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An Afternoon With Jacques Grange, Fearless Decorator for YSL, Valentino, and the World's Royalty

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Seconds after stepping off the elevator, French interior designer Jacques Grange takes my arm, and pulls me across the striped floors of the Mark Hotel's lobby, through a lounge with a curvy aluminum bar, and into an earth-toned restaurant. As we dart through the room, complete with geometric panels and a copper-and-glass wall of wine, patrons at the tables call out to him ("Jacques, Jacques!"), and double-kisses are exchanged. The 70-year-old Parisian, who is wearing a navy turtleneck and brown loafers, is so keen on showing me the edgy new interiors he designed for the 1927 New York hotel that he doesn't realize he is nearly dragging me.

Grange is one of the world's most famous interior designers, undoubtedly known to many in the Mark's tony lunch crowd as the go-to decorator for fashion icons and billionaires seeking a high-end interpretation of bohemian style. He has worked on six homes in France and Morocco for the late Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, and more recently, paired 19th-century furniture with contemporary art in Valentino's Fifth Avenue penthouse in Manhattan. Grange's first New York client was Ronald Lauder, the billionaire art collector and philanthropist (and son of Estee Lauder). The star designer has also decorated for Karl Lagerfeld, Princess Caroline of Monaco, and fashion executive François Pinault.

His career was singular from the outset. After apprenticing for three years with the classic interior designer Henri Samuel, who counted old money families like the Rothschilds and the Vanderbilts among his clients, Grange set up a design studio inside the gallery of the legendary Parisian antiques dealer Didier Aaron in 1966. When clients came into buy fine French furniture from the 1700s, they also had the option of hiring an interior decorator to help them select and arrange it. It was a bold move at the time, and garnered Grange several high-profile patrons.

Photo by Guy Hervais, from Jacques Grange Interiors by Pierre Passebon, courtesy of Flammarion

"I met my first important client there: Princess Ashraf, the twin sister of the shah of Iran," he says. "In five minutes, she selected me to do the flat in Paris and the house in the South of France." The princess-in-exile told the young decorator that she wanted a relaxed style in the bedroom and bathrooms, with lots of space for plants. "I designed the flat in the contemporary manner of the 1970s: bright nickel, glass, terra cotta, natural wood, warm mirrors, a winter garden," says Grange.

Around the same time, the interior designer became friendly with couturier Yves Saint Laurent, who was credited in those decades with popularizing ready-to-wear fashions and beatnik and androgynous styles for women. "He asked me one day to design a modern studio for him," says Grange. "He told me, 'I'm busy, so I want something calm.'" It was a stimulating collaboration: Saint Laurent bought the art, Grange picked the furniture, and the two arranged the décor together. "It's easy to work with somebody like Saint Laurent, because he's creative too," says Grange.

Although he was still in his twenties, Grange impressed the influential fashion designer, who was eight years older. Saint Laurent and Bergé promptly gave him an even more challenging commission: to furnish and help restore a neglected, but wildly atmospheric 1920s villa and botanical garden in Marrakesh, Morocco that they had fallen in love with and purchased in 1980. Along with the American designer Bill Willis, Grange decked out the Villa Oasis with sumptuous Moorish antiques and contemporary furniture; fine woven carpets, intricate painted woodcuts, and gorgeous patterned tiles.

They drew on three distinct eras of Eastern-influenced design, with some rooms fitted out in 19th century styles, others with 1920s flair, and a select few accented with modern furnishings. There is very little white; only deep colors. The refurbished Villa Oasis and lush Jardin Majorelle is now seen as one of the last century's most artistic estates.

"It's an interpretation of the orientalisme spirit," says Grange. "Because he bought the house from the artist Jacques Majorelle, Yves Saint Laurent really wanted powder blue for the façade, which has this incredible vegetation."

