A Thoroughly Mod Château

How do you transform an estate dating from the 12th century, in desperate need of repair, into the epitome of 21st-century style? Simone Girner reports from Pesselières, France.

Simply put, I am an artist," says the 45-year-old Paulin Pâris, "but I like to wear different hats." And the selection of chapeaux is endless: painter, sculptor, muralist, créateur. Perhaps even fairy-tale character, given that Pâris' carefully restored and exquisitely decorated Château de Pesselières might have sprung from the pages of the Brothers Grimm. Here, this singular Frenchman creates art that effortlessly bridges the gap between sophisticated grown-up reality and childhood fantasy. "The world we live in is often too serious," he says. "Imagination and dreams are so important. They are the essence of what I do."

Although he maintains apartments in New York and Paris, as well as a house in Venice Beach, California, his muse and atelier are in the sleepy village of Pesselières, 130 miles south of the French capital in France's central Berry region. "Finding this place was pure chance," says Pâris. "I wasn't really looking for something quite as big." However, following the purchase of the sand-colored château at auction, he and Valérie Morien—the artist to whom he was then married—took possession of the property, complete with water-filled moat, pointed turret, and 18 rooms that were desperately in need of renovation.

Thanks to the meticulous attention and creativity of the two artists, it requires a healthy imagination to believe that the state of the place at the time of acquisition was as misérable as Pâris describes. Now, in room after room, from stone-tiled kitchen to blue-, red-, and violet-striped tower chamber, behind every heavy curtain or low doorframe, one discovers yet another marvel. The musty downstairs hallway, with its dark wood paneling, leads to a festive salon with beautifully painted ceiling beams and gold-beige murals depicting scenes from a 15th-century Venetian novel. Passing through a small room containing a daybed and oversized painting, you are completely unprepared for the next room, done in carmine, the color intensified by its reflection in a large gilded mirror. Up a creaking wooden staircase is a startlingly white bedroom decorated with a few well-chosen sculptures, drawings, and furs draped dramatically over antique chairs. Pâris' orderly office with its colorful wallpaper showcases paintings and collages dating from different periods of his career. But your gaze is immediately drawn to a modest drawing hanging next to the doorframe—the artist's delightful colored-pencil portrait of his parents, done when he was eight.

"From early on art played a big part in my life," Pâris admits. Yet he never seriously considered art as a profession, despite being born into a family of Parisian painters and attending after-school drawing classes ("but only as a hobby"). Instead, he studied philosophy. Realizing that a Ph.D. would limit him to a lonely life in academia, he eventually enrolled in the prestigious Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts as well as Van Der Kellen, Brussels' decorative-arts institute. Even in school, Pâris had difficulties settling on one medium. He studied murals, explored various painting techniques, sculpted in clay and plaster; later he learned about textile and fabric design. "I knew that not focusing on one style would be challenging," he says, "because people have a hard time remembering exactly what you do. They get confused."

There was nothing confusing about Pâris' first big commission, which came a few years after he finished his studies in 1982: collaborating with the stylish designer Adam Tihany on a mural for New York's then trendy restaurant Alo Alo. "I will eternally love the United States for this opportunity," says Pâris. "If you have the right idea at the right moment, Americans are ready for you. Considering my age and lack of professional experience, a first commission like that would have been impossible in France."

Seventeen years later, Pâris' innovative murals can be found in luxurious homes as well as commercial spaces. Although his work is characterized by subdued colors and precise drawing, each mural is unique and carefully tailored to the space's size, layout, and atmosphere. Take for instance the black-and-white drawings in Valentino's Milan showroom, the faux-marquetry on the walls of Monte's Club in London, and the stunning mural of Venice in New York's Remi restaurant. Explaining his philosophy, Pâris says: "The most important thing is to listen when you enter a space. If you do not pay attention to what it tells you, then you will create something artificial, something that suffocates the natural beauty of the place."

Eight years ago, according to Pâris, the natural beauty of Château de Pesselières was hidden to most eyes by 30 years' accumulation of dirt, dust, neglect, and heavy 19th-century decoration. In this case, listening to the space meant freeing it of low, faux ceilings, uncovering its original stone floors, and allowing natural light to flow into the rooms. Pâris remembers a heavy buffet placed in front of a window in one of the downstairs salons: "It was so somber in here, and as soon as we moved the piece the space became luminous."

He is excited by different light qualities; this explains his many studios. "The painting process starts not with the first brushstroke," he explains, "but with the decision of which room to paint in." Some of the ateliers are scattered with unfinished canvases, others with roughly formed clay sculptures, outlines, photographs, meticulous sketches, and notes. These works in progress lie on tables and stripped floorboards, waiting to become part of the tale. "Artistically speaking, the château is invaluable," says Pâris. "Here I'm able to process old techniques and experiment with new ones; it is truly my laboratory."

Pâris' ability to use traditional techniques to create something completely original is abundantly evident in his murals. Here one sees how acrylic and imagination can transform flat walls into artistic wonderlands. Though never realistic in their colors or themes, Pâris' murals demonstrate an exquisite precision in the rendering of characters and places: A ballerina balancing en pointe on the back of a horse; a sleek panther prowling above a doorframe; colorful banners fluttering near a knight on horseback; above a pool, swimmers floating in space. There are artful arabesques and draped curtains, solemn-faced figures from mythology, labyrinths of vegetation, fanciful gardens sprouting all manner of shrubbery. "The main challenge," says Pâris, "is not to repeat myself, because without the element of surprise the work loses its soul."

