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Q&A: Jean-Louis Deniot

Q&A: Jean Louis Deniot
(The designer (above left) and a trio of blue and white porcelain vessels in Deniot's Chantilly house. All photos © Xavier Béjot)
The interiors of Jean-Louis Deniot are elegant. Not as in stuffy, but a New World-meets-Old World sense of fancy—the kind in which gold leaf sconces coexist with Thomas Struth photographs, Jacques Adnet chairs, and monumental coffee tables topped with marble obelisks. His debut book, authored by Diane Dorrans Saeks, offers a chance to immerse yourself in this rarefied atmosphere; from the designer's own Parisian dressing room, where the cabinet doors are thoughtfully back-painted in an abstract onyx pattern, to an expansive ex-pat retreat on Ile St. Louis, whose entryway is adorned with a bronze Roman bust, a Gio Ponti ceramic vessel, and a Venetian 1940s mirror. We called up Deniot to talk about the origin of his classical taste, the rules he lives by, and the thing he has in common with Picasso. Photography © Xavier Béjot.

What’s your review of the book?
I appreciate that it’s not monotonous. It’s got a good rhythm to it—when things start to get a little too traditional, suddenly there’s a twist. Some interiors books  give everything away from the beginning, and the more you go through the book the more you get to stuff that’s not interesting. Here I think the interest remains quite high all along the way—it’s not boring.

Q&A: Jean Louis Deniot
(A French-inspired home in Chicago features a sitting room with slipper chairs by Lucien Rollin and a cubist bronze and parchment coffee table.) 
It's refreshing that while so many designers talk about how “there are no rules,” you set forth quite a few in the book: including “no white walls,” and “you should have eight points of light in a room.” Any others on your list?
The eye has to touch something: there’s always something to read and something to appreciate. [At the same time] you need blank areas so the eye can breathe a little bit.

From the start of your career you’ve leaned toward a Neo-Classical aesthetic, despite the fact that it wasn’t “fashionable” among your peers. Where did that attraction come from and why does it persist?
[While studying to be a designer] I was hanging out with a lot of old aristocratic French families—people for whom it was normal to have a castle, or an amazing collection of paintings that they weren’t even paying much attention to anymore because it was so much a part of their history. I was also meeting experts at Sotheby's who were becoming friends, so they were teaching me a lot about French furniture history and the logic of a house—starting with an empty entry hall, and gaining richness all along the floorplan—the basics. Picasso was a very good academic painter, and I think he was able to go so far into abstraction because he was first such a [technical] painter. Architecturally it’s the same thing: if you’re aware of the history and what’s been done in the past and for which purpose, then it’s no coincidence that it works and there’s no reason it won’t work later on.
Q&A: Jean Louis Deniot
(In Deniot's sister's house in Touraine, the library features 1940s sycamore armchairs by Henri Martin Etienne—a gift from William Randolph Hearst III when Deniot completed his Parisian apartment (above left). The vestibule of Deniot’s French country house in Chantilly (above right), where early-18th-century Spanish wrought iron plant stands bookend a vintage Portuguese settee.)
The book focuses more on your French projects, despite the fact you're quite prolific internationally. Any reason why?
We took the angle of making the first book very French with mostly French residences and showing the way that it gets exported at the end—it’s like a starter before a big meal. I think it’s quite clever because it’s a good first introduction, and soon enough we’ll be able to do a second one that will be more international.

You've experienced much acclaim in the USA—arguably sooner than in your own country. Any thoughts on why that is? 
The US press has been very supportive since the beginning. The French press only started to pay attention three years ago. In France they’re not highly appreciative of traditional things, which is not the case in the US. In France they don’t want to promote the traditional style. If you do too many classical interiors you won’t get attention—they were waiting for me to get to something contemporary so they could actually “start”—a bit like how British bands can make it huge in the US but not as big in England.

Q&A: Jean Louis Deniot
(In the master bedroom of this Parisian apartment, a resin chandelier and a custom hammered brass fireplace act as focal points.)
Do you have a favorite project in the book?
A showcase for French Architectural Digest which has a very ethnic, cubist look. It has no sense of commercial logic whatsoever, which is refreshing. It was for the pure pleasure of the exercise—all about the aesthetic and the craftsmanship and not that the sofa would be the right one to watch TV on, or that the coffee table would be very practical to vacuum under. Clients will never question the awkwardness of art, but they will always question the awkwardness of function.

Can you share any tips for emulating your look on a budget?
It’s all a question of assemblage. It’s not like we’re trying to play with fancy stuff; you can take normal stuff and put it together in a fancy way. I’m not starting my day thinking: if you don’t have a trillion to spend I won’t be able to produce anything. I don’t think it’s a matter of money, I think it’s a matter of picking and choosing: you don’t want everything to have the same amount of creative power—you want things to be at different levels.
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