Creating a Conn. retreat that serves as showcase

The architect/interior designer and partner filled it with antiquities and eclectic furnishings.

Posted: July 13, 2007

Robert Couturier never imagined he'd set down roots in any particular place. The Paris-born architect/interior designer changed Manhattan apartments roughly 15 times in 30 years. His work for an international roster of celebrity clients keeps him globetrotting from France, Austria and Mexico to all over the United States.

"I like change," Couturier says.

But 10 years ago, things really changed for him. He met Jeffrey Morgan, an architectural restorer whose family ties to Connecticut stretch back generations. Morgan had deep roots in the northwestern part of the state, and Couturier made a visit.

"I came out on a July Fourth weekend, and we walked these woods," he says, gesturing with the tip of his umbrella around a 10-acre lakeside expanse in South Kent. The property came on the market some time later, and Couturier and Morgan, who owned a farmhouse across the street, bought it.

Over three years, the pair transformed the wooded lot into a stunning European-style retreat, a neoclassical petit chateau designed by Couturier with gleaming white walls, oversize windows, terraced patios, formal gardens, and a stretch of cobblestone driveway. The home is classical in appearance but unconventional in structure, its twin pavilions connected by a third, a shape resembling the top of the letter H.

The house serves as a retreat for Couturier and Morgan and their two Shih Tzus, Henriette and Bess. It also functions as a showcase and laboratory for Couturier, whose work has been featured in House & Garden and Vanity Fair, and who is on Architectural Digest's list of the top 100 designers.

Couturier has been sketching, designing and planning three-dimensional space since he was a child. "I'm a born interior designer," he says, recalling days as a bored schoolchild when he would piece together two sheets of paper, cutting holes in the top page to make windows and doors.

Whether he is designing a hacienda in Mexico or an apartment on New York's Sutton Place, his spaces reflect a seemingly effortless juxtaposition of eclectic furnishings. Roman antiquities mix with British, Dutch, Chinese and French antiques, contemporary pieces and, thanks to Morgan's influence, a few early American finds.

A case in point is their grandly scaled living room, where the designer has combined a 1600s walnut Louis XIII armoire, large geologic crystals that formerly belonged to Elizabeth Arden, a luxurious French daybed, Utrillo's painting of the cathedral at Reims, an antique Persian carpet, and two matching contemporary coffee tables by Jean-Michel Frank, whom Couturier names among his greatest influences.

It has been said that Couturier's style is unrecognizable, his "signature" hard to discern, and nothing could please him more. "It's like speaking five different languages," he says. "You just have to be fluent in each, and you choose what you prefer."

Couturier's fluency may have something to do with why his interiors appear to have existed for centuries even as they belong entirely to the present.

Achieving the look takes a sizable bank account, but there are general decorating principles that can be applied on any sort of budget.

Throughout Couturier and Morgan's 4,000-square-foot home, the designer has painted the majority of the walls in neutral off-white tones, with pale green to highlight the trim. The bright, vivid colors in Couturier's rooms tend to come from fabrics and carpeting - the bold stripe of the master bed's canopy, the stunning French curtain panels hand-embroidered by Lesage in the formal dining room, the warm rose and orange in the living room carpet.

Couturier largely eschews oversize upholstered pieces. "Too much upholstered furniture always looks decorated," he says.

Unifying his interiors is a common thread of refinement and carefully wrought symmetry, so that each space is an expression of balance that soothes the eye and suggests stability and harmony.

He prefers furnishings that come with a story - which becomes as important to him and Morgan as the piece itself. Utrillo's 1916 depiction of the cathedral at Reims was painted "just as the Germans were on the border of the city," Couturier says. Just after the painting was completed, the cathedral burned.

Two chairs in the master bedroom can be traced to Marie Antoinette's bathroom, and Morgan delights in telling guests how he throws his clothes on them.

The quality of the furnishings notwithstanding, Couturier and Morgan refuse to create the atmosphere of a museum in their home. The dogs play on the couch; the Frank coffee tables bear stains from a recent luncheon.

("Oh well, what can you do?" Couturier says with a bemused sigh.)

"Most clients, it's difficult for them to understand," he says. He laments what he calls some people's "excessive respect for furniture."

"You want to tell them, 'It's only an armchair.' "

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