His next project for Saint Laurent and Bergé was in Normandy, where he decorated a ravishing, ivy-covered chateau in dark tones, with opulent furniture and brocade curtains reminiscent of a Belle Époque film set. The designer spent two years hunting for extraordinary objects to fill the 1874 Anglo-Norman house with, alongside Bergé. The aesthetic goal was quite extravagant: the couple wanted to recreate the ambiance found in Ludwig II of Bavaria's many palaces, like Neuschwanstein Castle, a lavish affair that inspired the Disney movie "Sleeping Beauty."

Inspiration for the bedrooms came from Marcel Proust's novel "Remembrance of Things Past" (each bedroom is named for a character in the book). Monet's color palate informed the living areas, which are furnished with Napoleon III furniture. Like in Morocco, the 75-acre estate has fabulous gardens. "All this inspiration was the 19th century, reinterpreted," says Grange. "Not a copy."

"Of all the houses I have decorated, the ones I have done for Saint Laurent are the most important part of my work," the designer told the New York Times in 2005, when the chateau was on the market (it later sold to a Russian businessman for €9.6M). "I love this place. It is unbelievable, extraordinary. I would like to dismantle it all and spirit it away."

Although the properties in Morocco and France are both filled with furniture, one item is conspicuously missing. "I don't like commodes or chests," says the designer, who rarely includes cabinets when he decorates a house. He has a particular fondness for statement chairs, from the North African, Cubist, and Indian chairs in the Moroccan villa to the sculptural leather-accented armchairs, reminiscent of gym equipment, that adorn the Mark Hotel's lobby. When asked to explain his style, Grange spoke about his attraction to "strange balances," and his need to mix "something very rough with something very refined." His preference is for atypical furniture arrangements and art objects grouped together in surprising ways: "I love when you're in people's rooms, but you don't feel the rules."

Grange was doing this as far back as the 1960s, but now his favored aesthetic has become an au courant one, hence why he has been asked to design four hotels in recent years. He has also gotten bolder, and often incorporates daring design objects and other ultra-modern elements into his rooms. "My style evolved because I arrived in New York at the time of Warhol, and discovered the energy of contemporary art," he says. He visited the studio of Jim Dine and later went to Art Basel Miami. "If you are a creator and you love art, you need to reevaluate. You cannot stay the same."

Photo by François Halard, from Jacques Grange Interiors by Pierre Passebon, courtesy of Flammarion

Grange lives in Paris, in the former apartment of the great French novelist Colette. He has redecorated several times since he moved into the grand rooms overlooking the Palais-Royale in 1980. At first it was designed as something of a tribute to its last owner, with books everywhere, and many antiques. Now it is more of a collector's apartment, with contemporary art and sculptures, chandeliers in abstract shapes, and a giant Damien Hirst painting mixed in with the 18th-century objects. It is telling that Grange's personal apartment looks very much like his designs for his clients.

"I think the people select you because they recognize something of themselves in you," Grange muses. "If people don't understand what you're doing, they don't select you. It's like a love, no?" Although he has designed some of the last century's most imaginative homes and received France's highest accolade, the Légion d'honneur, in 2007, "I don't feel like an icon myself," he says. "I don't run around like a diva . . . I hope!"

The interview ends because too many people are now competing for Grange's attention. A group of well-dressed men and women are waiting to speak with him on a burnt orange-colored velvet sofa in the Mark Hotel's lobby. That might be difficult: Grange's two cell phones and the landline in his hotel room have been ringing incessantly, no matter how many times he picks up the receiver to speak urgently in French. Everyone, it seems, wants to congratulate the star decorator on the Trophée des Arts award that was presented to him the evening before at a swanky French Institute-sponsored gala at the Plaza Hotel. Ever the gentleman, Grange apologizes for marching me around so quickly, and then deposits me on a pony-skin chair in the lounge. "Voilà," he says, and vanishes.

· All Jacques Grange coverage [Curbed National]
· All Curbed Features [Curbed National]