Thierry Despont, 75, Dies; Brought Elegance to Prestigious Properties

Thierry Despont, 75, Dies; Brought Elegance to Prestigious Properties

08/20/2023

Thierry Despont, the worldly, erudite French architect and designer whose rich sense of history and heritage brought a refined elegance to the grand homes of industry titans like Bill Gates and Calvin Klein, as well as to the restoration of landmark projects like the Statue of Liberty, the Woolworth Building and the Ritz Paris, died on Aug. 13 at his home in Southampton, N.Y. He was 75.

His death was confirmed in a statement provided by his family. No cause was specified.

A native of Limoges, France, Mr. Despont moved to New York in 1980 and quickly rose to a position of influence in the global architecture and design world. He was an officer of the Legion of Honor, the highest French honor, and was named to the Architectural Digest AD100 2023 Hall of Fame.

His low-key demeanor belied the grandeur of his monumental projects, which included restoring the Vendôme Column in Paris and refurbishing the Carlyle hotel, the Palm Court at the Plaza and the flagship Cartier store on Fifth Avenue in New York, as well as storied hotels in London including Claridge’s, the Beaumont and the Dorchester. He also drew acclaim for his transformation of the Battery Maritime Building at the southern tip of Manhattan into the sumptuous private club Casa Cipriani.

But even in his most illustrious buildings, sheer opulence was not the point. “I like to create a small universe,” he said in a 2015 interview with Vanity Fair. “From the master plan to the doorknobs, from the trees planted outside to the way people will sit and eat and dance inside, you create and control a whole microcosm.”

Given the scale of his grandest projects, “macrocosm” might be a better word. He designed Mr. Gates’s 66,000-square-foot lakefront house in Medina, Wash., known as Xanadu 2.0, and Mr. Klein’s 8.5 acre spread in East Hampton, which sold for a reported $85 million two years ago.

Among his more publicized projects was his remodeling of the Herbert N. Straus House, a cavernous 30-room townhouse on East 71st Street in Manhattan, for the retail billionaire Leslie Wexner.

“Thierry designs houses that are an homage to the client,” his friend Martha Stewart said in a 1999 interview with The New York Times Magazine. “He’s really designing for a king.”

As Mr. Despont put it in a 2016 talk at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York, “There has never, never been a great house without first a great owner.”

For more than 30 years, he designed the interiors and exterior details for several homes belonging to his friends Millard S. Drexler, the retailing baron, and his wife, Peggy.

In a phone interview, Mr. Drexler praised Mr. Despont’s timeless sensibility, which he compared to his own taste in apparel. “Like with schmattas,” said Mr. Drexler, the chief executive of Alex Mill and formerly of the Gap and J. Crew, “you design things that feel special, unique and high-quality, but with a vision of never going out of style, that can be worn forever.”

The important thing for Mr. Despont, Mr. Drexler added, was creating a design that celebrated the unique history and character of a property. For the couple’s vineyard estate in St. Helena, Calif., Mr. Despont installed green and yellow glass windows to accentuate the golden California landscape and the leafy rows of vines.

For their 5.7-acre oceanfront compound in Montauk, N.Y., which formerly belonged to Andy Warhol, Mr. Despont created a rustic fishing-village charm using simple, sturdy antiques and homey touches like vintage linen slipcovers. The Drexlers sold the compound for $50 million in 2015.

“The interiors he concocts for his immensely wealthy clients are a swirl of highly focused, carefully edited clutter,” the architecture writer Karrie Jacobs wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 1996.

Mr. Despont’s own TriBeCa pad was one that stood proudly among those of his well-heeled clients: a 10,000-square-foot townhouse with plaid-print walls in the billiard room and Art Deco curves on custom alpaca sofas.

His affable personality and Old World charm placed Mr. Despont in high regard in New York society; he chafed, however, at being described as a “society decorator.”

A gentleman aesthete in the European tradition, he was an accomplished sculptor and watercolorist who displayed and sold his work in New York and Europe. He collected antique maps, stocked his bookshelves with leather-bound volumes of French history and literature, and expressed a particular appreciation for the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu’s recital of Schubert’s “Moments Musicaux.”

“With a slight patina of age — a dash of gray at the peak, a few laugh lines — he cuts an impressive silhouette in a black three-piece suit,” Julie V. Iovine wrote in a 1997 profile in The New York Times.

In tat profile, Gillian Wilson, a former curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where Mr. Despont collaborated with the building’s architect, Richard Meier, on the design of multiple galleries, was quoted as calling him “disgustingly charming — part matinee idol, part Louis XIV.”

Thierry Guy Despont was born in Limoges on April 19, 1948, the eldest of four children of Guy and Francette (Breuil) Despont.

While he drew an early appreciation for the aesthetic possibilities of buildings from his father, an architect, his design sensibilities were born of his earliest memories of his grandfather’s bucolic farmhouse.

“I do believe we all have inside us some memories, some images, of a house, a window, a shaded porch, of a tree that we are trying to recapture later on,” he said in his Alliance Française talk. His memories of the farmhouse, he said, reminded him of a favorite line from a novel by Rainer Maria Rilke: “It is not a complete building, but broken pieces inside me; a room here, a room there, and then a piece of hallway that does not connect these two rooms.”

“Each project that I do for my clients,” he said, “is a piece of this dream house that I have inside of me.”

He received a degree in architecture from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1972 before moving to the United States, where in 1975 he earned a master’s degree in urban planning from Harvard University.

Mr. Despont began his career at the architecture firm Llewelyn Davies, working on a redesign of the city center in Tehran for the shah of Iran.

Before long, he set his sights on the American capital of architecture, New York. “New York has this sense of freedom and possibility,” he said in a 2017 interview with The New Yorker. “This mix of culture and race from all over the world. It’s wonderful.”

He opened his own architecture firm in the city in 1980. Four years later, he made his mark as the associate architect on the centennial restoration of the Statue of Liberty, a two-year, $60 million project that involved 400 engineers, artisans and other workers.

“That project taught me that you need to learn as much as you can about a structure before you touch it,” Mr. Despont told Vanity Fair. “We spent years drawing it, figuring out how it was built. That structure was absolutely brilliant. You cannot practice architecture without knowing history.”

Mr. Despont is survived by his wife, Barbara von Bismarck; his sisters, Catherine Bardon, Véronique Burki-Despont and Nathalie Bacholle; his daughters, Catherine and Louise, from his marriage to Ann Robinson, which ended in divorce in 1995; his stepsons, Konstantin and Alexander von Bismarck; and a grandson.

As with his glittering homes and hotels, his goal in life was to leave a mark that endured.

In his 1996 interview with The Times, Mr. Despont discussed his admiration for Nicolas Fouquet, a finance minister for King Louis XIV who famously built the spectacular Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte near Paris. The king later imprisoned Mr. Fouquet for crimes including stealing from the state and plotting to overthrow the government.

But perhaps Mr. Fouquet’s dire end was not the point to dwell on, he said: “He had achieved his immortality, so who cares what happened after that?”

Alex Williams is a reporter in the Obituaries department. More about Alex Williams

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