Ancient Wisdom

Designer Patrick Naggar's forte is melding allusions as diverse as Pharaonic Egypt and Classical Greece in a thoroughly contemporary way

There is a long and admirable tradition of nomadic design, but nobody expected it to resurface in the Rue Saint-Honoré or off Fifth Avenue until Patrick Naggar came along. No, he doesn't wear spurs, or pitch a yurt in the street; but he happily puts his tables on steamroller wheels or on little copper skis that slalom impishly across the carpet. The 52-year-old designer migrates freely between drawing, painting, furniture invention, interiors, and domestic architecture, yet all this scarcely suggests the extent of his wanderings. The scion of a family that has been rambling around the Mediterranean basin for centuries, he has one foot in Paris and another in New York; he's equally comfortable studying Oceanic hammocks or the tubular fittings of the French Line; and he has mastered the ventriloquial trick of speaking in two tongues at once: the eternal language of classical mythology and the 20th-century parlance of the machine aesthetic.

Naggar is dark, of medium height, serious but quick to smile, sincere, forthright in speech. He isn't an interior decorator, and in no way resembles what we in America think of as such. "What's dangerous is a lack of humility," he says. "I object to this idea that people have nowadays: 'I'm modern because I draw a line.' " Naggar himself does not draw a line: He can do classicism and minimalism simultaneously. He has created chairs whose backs mimic winged linden pods, screens mounted on roller-skate wheels, chaise longues like ancient war chariots. He has made a box, the Miroir Nord-Sud, partly of silver, that is at once an objet de vertu and a piece of evocative conceptualist art. It also tells a story (this is a Naggar hallmark) about the Northern and Southern skies and the different constellations that rule them.

When you walk into Naggar's Tribeca loft, you know at once that you are in an artist's studio because the space is crammed not only with furniture models and prototypes but also with drawings and paintings, which are generally characterized by a searching linearity. Threading your way through this clutter, you watch his personal obsessions, like the night sky, the Attic vase, and the horse, migrate from medium to medium; you see his favorite Egyptian or Greek inventions reappearing in modern dress, the chariot turning into the motorcycle, the buckler into the chrome-finished wheel.

At this point in his career, Patrick Naggar has a sterling reputation among design aficionados, though he remains unknown to the American public at large. That's almost certainly about to change. Represented for years by Neotu, a producer of limited-edition furniture that has also championed (among others) Garouste and Bonetti, Naggar has a steady stream of requests for some of his models, such as the Timaeus chest, with its ingenious riff on the Golden Section, or the Sepik River chair, with its exposed, South Sea Islands stitching. He's done scores of interiors, including an often-praised residence for Janet and Howard Stein of New York and a spectacularly inventive weekend apartment in a chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland, for Danielle and Daniel Varenne, which he created in partnership with a Paris associate, Dominique Lachevsky. He's also one of the few discussed by Yvonne Brunhammer, former curator of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the leading academic authority on 20th-century French design, in Volume II of her Le Mobilier Français, coauthored by Marie-Laure Perrin (Massin, 1998), which covers the period from 1960 to 1998.

Naggar was born in Egypt in 1947 to a French-speaking family that held Italian passports and had resided in the Near East for several generations. The family moved to France when Patrick was six years old, so his cosmopolitanism developed a French perspective. Nevertheless, he retains vivid memories of his earliest years and has returned several times to Egypt, which continues to fascinate him. (The name of the design firm that Naggar and American designer Terese Carpenter ran in New York from 1986 to 1997 was Nile, Inc.) To love Egypt is typically Gallic, and it's doubtful that any Frenchman, including Naggar, could separate his personal interest in ancient Egyptian art from the curiosity that has engrossed so many French minds since Bonaparte's Egyptian expedition of 1798. (Napoleon commissioned an exhaustive illustrated catalog of Egyptian antiquities—and Pharaonic motifs, already apparent in the later Louis styles, have regularly recurred in French furniture from the Empire period to the present day.)

Growing up in Paris, Naggar was naturally attracted to the visual arts; his father collected paintings, especially those of Vieira da Silva and Jean Dubuffet, and even hung serious works in his son's room. After graduating from high school Naggar studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, an experience that was both frustrating and rewarding. The school was perfectly situated—Saint-Germain-des-Prés was then an artistic and literary Mecca—but it required the student to put in many hours of rather old-fashioned drawing and rendering. "As much as I initially resented the Beaux-Arts training," Naggar told me, "I now see the advantage of it as a reference point." He went on to supplement his degree in architecture with a master's in urban studies from the Sorbonne.

