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Showing His Colors

The bold designs of Patrick Frey break the greige barrier of conventional French taste.

Patrick Frey is to color and cloth what Liszt was to the piano: someone who constructs the most exacting challenges and meets them with an apparent ease that leaves you thinking they were not difficult at all. His eye is impeccable: he can vary his way across a hundred shades of blue in one room and then use all the colors of the rainbow in another. Frey is the owner of a fabric design house, and his interest in the use and effect of material is everywhere manifest in his apartment; though he has good furniture and some fine paintings, the place is about cloth. And despite its look-ma-no-hands quality, it is also humorous, unpretentious, and stylish: virtuoso extravagance need not by any means result in fussiness or excess.

Tucked into the sixteenth arrondissement in Paris, the Frey residence is a wonder of devastatingly smart effects. “In France people are afraid of color and pattern,” says Patrick Frey. “Everything is beige or cream. I wanted to show that it was possible to do something different.” That he has. “I went to visit some friends, and when I went into their dining room, there was a pair of curtains at the window, and one of these was red, the other blue. They apologized. ‘We had our curtains rehung today, and the left one was not quite long enough, so it’s gone back and we’re left with this terrible situation.’ But I thought, Why should both curtains in a pair be always the same color?” In the living room of Frey’s house there are three big windows and six hues for the curtains: green, red, blue, yellow, purple, and turquoise. Moiré fabrics in these colors have been put on the part of the drapery facing the window so that from the street you see the six shades in all their stark drama. Inside, they come around the edges and form ten-inch-deep rainbow borders on otherwise beige curtains.

You get enough color in the room itself for the effect and enough beige not to be driven mad by it. Frey has upholstered the right side of one chair in yellow moiré, its left side in blue and has covered a pair of sofas in a single striped moiré but in tones so different (the blue and yellow of the chair) that only when you study them do you realize that the fabrics are one and the same. In fact, the apartment is swathed entirely in different shades of these two moirés.

“I found that a lot of my paintings were red and green,” says Frey, “so I decided to make my bedroom also red and green.” The room is upholstered, curtained, and otherwise clothed in striped and solid shades of these colors. There is a desk and the furniture necessary for a room in which life unfolds; it’s cool and quiet and welcoming. “I wanted to see how many variations on red and green I could use without making the room uncomfortable,” Frey says.

Comfort is a crucial concept in this house. Frey and his wife, Lorraine, have between them five young children, who run free throughout, flopping on the various fabrics with no undue anxiety. In fact, the apartment was chosen and designed to accommodate them – it is near the best school in the area, and it is as appropriate when their friends come to play as when Lorraine and Patrick’s come by for supper. “When they are older, we will live in a different place in a different way, but for right now we are all very very happy to live here as we live,” says Frey.

Frey’s father opened Pierre Frey, the fabric house, in 1935, and still keeps an eye on the company. As owner and chairman, Patrick employs over a dozen staff and freelance designers, selecting patterns now from one, now from another. “Sometimes, of course, they are perfect as they come, but more often I discuss them with the designer, and we come up with new colors and variations for them,” he says. “Usually we try to come up with some that French people will buy, some others that Americans will buy, others for the Swiss, the English, the Italians, the Scandinavians. I try to make things that are beautiful by each set of standards. Do you know how many things you can do just with solid colors? But what works in cashmere does not work in silk, and what can be woven into one texture dies in another. I’ve sometimes spent weeks coming up with the right colors for a particular range of fabrics.”

The relation between weave and color is Frey’s great obsession. He has also launched collections of luggage and household goods, but these are really variations on the same theme, extensions of the career of a fabric man. Everything he does depends on the idea of fabric, on the way a surface can be tinted or printed and made beautiful, on how that surface can be turned or twisted into something altogether fascinating. When the Freys do move, they will move to the country. “I want a big house with every kind of light in it,” Patrick Frey says fondly. “To see what it does to all the colors.”