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A Classic Paris Apartment Filled With Outré Design

THE EXHIBITION PRODUCER and private art dealer Olivier Renaud-Clément, 57, moved to New York City from Paris in 1988, never imagining that the lamps that lit his home and the chairs on which he sat might eventually become as important to him as the art that passed through his hands. Like many young creative types, he bounced from Manhattan apartment to apartment, accumulating few possessions, concentrating instead on running the Wooster Gardens gallery in SoHo with Brent Sikkema and later the photography department at the Robert Miller Gallery in Midtown. He understood the desire to own paintings, photographs and sculptures, but to covet tables and lighting? “I never imagined it,” he says.


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Then, in 1997, he and a friend, the French gallerist Lucien Terras, leased the former TriBeCa loft of the polymathic theater director and visual artist Robert Wilson, who had moved to a bigger space in the same building. Wilson’s new apartment, which the duo visited occasionally during their time there (Renaud-Clément moved out in 2001 and Terras in 2006), was filled with striking objects from a vast array of periods and styles that the now-80-year-old — best known for “Einstein on the Beach,” the 1976 opera he created with the composer Philip Glass — had amassed over the years. Wilson was a particular fan of chairs and owned hundreds, including versions by the French designers Charlotte Perriand and Philippe Starck, as well as avant-garde seating he had fashioned in materials like metal, wood, plumbing tubes and neon. (Much of his collection is now held at the Watermill Center, the Long Island arts organization Wilson founded in 1992.) “Living [there], I realized that there wasn’t any difference between design and visual art — it was the revelation that started it all,” says Renaud-Clément. “That, of course, and discovering Joe Colombo.”

Renaud-Clément can’t recall how much later he first encountered the late 1960s and early 1970s work of the bearded, pipe-smoking Milanese industrial designer, but Colombo’s daring contours and innovative materials immediately resonated. The irreverence and practicality of the Italian designer’s colorful oeuvre — among his best-known objects are trolleys with drawers that fold like origami and chairs with sections that can be nested for easy storage — radiated confidence and cool. “It seemed so Italian to me, so wild,” says Renaud-Clément. He had grown up with French architecture and décor, which had remained staid even during the widespread civil unrest of the late 1960s, so he was drawn to Italian design of that era, in which crayon-bright hues dominated and molded plastic — the quintessential modern material — had pushed aside the disciplined lines of postwar Modernists like Osvaldo Borsani and Gio Ponti.

A new generation of outré designers and architects became Italy’s philosophers; Colombo, who had begun as an Abstract Expressionist painter, was transforming Italian industrial design to reflect an age of protest. His work, including the cushiony 1963 leather Elda chair and the 1969 Tube chair, made from four graduated cylinders wrapped in vinyl, was refined yet had a populist swagger that evoked the factory floor. Colombo, who died in 1971 at the age of 41, “didn’t just talk the talk of Modernism, he really lived it,” says Renaud-Clément.

COLOMBO’S OBJECTS, AS well as those by his Italian contemporaries, including Cini Boeri, one of the era’s few famous female designers, and the husband-and-wife team of Tobia and Afra Scarpa, have since come to distinguish Renaud-Clément’s homes, from the 1,500-square-foot Long Island City, Queens, loft he bought in 2007 and sold a few years ago to his new Paris residence, a two-bedroom 14th Arrondissement apartment in a late 19th-century building into which he relocated during the pandemic. Over the years, he has become one of the leading collectors of Colombo’s work, especially his lamps in pale shades of snow and bone, which are rarer than the brightly hued pieces; much in the way Wilson focused on chairs, Renaud-Clément has acquired an encyclopedic lighting collection.

In his hyperminimalist white Long Island City loft, the few pieces on display (he keeps many of his works in storage) created an aura of eerie futurism. But in the Paris flat, the design objects and the minimalist contemporary art he has paired them with take on a different cast: Here, the works seem delicate and discreet against the herringbone parquet floors and the living area’s trio of tall arched windows, through which crisp sunlight pours on most days. It’s that light that caused him to return to Paris after decades abroad, he says, even though he still does most of his business in New York, where he produces shows for Hauser & Wirth. “Life is just easier here,” he says. “You can buy a perfect piece of fresh fish or a good baguette on every block — I got tired of how much energy it takes to live in New York.”

His career in exhibition design has taught him that even the most curated spaces require something unexpected. To signal straightaway that this is not just another tasteful French apartment, he hung at the entrance a white chintz curtain, which serves as a backdrop for a five-foot-tall mirrored pillar lamp by the contemporary designers Angelo Cortesi and Sergio Chiappa-Catto. The alabaster-painted living room has a more human scale, with a pair of low white leather Soriana lounge chairs by the Scarpas and a dove-colored Elda chair; they surround a square Colombo coffee table on which sits a clear acrylic and white aluminum King Sun lamp, designed by Gae Aulenti for Kartell in 1967. In the adjacent dining room, at the head of a 1968 custom dining table by Colombo for Zanotta, there’s a sculptural chair made from metal spindles that once decorated the Air Zaire lounge at J.F.K. airport. Above a white laminate and silver credenza by the German designer Horst Brüning hangs a rectangular 1970s glass sculpture by the midcentury kinetic artist Adolf Luther; the cabinet’s sliding doors reveal dozens of glasses by Colombo, including a famed set sculpted to enable a party guest to carry both a cigarette and a cocktail in the same hand.

That his art collection seems at home with his furnishings in a Beaux-Arts building is a testament to Renaud-Clément’s eye. On one living room wall is “Green Screen #1” (2003), a chartreuse color field photograph by the Boston-born artist Liz Deschenes, for whom Renaud-Clément helped organize a dual show with Sol LeWitt at the Paula Cooper Gallery in 2016; its shiny, supersaturated surface seems shocking in the monochromatic room. Likewise, his office, with a late 1950s desk by BBPR for Olivetti and rare lamps, including a 1971 telescoping work by the Italian duo Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, contains a diptych by the New York-based conceptual artist Roni Horn, as well as a colorful wall-hung textile work by the contemporary Brazilian artist Norberto Nicola.

Though the objects and art feel like they’ve been bought specifically for the place, Renaud-Clément acknowledges that this won’t be his last stop. To him, each move is a chance to create his next exhibition, one that allows his pieces to reveal something new. He has no idea how long he’ll stay, nor where he’ll land next. “You bring your whole self to the space,” he says, “and then, after a period, it’s time to reinvent everything. That’s what makes it art. That’s what keeps you alive.”

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