Naggar was encouraged in his interests by French designer Andrée Putman, who is generally credited with helping to rediscover Jean-Michel Frank, the major French design talent of the 1930s, and Eileen Gray, the originator of ebullient furniture in le style "camping." In 1987 Putman's company, Ecart, picked up Naggar's Mercure Lamp design, which had originally been offered by Arc International in 1983, the year that the prominent furniture and picture dealer Didier Aaron urged him to come to the United States. Since then he has divided his time between Paris and New York.

What has come to distinguish Naggar's furniture design is his intuitive feeling for kinships and correspondences among three realms: function, classical antiquity or mythology, and, of course, beauty. Take, for example, his delightful little tables on slender copper skis. The first thing you notice, with some surprise, is that light furniture mounted on metal strips is perfectly practical—it glides smoothly over pile or coir carpets. It also evokes antiquity by making an implicit parallel with the ancient Egyptian technique of transporting stone blocks by putting them on rails and dragging them along tracks of moistened sand. And the eye's demand for beauty is satisfied not only by good lines and dimensions, but also by the sensuous affinity of copper and dark wood.

Naggar's Timaeus chest, a blocky piece with flush, pull-less drawers faced in glass, copper, and brushed aluminum, is at once a minimalist statement, a mating of industrial materials and an instance of the Golden Section (because this Greek ratio of harmonic proportions governs the relative dimensions of the drawers). The designer's two-wheeled chaise longue has inherently pleasing curves, acknowledges our practical wish to pull such recliners about—into patches of sunlight or shade—and also alludes, with its chariotlike shape and shieldlike wheels, to the world of the Iliad.

Since Naggar's feelings about contemporary furniture are extremely complex—he's a real French intellectual, of the lucidity-prizing variety—they cannot be easily summarized. One morning last fall, we met for coffee in a place near his studio, in Tribeca, and he got involved in an intense discussion of good and bad design. Trim, ardent, and very precise-looking in a black turtleneck, he threw himself into a brilliantly formulated exposition of his qualms about current decorative art. He takes you so quickly into his confidence—and has such a verbal command of the intricacies of his subject—that you almost fancy yourself in Paris rather than New York. You could be sitting in the great aula of the Sorbonne after a lecture, listening to a classmate hold forth.

Naggar's major bugbear is the habit among present-day designer—architects of quoting earlier forms for mere effect. Kitsch, he reminded me during one of our chats, is famously the style of periods that have no style, "a calculated shallowness of taste." Though I can never quite get Naggar to name what he hates—he sputters somewhat comically to a disgusted halt, his hands vainly mimicking the contours of some wildly detestable object—it's pretty clear that he is referring to what we call postmodernism. Perhaps because his own Mediterranean classicism is so natural, and so firmly rooted, he's dismayed when postmodern designers allude to antiquity in a cutesy way—quoting pediments and arches and capstones for which they possess no inner affinity. Naggar likes to say "function becomes form"— not that form slavishly follows function (which has seldom been true, anyway). Functional things, he argues, have an intrinsic equipoise, from which good form continuously borrows and to which it graciously alludes.

Naggar's finished work reflects his ability to draw incisively, both freehand and with the ruling pen. This is a talent rare among architects today, but the difference between design created by those who can and those who cannot draw is striking. Good drawing skills allow the designer to foresee cast shadows as well as the nuances of subtle lighting situations, to adjust color values, to balance the relationships between tricky curves and arabesques.

About 10 years ago, when Naggar redesigned a Manhattan apartment for a couple, it was just this quickness at visualization that won their complete trust. While restructuring the apartment he made such precise drawings that they knew exactly what he was proposing, and if they had an idea of their own, or wished to suggest a revision, he could readily sketch that too. "Working with him became such a marvelous pleasure," the couple recalled to me a few months ago; drawing was the everyday lingua franca in which the architect and his clients communicated.

More recently Naggar has built a house for the couple in Westchester County. This house has been the subject of a lot of hoopla, and for once it's justified. The clients, who own of one of the best collections of ancient art in the country, wanted to replace their existing house with one that reflected their love of classical antiquity. The site, overlooking a pond, rises gently out of a greensward in a parcel of rolling parkland. Though this setting was indisputably gorgeous the challenge that Naggar and his partner, Terese Carpenter, faced was how to create a mansion that would adhere to one of the Greek architectural orders while at the same time feeling inventive, contemporary, and domestic.

There has been a lot of neoclassical building in the past two decades, and most of it (especially the variety that's been championed in Britain by such architects as Quinlan Terry) is thoroughly disappointing. It is ill-proportioned, regressive, and unappreciative of the qualities of its historical models.

