Home Tour: Grandly Parisian Interiors by Joseph Karam

Francis Amiand

Is it possible to preserve the past while creating something entirely new? Paris-based interior designer Joseph Karam renovated a noble Haussmannian apartment to exude a timeless elegance that knows no boundaries.

Designer Joseph Karam always likes to create an immediate impact. “I love it when you enter a project and your heart starts racing,” he says. “You need to create an emotion from the get-go.” This apartment in Paris’s Eighth Arrondissement offers a perfect example. Its entrance hall is dramatic and visually striking. There are modern paintings by Georges Terzian and Claude Venard, a geometric marble floor, but barely any furniture. “I think it serves no purpose in an entry,” Karam declares. “Plus I like to have a museum-like feeling.” The pièce de résistance, however, is an imposing Roman statue from the third century B.C., installed in the apartment after many trials and tribulations. “It took two months to get the authorization from the municipal authorities to block the street to hoist it in through the window,” he recalls. Also the floor had to be reinforced to support its weight, a hefty two tons.

Karam is one of those under-the-media-radar designers who can boast of an extremely high-profile and discreet clientele that includes Middle Eastern princes, Russian oligarchs, and affluent Brits and Kazakhstanis. His projects have comprised palaces in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, a 65,000-square-foot residence outside Moscow, a ten-story building in Beirut for couturier Zuhair Murad, and some 20 villas at St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, in the south of France. The designer was born in 1947, in Beit Chabab, Lebanon, famous for its bell foundry. His father was an accountant. Karam, meanwhile, discovered an early love of drawing. “My childhood dream,” he says, “was to build the ideal villa.” He went on to study fine arts in Beirut and, after founding his own design practice in 1973, opened a furniture gallery called Kutch. Karam recalls traveling to France to acquire pieces just before the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war, only to have all his newly acquired stock lost. Although he never closed his office in Beirut, he moved to Paris permanently in 1978.

The owners of this Parisian apartment—a Saudi couple in their fifties with five children—are also well acquainted with the French capital. For nearly 20 years, they stayed at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée on Avenue Montaigne when in town. “It became their district, and when they decided to look for a flat, they insisted it should be nearby,” says Karam. It took five years to find the right one, but even at 4,850 square feet, this apartment was much smaller than what they had wanted. The broker clinched the deal, however, by pointing out that an adjoining flat would soon be for sale. When I met Karam this summer, he was preparing to knock the two together.

The apartment used to house the office of a fashion brand. Karam remembers seeing a large open space, white walls, and a ceiling fitted with acoustic plates and large projector lights. “They were like something you’d find in a theater,” he says. Karam ended up demolishing various walls but insisted on reinstating their cornices and keeping other architectural details that had remained. “I proposed that we keep the 19th-century Haussmannian spirit but furnish it with contemporary pieces,” he says.

To that end, Karam added yet more elaborate moldings, a pair of ribbed Greek columns, and an Art Nouveau-style stained-glass window. He introduced a touch of modernity with several contemporary design pieces, such as lighting by Hervé Van der Straeten and India Mahdavi and a mirror by Hubert le Gall. And he mixed them with Mathieu Lustrerie chandeliers in the sitting room that hang like oversized earrings, and a smattering of 20th-century design classics such as Harry Bertoia wire-framed chairs.

Throughout the home, Karam was keen to create a wow factor. “I like a sense of surprise—when you open a door and your jaw drops,” he declares. “For example, when you suddenly pass from a very minimalist atmosphere to a highly decorated one.” He added a gesture of that theatricality to the TV room with a red band of color that runs along the lower two thirds of the walls as well as the curtains. Yet, according to Karam, the most important space of all is the oval salon, accessible from the master suite or entrance hall. “It’s the only place in the whole apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower.”

Photo Credits: Francis Amiand