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Fine Tuning Tradition

Exquisite dissonance is an essential part of the harmony in decorator Geneviève Faure’s East Side maisonette.

“When I finish an apartment for a client,” confides Geneviève Faure, “I always feel that it is not finished. Sometimes I think I should go and live in the apartments of my clients for a year, to give them that feeling of being inhabited.” Geneviève Faure’s own apartment does not feel lived-in in the euphemistic English sense of that word: there are no rings on the wooden surfaces, no snags in the upholstery, no month-old stacks of unread newspapers. It feels lived-in in the sense of being balanced; all the little errors and discomforts have been identified and most of them have been dealt with. The chairs are set at the right distance for easy conversation; the curtains are pulled back in what seems a natural way; everything is at a comfortable height. The apartment feels inhabited in that it feels fine-tuned and organic.

“There are no new ideas here,” Faure says. “Perhaps there are some new contrasts, but I am starting nothing radical.” The apartment is full of period furniture and has dozens of Upper East Side conventions: a big entrance hall with a black and white marble floor, a paneled library with built-in bookcases and a mirrored bar, and a rather formal living room. But the effect is not traditional. Faure has a no-nonsense unsentimental quality about her. “Nostalgic?” she repeats when I ask her a question. “But no, of course I’m not nostalgic. I am a working woman, and all in all I am very glad to be living at this precise moment in time.

While her apartment takes account of the past, it does feel very much part of this moment in time. It is not self-indulgently exuberant; it is also not sober. It is a very grand cozy apartment, bright and pleasant and impressive. Everything in it is clearly arranged according to an order – but it is an order that includes a measure of chaos. So, too, Faure’s conversation: she is careful and tactful in what she says, but not too careful and tactful. When she finishes articulating a definite view – and she has many definite views – she smiles not so much to soften her opinion as to invite you to share it.

Faure is extremely modest and extremely confident. Her interior share her character: they are unobtrusive, but they have terrific presence. She is matter-of-fact, almost early, but she is also one of those French women who make you feel that whatever she is doing is rather chic. She was, for example, a few minutes late for our meeting in a way that made you feel it was rather chic to be a few minutes late. And she had rolled the sleeves of her dress in a way that made you feel how tiresome it was that most people with similar dresses did not roll their sleeves.

“I did the apartment in four months,” she says. “I can’t bear for these things to go on forever. And it’s not necessary.” Indeed the apartment is quite straightforward: dining room, living room, library, entrance hall, and master bedroom. The kitchen and a few bedrooms are still unfinished. Because the main rooms are on the ground floor, shutters and shades cover the windows. “One wants only so much intimacy with the people passing on the streets,” says Faure. “I myself am a voyeur, and I like to be able to look at them when I choose.”

She sustains her offhand tone: “When I am doing someone else’s house, I make sure that each room picks up the colors of the other rooms, that they flow into one another. Here I did just what I felt like doing in each room; it’s as if each one comes from a different house.” So it is: the rooms are like the various moods of a single intelligence. The library, the most charming one of all, has tropical mahogany bookcases that glisten in the sunshine. Worn Penguin paperbacks and rare editions are lined up on the shelves. A small Matisse painting hangs over the fireplace, a wonderful Matisse drawing of a nude with a mirror on another wall. The furniture is upholstered in brighter versions of the colors of the rug: two big chairs are a glowing deep violet, and the sofa is bright green with red trim. Pillows of Afghan silk are dotted around, as are bunches of flowers loosely arranged in small vases. The light is like the first day of spring, pure and bright and surprising and inexplicable.

The living room, by contrast, feels more determined. “Look! Two columns! Every decorator has two free-standing columns in his home. These are mine. This room is as much formality as I can stand.” In the corner is an embroidered screen – “nineteenth-century junk, but I’m fond of it. Half of what I have is junk. The other half is not. I enjoy finding the junk just as much as the rest of it.”

As we walk through the entrance hall – which is disconcertingly conventional, a solid core to the pinwheel variety of the other rooms – Faure explains, “In every room, if you want it to seem like you live there, if you don’t want it to seem overdecorated, you must have something that is wrong. It’s easiest to do it with color, to have one thing that clashes” – like the yellow snakeskin tables in the library – “but it is best to have a piece of furniture that absolutely doesn’t belong. It’s the hardest thing to convince clients that they should get this one wrong thing. And to find the right wrong thing, the ting that is not so wrong as to be ridiculous, that’s the greatest task of all.”

At the dining room windows are shutters of a moody blue green with traces of gold, reminiscent of shutters in an old villa in the Italian lake region. “The table opens up to seat twelve – about three times a year.”

As we enter the bedroom, she shrugs. “You see? Four main rooms, some old things, some bright colors. I can’t imagine what you can write an article about.” But a minute later she adds, “Every time I come home, I remember how much I like it here.” The bedroom has a touch more chaos than the rooms downstairs. There are boxes half unpacked, and shopping bags dropped on a chair. By the bedside are Proust, Edith Wharton, and The Satanic Verses. Geneviève Faure apologizes politely for the mess. But in fact it isn’t a mess and she isn’t sorry about it – and neither are you.