With its silken threads revived by a Lebanese-French interior design duo par excellence, Joseph Achkar and Michel Charrière, the Hôtel de la Marine in Paris–an exceptional historic monument commissioned by King Louis XV–is setting a new precedent for France’s practice of restoration.
The rumbling through the streets of Paris hits a crescendo. Horses’ hooves pound the cobblestones like a drumroll announcing the raging crowds of 200 men. Convening at Saint- Germain-des-Près, revolutionaries and national guards quickly disperse through the city, heading straight towards its prisons. Over the course of a few nights, they decimate half of Paris’s inmates, many of whom were rounded up in the weeks and months before. Between 1,100 and 1,600 royalists–noblemen, priests, and even Queen Marie Antoinette’s faithful friend the Princess Lamballe–meet a gruesome end. For those who had served the crown, the gore of their deaths is only equaled by the sheer splendor of their lives.
These events during the French Revolution of 1792 would be sealed in history books as the September Massacres. Here lay men and women whose apartment walls were draped with silk tapestries, whose desks featured sculptured carvings by France’s most skilled artisans, and whose windows were dressed with curtains whose colors seemed pulled from the sky. One victim, Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray–intendant to King Louis XVI and the last guard of the royals’ furniture and crown jewels – slept in a room dressed in powder blue silk from 1784 until 1792, when he was arrested and killed at the Abbaye prison. It is into this final bedroom that steps Joseph Achkar, hailed as one-half, along with his partner Michel Charrière, of the world’s finest interior decorator duo specializing in the 18th century.
The bedroom, along with an office, salon, and dining room, constitute the last home of Thierry de Ville d’Avray and his family; a home Achkar and Charrière have meticulously renovated over the last three years. Today, these rooms present one of the most intimate testimonies for a visiting public to understand French savoir faire and art de vivre. Their deeper intrigue is that they offer further hints of the tipping point that brought French royals and royalists to their knees. The apartments, comprising 14 rooms, are nestled in the east wing of the 18th century neoclassical monument Hôtel de la Marine.
Designed by King Louis XV’s first architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, it is now open to the public for the first time in 250 years, following a four-year renovation costing US $157 million. This historical monument faces the Place de la Concorde, Paris’s largest square. Built on land pertaining to King Louis XV, it housed the crown jewels and furniture until 1798, and served as the headquarters of the naval ministry for more than 200 years – hence its name. Inside, one also discovers stately 19th century reception rooms commissioned under Napoleon III. Their gilding is so bright that one exits feeling almost giddy, like a child in the throes of a sugar rush. Perhaps there is something unsophisticated, or at the least, unFrench (by today’s more judicious standards) about such gluttony for gold.
Achkar explains that the secret to a subtler, more elegant, and longer-lasting beauty is in the reveal of the original work of the 18th century artisans who were unparalleled in creating fabrics, colors, and woodwork. To do so, he and Charrière employed the same methods used at their Paris residence, the 17th century Hôtel de Duc de Gesvres. Their mastery is to peel back each layer of painting, fabric, or boiserie in its entirety until the original is revealed. Their personal renovation was executed with such finesse that the powers that be at the Hôtel de la Marine (notably Philippe Bélaval, president of the Centre des monuments nationaux) called on the Lebanese-French duo to restore Thierry de Ville d’Avray’s apartments. It is the first time that this method of renovation has been undertaken by the French administration–with some 18 layers removed–and has set a precedent for the future.
Up until now, restorers would simply excavate a small space of a wall, floor, or ceiling and upon discovering the original, would then fashion the entire space in the same way, painting over or adding gilding and hailing it as l’identique. “We say that there is no identical; when you repaint, it’s fake,” asserts Achkar. “The administration didn’t think it was important; a unified painting with no fresco, why restore it? Before signing our contract, we stipulated that this is our way of doing things and this was how we would interfere here. Now, having seen the result, we are told that no restoration in France will occur without this technique first taken into consideration.”
Observing the 18th century tapestries, furniture, beds, crystal chandeliers, and other familiar household objects like a backgammon set, one holds their breath at the sheer beauty of such a collection of pieces. It is a feast for the eyes from floor to ceiling–the parquet of Thierry de Ville d’Avray’s office is an exceptional marvel, with a three-dimensional design using sycamore, amaranth, and mahogany woods. Achkar, meanwhile, murmurs under his breath as he steps over the cord barrier to reposition a chair moved haphazardly by the night cleaners.
If he and Charrière needed to place all object with care with the aim of reviving the home’s spirit, first, they had to seek them out. Referring to 900 pages of inventory, the pair combed the national archives, contacting collectors, negotiating with museums and antique dealers, and bidding at auctions. All the decor of the rooms had been registered. And what decor it was. The first intendant, Pierre-Élisabeth de Fontanieu, had exceptional taste, which at times exceeded that of the crown. He dipped into the royal inventory to furnish his apartments and otherwise commissioned pieces from the craftsmen of royal residences, like Jean-Henri Riesener and Georges Jacob. If Achkar was unable to source an item, an authentic piece provenance from the period was found, otherwise 18th century techniques were used to create them. “Where can you do this now? Where can you find these colors?” exclaims Achkar, marveling at a mustard silk curtain. “These are natural colors; now everything is chemical.”
Each porcelain statue and golden candlestick has a story–and Achkar and Charrière know every one. A desk fashioned with artwork, the Table of Muses, was found at the Louvre, which conceded to return it to the Hôtel de la Marine. Not all transactions were always so straightforward. Another armoire, signed Riesener, had recently been auctioned at Christie’s New York, purchased by the former emir of Qatar for €1.4 million. His Highness Al Thani offered it to the Hôtel de la Marine as a gift – and from October, the Al Thani collection will be featured in a 400 sqm wing of the Hôtel de la Marine for 20 years. Even the windows were brought back to original life with 18th century silks. When repairs were necessary, the Lyon-based ateliers of Tassinari & Chatel were commissioned, as were the Reese brothers for the restoration of silk panels.
Having also recently restored the Palazzo Bernardo in Venice, Achkar notes that they had considered working with Italian artisans for the refurbishment of the apartments but ultimately found the skill of the French artisans to be without compare. “France is the country of artisanal skill,” affirms Achkar. “In Italy, know-how is contained within a family and passed down from one generation to the next. If children are uninterested in continuing a craft, it can be lost forever.” France, on the other hand, benefits from the INMA – L’Institut National des Métiers d’Art, which means 281 crafts, from lighting to ceramics, leather, metal work, and horologers, are defined and protected by French law.
Touring the rooms, one finds the growing desire to return from one to the next, imagining commotion or quiet chatter and footsteps coming down the sunlit halls. Among such comfort, could Thierry de Ville d’Avray truly have wanted for more? In the dining room, eyes fall upon the oysters spilled onto the floor, recreating a scene following a sumptuous meal. The table is covered with a tumbling white tablecloth embroidered with flowers. It is set with fine porcelain, silver, and statues portraying romantic scenes. Above, a crystal chandelier reflects the dancing, natural light. A familiar phrase by French writer Jean de la Fontaine comes to mind, “L’avarice perd tout en voulant tout gagner.” He who is consumed by greed loses all when he wants to win all.