“The French have a saying that describes a person who believes that beauty takes you higher,” starts Joseph Achkar. The distinguished Lebanese interior designer and collector adds, “If you are not a musician or a poet, you still have to express what you have in your stomach somehow. This is how I express my sensibility, by making a house live again.” That is exactly what he did, over the course of a four-year refurbishment of his Parisian residence, the grand Hôtel de Duc de Gesvres. Originally built by French architect Antoine Lepautre in 1652, it was once the home of the Duke of Gesvres, the governor of Paris under King Louis XIV. When Achkar and his business partner Michel Charrière found the property some 19 years ago, on the Rue de la Michodière, in the 2nd arrondissement, it was being used as offices by a bank. Its layout had been altered and the exquisite original gilding and woodworking obscured by layers upon layers of paint applied over the centuries.
A trip to the National Library of France turned up Lepautre’s original plans for the building, along with an inventory of all the art and furniture it had contained at the time of the owner’s death. “We had the whole history,” Achkar says. “So we started following the spirit of the house.” Among the treasures uncovered were an original 17th century mirrored room – a discovery Achkar describes as “a miracle” as it is the only one in Paris known to still be intact – and ceilings painted by artist Louis de Boulogne, whose frescoes can also be seen at the Palace of Versailles.
“When you arrive in houses that have no history left, you can do whatever you want,” comments Achkar. “But when you go into a historical house, you have a responsibility to be humble – most decorators are not; they want to put their marks wherever they can. But the people who were here before us were not idiots.” The importance Achkar places upon what he calls the “poetry” of a building makes it easy to see why he and Charrière have been chosen by the French government to oversee the restoration of the Hôtel de la Marine, on the Place de la Concorde and scheduled to reopen in 2020. And when Palestinian tycoon Munib al-Masri wanted to build a replica of Italy’s 16th century Villa La Rotonda, overlooking the city of Nablus, it was Achkar and Charrière he called. Their work was awarded in 2011 with the medal of honor on behalf of the Prince Louis de Polignac Foundation, which benefits from the high patronage of HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco.
Hôtel de Duc de Gesvres peeks through the covered passage – otherwise hidden from view – and is filled with artifacts amassed from more than 40 years of travels. Achkar left Lebanon 36 years ago for France when his father was killed in the civil war. The salons and chambers showcase 17th and 18th-century woodwork from the Rothschild palace at Louveciennes and a fireplace and wall sconces made by the artist Pitouen.
Among the various paintings, two portraits by French baroque artist Hyacinthe Rigaud feature the Duke of Berwick and the Duke of Noailles. Inside the library sits a golden clock by Cronier – the same model was offered to Queen Marie-Antoinette for her residence at the Trianon in Versailles. A 16th-century Mughal footrest is near a Louis XIV console and a red velvet daybed from the 17th century. The latter recalls the tradition of receiving guests lying down. It is one of the very rare such beds undamaged and with all its gold detailing intact. Near the French windows sits an alabaster Yemeni sculpture with arm up almost in friendly salutation; 2 300 years old, its ears are pierced and incredibly feature its original gold hoop earrings.
While Achkar’s dapper appearance suggests he applies the same attention to detail to his wardrobe as his work, he jokes that his passion for breathing new life into neglected buildings is at the exclusion of everything else. “I don’t spend my time buying shoes and shirts,” he says. “I’m going to antique dealers or auctions. I spend my time looking at the things that interest me.” Achkar’s influence, however, does extend to the realm of fashion. His niece is fashion journalist Tania Fares, who laid the groundwork for her own future as a powerful tastemaker as a child when she would accompany her uncle Joseph to the flea markets of Paris to trawl for furniture and art.
Is it possible to truly relax in a home filled with irreplaceable treasures? Achkar, clearly at his happiest when surrounded by beautiful things, seems surprised by the suggestion that he wouldn’t. “The most important thing in any house is to feel well,” he says. “In winter, when it is raining and you are alone, you should be able to sit in any room with a book and feel comfortable.” Nor do the museum-quality artifacts and painstakingly sourced antiques deter Achkar from entertaining – quite the opposite. “I love parties!” he exclaims. “But I’m lucky, I have people who help. I don’t have to see to the menu, or look at the small details,” he laughs. “If I did, I would never invite anyone.”
Originally published in Vogue Arabia December 2019 issue