Painted on a dry white background, and therefore technically not frescoes, these pieces are more than mere decorative backdrops. They beckon us to an imaginary place beyond the realm of accepted reality. "The world is always younger than the vision we have of it," says Pâris. When asked about those who influenced him, he immediately names three artists who also spent their lives challenging and reshaping the public's gaze: Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and David Hockney.

Despite the majestic kings and charming princesses, the juggling circus artists and glowing Venetian night skies, Pâris' murals are hardly the product of whimsy. For his Remi mural, he spent many days in Venice, sketching and photographing its canals and bridges. For the mural at Le Cirque in Las Vegas, he attended numerous circus performances before discovering a family-run show that served as his main inspiration. "After the research is complete, I outline, draw, and finally paint every last inch in small scale," says Pâris, who always works with a team of painters. "By the time I begin the actual wall, half the work is already done." It usually takes a few weeks to two months to complete a large mural. (The 120-foot-long Remi mural had to be finished in less than two weeks, so Pâris is also able to meet a tight schedule.)

Since he spends so much of the year traveling, having the château as a creative and personal base is important to Pâris. Between projects, which currently include the murals of yet another Le Cirque (this one in Mexico City), he always returns to Pesselières. Not only for introspection and inspiration, but also because the château itself remains a work in progress. "The point is not for it to be finished," says Pâris. "The beauty of this place is its fluidity." He sets up studios all over the property, working on paintings in an upstairs atelier, on clay in the salon, on mural sketches in a cottage near the courtyard. When light, weather, and his mood change, he will shuffle everything around, perhaps turning an atelier into a bedroom for a month. He alters the decor just as readily. "Sometimes I wake up and just know that a room is ready for something new," he explains. The most recent addition is a dramatic blue mural in the bathroom, which creates the illusion of being underwater. "The fact that there is way too much space," he says, "creates a lot of room for imagination. The possibilities are countless."

Navigating between fantasy and reality, between his château and the rest of the world, Pâris has been blessed in his life and profession. Of course he has the talent, and he's worked hard. But serendipity, that element of chance, has played its part. "Actually, I believe that luck is always there," he says. "You just have to pay attention." Spoken like a true prince charming.

To contact Paulin Pâris: In France, 33-2-48-72-94-39; fax 33-2-48-72-94-57. In the United States, 310-821-7377; fax 425-920-9427.


The Château Look and How To Get It

Every item in Pâris' château has a story. Some pieces were inherited (an antique lamp with glass base, for example, was given to his grandmother by Sarah Bernhardt's granddaughter). But many were discovered in boutiques such as those he shares with us below:

LE PETIT SAINT OUEN Don't be fooled if the antique linens in this shop don't look old. "Many of them were dowries," explains Pâris, "which means they were seldom used. I have a set dated 1870 and it looks brand-new." The sublime quality, of course, hails from another era. Le Briou, 18300 Crezancy-en-Sancerre; 33-2-48-79-02-35.

ATELIER CLAUDE GAGET Central Berry is world-renowned for its handmade ceramics, and owner Gaget is one of the region's master craftsmen. Particularly beautiful are his figurine water pitchers, which decorate Pâris' own dinner table. La Borne, 18250 Henrichemont; 33-2-48-26-95-71.

DECORATEUR ERIC CHAILLOU The owner of this shop in scenic Bourges has worked in decorative arts for more than 15 years. Recently Chaillou, who stocks well-chosen period pieces, expanded his shop to include contemporary designs, such as the furniture of artist Rémi Grillet. Pâris points out that Bourges itself is worth visiting for the beauty of its Old City, especially its magnificent cathedral. 76 Rue Bourbounnoux, 18000 Bourges; 33-6-11-71-88-47.

ZUBER Founded in 1797, Alsace's Zuber is the oldest wallpaper manufactory in France. The company, which still uses 200-year-old wood-block printing techniques, has gorgeous 19th-century motifs that can be printed on wallpaper or fabric. 33-3-89-44-13-88; fax 33-3-89-65-52-22. (A wallpaper museum, Le Musée du Papier Peint, is on the same street. 28 Rue Zuber, 68170 Rixheim; 33-3-89-64-24-56; fax 33-3-89-54-33-06.) Showroom: 5 Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire, 75003 Paris; 33-1-42-77-95-91; fax 33-1-42-77-17-98. Zuber also has showrooms in New York and Los Angeles.

MARCHE SERPETTE The many antiquaires in Saint Ouen's Marché Serpette can easily overwhelm, but for Pâris the choice is simple: Olivier d'Ythurbide and Bernard Duchateau. "When there I rarely miss an opportunity to see what new items they have," he says. D'Ythurbide specializes in 18th- and 19th-century furniture and objets. 110 Rue des Rosiers, 93400 Saint Ouen. Olivier d'Ythurbide: 33-1-40-12-82-91; fax 33-1-40-12-40-54. Bernard Duchateau: 33-1-40-11-97-15.

MAISON MARIN "This family-owned shop carries a wonderful selection of art supplies, everything you need for a creative project," says Pâris. About a mile south of Paris. 70 Avenue Gabriel Peri, 94115 Arcueil; 33-1-47-40-04-20; fax 33-1-47-40-93-99.