Thierry Despont’s “Le Cabinet de Curiosites”

Richard Mitchell

The architect’s fantastical new exhibition.

Thierry Despont has been at the top of the architecture world for decades. A native of Limoges, France, transplanted to New York, he creates houses for those who not only want the best but are also wise enough to recognize it when they see it. After completing dozens of private homes, Despont added museums (the Getty Center in L.A.) and grand hotels (Claridge’s in London) to his résumé. These days his dossier includes renovating The Ritz in Paris, which, to discerning travelers, is like saying he is refreshing the pyramids at Giza, Egypt. Then again, Despont could probably handle Giza.

At the same time, he has a second, less-well-known career making art based on his lifelong fascination with the cosmos. First came Despont’s paintings of imaginary planets, oversized canvases with supersaturated colors that suggest Jackson Pollock spattering the moon. Then came his menagerie of bizarre creatures—inhabitants of the same planets—cobbled together from old machine parts, farm tools and other Industrial Age throwaways. Despont buys most of his raw materials not at Paris’s Clignancourt but through his other favorite flea market, eBay.

To some observers, the second career raised eyebrows. Weren’t the artworks—particularly the sculptures made of Internet detritus—a bit outré for a “society” architect? How could someone versed in the intricacies of marquetry and passementerie, who spent years drawing plaster casts at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris (before going on to study urban design at Harvard University), make sculptures from rusty wrenches, worn-out tractor seats and pulleys?

It’s unlikely that Despont noticed the raised eyebrows; at this point in his career, after all, he has nothing left to prove. Still, anyone who thought there was a disconnect between his architecture and his art owes it to Despont to consider his latest exhibition, which fills part of a 19th-century commercial building near his office in New York’s TriBeCa. There, Despont created rooms worthy of the castles and palaces of Europe (using ornate walls salvaged from precisely such places) and then installed dozens of artworks made or chosen for the space, including several of his paintings and scores of his “creatures.”

When he was done, what he calls “Le Cabinet de Curiosités” was not only a great willful act of the imagination but also one of the most astounding exhibitions since Alexander McQueen commandeered Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The resonances—between art and design, new and old, rough and refined, space and space (the celestial kind)—are so powerful, you can’t help calling everyone you know and telling them to get to 6 Harrison Street, pronto. What Despont has done is to show how, in proper curatorial hands, some of the most diverse objects and styles can create an astonishingly satisfying whole.

The project, which Despont began planning about a year ago after contemplating a cabinet of curiosities for quite some time, required just the right collaborations. His first partners were New York’s Marlborough Gallery and the Steinitz Gallery, on Paris’s Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré, which sells la crème de la crème of French antiques. Given carte blanche to transport parts of the Steinitz cache across the ocean, Despont selected several pieces associated with Napoléon Bonaparte (including the emperor’s wood- and leather-topped map table) and a few showstoppers by André-Charles Boulle, along with rarities like a black-lacquered Japanese chest (which was at the fabled British estate of Chatsworth, Despont says, explaining the origin of its William Kent–inspired base).

The next collaborator was the Chilean painter Claudio Bravo, known for his astonishingly realistic portraits of everything from engine blocks to sheets of aluminum foil. Bravo, who lived and worked in Taroudant, Morocco, created trompe l’oeil paintings that helped deepen Despont’s layering of illusion upon illusion. “If I ever designed a chapel, that would be the triptych,” says Despont, pointing to a trio of wrapping-paper paintings. Bravo died last year, shortly before the “Cabinet” opened, adding poignancy to the profundity of his contribution.

The other collaborator was the Spanish-born artist Manolo Valdés, whose works in wood recall the sculptures of Martin Puryear but, in many cases, reinterpret figures from Diego Velázquez (adding layers of delicious confusion to Despont’s real and imagined histories).

Despont arranged the pieces in three large rooms—an enfilade at the top of a grand stairway. “Obviously, you’re not in an 18th-century palace,” he says, leading a visitor past a chair made for Napoléon’s coronation, which was paired with a six-foot-tall mutant grasshopper. But if it is obvious, that’s only because you know Nobu is just around the corner; inside “Le Cabinet de Curiosités,” it isn’t clear where you are—or when. Perhaps that’s because you are inside his imagination.

Despont describes the dream-like installation as “the natural history museum of a made-up world.” Inventing the world meant he also invented its rules. “In a real museum, you’re not going to show a butterfly next to a sperm whale,” he says. In his museum, however, the contrasts are even more pronounced than that—Napoléon meets Boulle meets bargain basement. Since the pieces are for sale, you could take home anything in the show, but what you should take home is Despont’s way of seeing.

Thierry Despont: The Details

Thierry Despont’s “Le Cabinet de Curiosités,” at 6 Harrison Street, New York, is on view through February 29. To learn more about the artists featured in the show, go to marlboroughgallery.com. For details on Despont, go to despont.com.