Yovanovitch, who consulted the esteemed Comité Jean-Michel Frank during the project. “Doing a pastiche didn’t interest me. Otherwise, we are frozen by the period. We wanted to respect the history, and yet evolve—that’s what’s interesting. To create an apartment that is not too decorated or overdone. Something simple, and sophisticated. The flat of Jean-Michel Frank, but in the 21st century.”
Yovanovitch began by rearranging the floor plan of the 2,500-square-foot duplex. He kept the two main salons as they were, but most everything else changed. He moved the kitchen from the back corner—as was the case in old grand Paris apartments, “because families had staff,” he explains—to a more central location, and added an island with barstools. “It’s very convivial now,” he observes. “It’s really a room where the family lives.” He turned the former kitchen into a guest bath and a powder room, and the dining room into a guest room.
“I often work on 17th- and 18th-century houses, but I believe they must live in our time,” Yovanovitch avers. “Today, kitchens are more important. Family rooms are more important. Women have more clothes than before, so need bigger closets. We are more material and accumulate more stuff. That forces us to approach decor differently.”
Once the flow was sorted, Yovanovitch played with the apartment’s unusual design features, such as the small, round tower, where he put the wife’s home office, outfitted with a crescent-shaped desk; the windowless staircase to the second floor, for which he commissioned a delightful fresco evoking windows and moldings; and the 650-square-foot terrace—a rarity in Paris—which he tied to both the living room and the dining room, allowing, as he puts it, “an in-and-out that is very fluid.”