This weekend, the French ambassador’s residence in Washington is scheduled to host a soiree that represents a style and power trifecta.
France. Bloomberg. Vanity Fair.
The 1910 Tudor Revival residence in the Northwest Washington neighborhood of Kalorama— which reopened in February after a two-year, $4.5 million renovation — is ready for its close-up. Right after the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, the embassy residence is to be the setting for the lavish party thrown by Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, and Michael Bloomberg. Politicos, CEOs, Hollywood types and a few lucky journalists will Instagram selfies under the watchful gaze of Lafayette, Rochambeau and Georges (as it says on the brass plate under the 18th-century portrait) Washington.
Vive la France, indeed.
In a town full of impressive diplomatic digs, the ambassador’s residence, an elegant manor house with a massive entrance hall and grand staircase, abundantly reflects that country’s passion for history, culture and good living: Gilded Louis XVI console tables. Billowing silk curtains. Tall blue Sèvres vases. Artwork from Versailles and the Louvre. A room of sexy, low-slung modern sofas and beech tables. Limoges dinner plates set out on fine linen tablecloths.
Among its treasures are an elaborate rug in the Empire Salon dotted with crowns and bees and Napoleon’s imperial “N” in the center — inspired by an 1807 rug that was based on a design by Charles Percier, one of Napoleon’s architects.
The house still has the period antiques, busts, portraits and rich fabrics that are hallmarks of formal French decorating style.
But its new look incorporates more modern art, lighter walls and window treatments, and an unexpected lighting fixture of three large, illuminated gold links dangling in the vast entrance hall.
“The residence is much more important than the ambassador,” says the current envoy, Gérard Araud, 62, who arrived in September after a posting at the United Nations. “Everyone wants to know more about the house.”
The property, at the edge of Rock Creek Park, encompasses 3.6 acres. The house was designed by Jules Henri de Sibour, a Parisian-born American architect, for William Watson Lawrence, a paint magnate. The French government bought the property in 1936.
The house has a series of large reception rooms on the main floor, including the elegant dining room, formal Empire Salon, modern Winter Salon and a Salon des Boiseries, or paneled room, which leads to an elegant terrace out back. Upstairs is the ambassador’s private apartment and three guest rooms. The top floor has two more guest rooms.
But air conditioning units marred the beautiful facade, and the house was suffering leaks, sun damage and peeling paint. It also needed major electrical and plumbing updates and asbestos removal, according to Anne-Sophie Fries-Thebaut, an interior architect at the French Foreign Ministry’s Office of Cultural Heritage and Decoration who supervises the remodeling of ambassadors’ residences. That provided a good opportunity to restore and refresh the decor.
The goal, Fries-Thebaut wrote in an e-mail, was to give the reception rooms “a common thread, with the aim of telling a very French story.”
The furniture and most of the art is French, but it’s “the mixture of objects, furniture and paintings that are from different periods but are connected by shared stories that gives it a French feel,” she says. A bronze bust by Igor Mitoraj was placed under a 1935 Pierre Bonnard painting in the Empire Salon, for example. “Both of them evoke something vague, vaporous, veiled,” she says. She gave two classic Louis XVI chairs a modern twist by upholstering them in an iridescent shagreen patterned fabric. “I like to give old chairs a little jolt.”
Araud spotted the Regency Chain Link Light fixture by Carrie Livingston one day while walking down Madison Avenue. The ambassador, who isn’t afraid of wearing raspberry-colored socks with his well-tailored suits, enjoys dishing on design, art and pop culture. His partner, Pascal Blondeau, is a New York photographer.
On a weekend day not long after he moved to Kalorama from his temporary house on Foxhall Road, Araud says, he put on his jeans and toted armloads of books down to the Winter Salon, sometimes called the “Mad Men” room. He stacked volumes on French architecture, art and fashion on the coffee tables and consoles, creating a cozy space amid the splendor.
“In this house, you have layers in the life of each ambassador,” Araud says. “It’s not a museum. And although it’s a bit grand to be a home, it’s livable and reflects the different personalities who have lived here.”
Although he arrived late in the process to make major changes, he weighed in on paint colors, art and lighting. “My big success was the dining room,” he says. Instead of the beige paint that was set to go up, he picked a bolder citrus yellow along with some gray and white. It was too late to do anything about the room’s lighting — he thinks there may be too much crystal glittering over those dining in the elegant room. “Three Saint-Louis crystal chandeliers were hung up. I think one would have been enough,” Araud says.
His apartment upstairs is modern, he says, and the renovation added a small private kitchen. He would like to refresh the garden and is working on plans, “but the decline of the euro to the dollar is putting dents into our budget.”
Araud says the residence holds at least three evening events a week, plus breakfasts and lunches. Many nights, you’ll find him giving impromptu tours of the main rooms and musing that he probably should have ordered five links on that chandelier instead of three.
This weekend’s Vanity Fair-Bloomberg party is the sixth to be held at the property — during the renovation, the event took place at the Italian ambassador’s residence — and repeat visitors will be checking out the new decor. But much of the fine furniture will be moved out, carefully, to make room for and protect it from the 400 to 500 guests, according to Basil Walter, an architect and design consultant to Vanity Fair. “Each year the reputation of the party grows, and we end up taking out more furniture,” Walter says. “We do things differently to create a look and a feel. We often illuminate the trees and decorate the lawn and pool area so people can go outside.”
Walter says planning the party is a blast. “That house has real presence. It’s a difficult thing to take a historical building and mix contemporary art and modern gestures and still have it all work. But this house has great bones, and that’s what makes it easy to decorate and make festive.”
It will be the first Vanity Fair-Bloomberg party for Ambassador Araud. (See if it makes his Twitter feed: @GerardAraud.)
“When I lived in New York, I was always trying to mix all kinds of diplomats with business people and artists,” Araud says. “During my time here, I hope it will not only mean that getting an invitation to the French Embassy is a status symbol, but that this will also be a place to have fun.”
Jura Koncius covers home and design for The Washington Post.
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