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de Libran wearing a Sonia Rykiel knit top, leather skirt, and boots. Céline white shirt.
For years Julie de Libran, artistic director of the fashion brand Sonia Rykiel, looked down from her kitchen window onto a squat structure in the courtyard below without a clue that one day she would be living in it. Early in their marriage, de Libran and her husband, Stéphane de Luze, moved into the apartment where he grew up – an airy place on the top floor of a grand 1908 building near Montparnasse. De Luze’s grandfather had run Larousse, publisher of the authoritative French-language dictionary. His father worked there, too, and for years Larousse stored boxes of dictionaries in a freestanding concrete archive in the courtyard of the building where the family lived.
A few years ago, de Libran decided the time had finally come to move. The apartment was wonderful, but she craved outdoor space. She had moved to Southern California from France as a young girl, and she connects emotionally with flora the way some people connect with animals. “I can sit and talk to plants,” says de Libran. “After being in the office all day, I need to be around vegetation.” Not to mention that the memories of her husband’s parents lingered in the apartment. “I wanted a place that was all ours.”
Exhaustive apartment hunting around the city yielded nothing. Then one day she was invited to have drinks in the former Larousse archive in the courtyard, which had been converted into a private home. “I said to Stéphane, ‘Wow, there’s a garden just downstairs!’ ” A short time later, the owner moved out and asked de Libran if she wanted it. Did she ever!
In the living room, a custom sofa by Charles Zana wears a Pierre Frey velvet. Patinated-bronze cocktail table and brass fireplace hood Also by Zana.
She showed me the space more than a year ago, when it was still a chantier – a construction site. (Our sons are best friends, and I often find myself stopping by for pickups and drop-offs.) De Libran walked me through it, describing exactly how she planned to order the vast empty space. She had already formed a clear picture of exactly how she wanted it to look, which not everybody can do. But then, she has spent years training her mind to see clothes that don’t exist, and moreover, she’s the daughter and the niece of interior decorators. That said, she did recruit AD100 architect Charles Zana to help execute her vision. (His first book, Charles Zana: The Art of Interiors, has just been published by Rizzoli.)
Out went all the little bedrooms the previous owner had made for her four children; up went the height once the drop ceilings were removed; and in went two gardens – a big one in the courtyard designed by Louis Benech, and a more private terrace around the back.
With its exposed steel beams, the result feels more like a New York loft than the Haussmanian jewel box she had upstairs, with its chiseled crown moldings. “It’s quite industrial,” de Libran notes. “This is not the typical French architecture that you find in Paris.” As Zana explains, a goal was “to maintain its original spirit, so we opened the spaces, uncovered the underlying brick and steel, and reoriented the house to the gardens.”
“I’m claustrophobic, so I needed as much space as I could get,” de Libran declares.
No risk of claustrophobia here. Open stairways connect the three floors of the residence in such a way that they flow easily into one another. “I insisted on keeping the stairway open so I could speak from upstairs to Stéphane or Balthazar [de Libran’s 12-year-old son] in the basement.” De Libran’s cousin Aurélien Raynaud designed the wrought-iron banister and is making a bronze finial for it in the shape of a coiled snake – he is what the French call an animalier, an animal artist.
The ground floor is basically one big room dominated by several massive pieces; there’s a large, somewhat separate, eat-in kitchen off to the side, but its double doors stay mostly open. A Danish bookshelf from the 1950s takes up one entire wall – de Libran found it years ago in the Paris flea market but never really had a place for it before. An enormous brass hood – conceived as a piece of sculpture, notes Zana – occupies another wall. Down the middle runs the longest sofa you have ever seen; designed by Zana, it’s split so that one side faces the fireplace, the other the back garden.
The room is still missing a critical piece, however – the right desk. “I haven’t really been able to find my space to sit down and sketch, so I’m sketching more at the office now,” says de Libran. She’s already seen one, a big, curvy Charlotte Perriand that she found at Downtown Gallery in Saint-Germain, another of her favorite haunts. “The moment I saw it, I thought, Oh, my gosh, that desk is so perfect to design my collections! But it costs a fortune. I’ll just have to wait.”
Decorating a house takes time. You have to live in it and experience it.
De Libran has carefully deployed many of the small pieces she has collected over the years – cool Willy Rizzo lamps, a melancholy bronze branch by the German artist Judith Hopf poking out of one wall, a swirling knot of bright blue feathers by the British sculptor Kate MccGwire. But nearly every time I visit, they’re in new spots. “I’m someone who likes to move stuff around,” she confesses.
Which isn’t to say that de Libran is dissatisfied. The big things are all in place, and on the way out we pass a rosebush in bud. “They’re about to bloom!” she exclaims with delight. “I don’t know if it’s an age thing, but these days I can be happy with just a rose.”