Naggar's Westchester villa is completely different: a temple type, with a symmetrical floor plan, Doric facade, cornice ornamented with triglyphs, and other neoclassical attributes, yet it remains confidently modern. His use of the Doric order is particularly telling. Architects know that this, the oldest and simplest Greek architectural style—fluted columns without bases, pillow capitals, a triangulated pediment—is actually an ancient form of minimalism, if by minimalism we understand an art whose grace depends on sheer interval, on mathematical proportion considered independently of decoration or figurative allusion.

As with certain Russian and Scandinavian manors, all the Doric architectural features are fashioned of precision-cut wood. "The Doric style imitated wooden prototypes," Naggar explains, "and I wanted to return to the wooden sources of classical architecture—I was learning all the time, not being precious." What he discovered in Westchester was how to align Doric restraint with his own very contemporary penchant for long leading lines, so that his spaces might feel both traditional and somehow fresh—exhilarating. Behind the front portico, for example, is a virtual curtain wall of glass, allowing the main hall, where the owners have placed evocative antique masks and pots, to be pierced by shafts of rosy west-light. Because no Greek room was ever actually like this, all the proportions have been conceived anew; the resultant spaces are as clean, airy, and unostentatious as most Greek Revival interiors of our Gilded Age are overdecorated, gaudy, and depressing. In short, the finished house does not simply quote from the classical vocabulary but consistently rethinks it; it therefore reverberates with allusions to ancient Greece while being entirely of our time.

I had the good luck to visit this house with my eight-year-old son, who was off from school that day. Though convinced that this would be the most boring afternoon of his life, he warmed instantly to the building and set about exploring every room and each piece of furniture, pulling Naggar's chariotlike chaise longue to a new position, opening and closing the handsome, heavy doors and exclaiming at the mysterious sources of light. For him the villa was half giant toy and half pleasure dome, and nothing pleased him more than the bathrooms, with their sumptuous juxtapositions of finely polished limestone and bronze, their mosaic floors, their grimacing mascarons; he found an arresting marble basin that turned out to be an inverted hollowed-out cone, modern and Cycladic at once. Of course, he couldn't know that Naggar's bathrooms whispered to me of the sensuality of the Roman bath, the tepidarium with its running water, its smooth, cool surfaces, its casual nakedness, its dreamy aquatic lounging.

In June 1997 Naggar was commissioned by the prominent New York chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud to design the interior for his restaurant, Daniel, which was being relocated to the former premises of Le Cirque, in the Mayfair Hotel, on 65th Street and Park Avenue. Boulud had seen the Westchester house and developed complete confidence in Naggar's taste. "He'd never done a restaurant," Boulud told me, "but he had the courage to take on the job, and I admired the sensibility of this man who was influenced only by his education and knowledge rather than by passing commercial concerns."

Walking through the cavernous, half-finished space of Daniel with Naggar one day last fall I got a solid idea of the challenge he was prepared to face. This was a landmarked interior, many of whose features had to be preserved; it had to work as a place in which to prepare, serve, and consume a great deal of elaborate food; and finally, the remodeling had to proceed as speedily as possible. A token of Naggar's ingenuity was his solution to the puzzle presented by the existing ceiling in the main dining room. It had attractive coffers, but they were studded with fussy, self-important rosettes. By repainting the surface in closely related shades of Venetian red, Naggar pulled it all together, giving it a vivacious, modeled terra-cotta appearance reminiscent of the red Samian wares of ancient Rome.

In the midst of this project, Boulud decided to open another, less formal restaurant, Café Boulud, and he commissioned Naggar to design this smaller space as well. This time Boulud wanted a sophisticated Parisian feel, mildly reminiscent of the 1930s. Naggar came up with a rather severe design that nods stylishly to Jean-Michel Frank. Particularly successful is the bar, a long, simple block of hammered steel.

Naggar, who travels widely, has with time become a visual polyglot. The phrase that comes to my mind whenever I consider his interiors is Xavier de Maistre's "un voyage autour de ma chambre," because to wander through Naggar's chambers and vestibules is always to set out on a voyage, an open-ended trek. Temples, horses, urns, galleons, star maps, obscure instruments of navigation or propulsion—the rooms in Gstaad, in Paris, and in New York shimmer with inklings of narrative, of picaresque journeys around a planet whose basic conditions and basic myths necessarily remain the same.

Patrick E. Naggar, Architect (189 Rue Saint-Honoré, Paris; 33-1-42-61-01-03), designs furniture for Neotu, 545 West 34th Street, Suite 3C, New York; 212-695-9404; fax 212-695-8405 (by appointment only) and Pucci International Ltd., 44 West 18th Street, New York; 212-633-0452; fax 212-633-1058.