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Fleshing Out the Getty

Thierry Despont was charged with designing the interiors of the galleries (and adding color to the modernist campus wrought by Richard Meier).

August 25, 1996|Karrie Jacobs | Karrie Jacobs is an architecture critic based in New York. and

NEW YORK — As the 20th century draws to a close, we seem to have entered a more forgiving period, aesthetically speaking. The heated conflict between those who believe that ornament is, as Viennese architect Adolf Loos once put it, "crime" and those who hunger for floral motifs and cornices has lapsed into a state of deetente.

A case in point: the Getty Center, which perches the ridge line of the Santa Monica Mountains like an over-nourished Italian hill town. The Getty Museum, and the rest of the buildings on the 24-acre campus, were designed by die-hard modernist Richard Meier but are a departure from the architect's Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills or his Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona. Those institutions, like most Meier museums, are done inside and out in Meier's trademark white. Not just plain old white, but the white of 1950s kitchen appliances; a white that is commonly described as "crisp." Not so the Getty. Its exterior is clad largely in travertine stone the color of whole wheat toast.

Inside the galleries of the Getty Museum's five pavilions, the Meier palate would dictate a white so cool that it feels as if the artworks were not just displayed, but refrigerated. However, inside this museum, there will be rooms that display antique furniture against orangey velvet wall fabric or paintings against plaster that has been tinted a deep blue-gray.

Meier, the modernist, has been joined in the interior design of the Getty Museum by another architect, classicist Thierry Despont, a man deeply immersed in a dream of another century.

That the Getty has brought in Despont to soften Meier's hard edges, to make a group of somewhat astringent late 20th century buildings hospitable to the overripe furniture of 18th century France and the subtly hued drawings of Renaissance masters, has won the project no new friends in the architectural press. "An astonishing loss of nerve," grumbles Martin Filler in Architecture Magazine.

John Walsh, director of the Getty Museum, shrugs off such slights. He insists that the interior design "was never even an issue. We wouldn't have hired him [Meier] if there was any thought of it being a white museum inside."


Thierry Despont is the exact opposite of Richard Meier. The interiors he concocts for his immensely wealthy clients are a swirl of highly focused, carefully edited clutter. He harvests objects from history and carefully juxtaposes them: an indoor pool surrounded by a colonnade features a simple toy sailboat floating on still water; a chaise such as Thomas Jefferson might have owned becomes the centerpiece of a lavish marble bathroom; a freshly constructed 18th-century-style house is decorated with custom-woven copies of 200-year-old fabrics and dotted with antique globes.

Despont and his 40 employees work in a 1920s building that was once a bank in Manhattan's TriBeCa neighborhood, just down the street from Robert De Niro's small empire of stylish restaurants. The lobby is dominated by a pedestal-mounted model of an impossibly vast house designed for a client in Palm Beach, Fla. You have to look behind it to find the receptionist. A separate pedestal holds a scale model of a private screening room for a different house in Palm Beach. It is an Art Deco fantasia outfitted with plush, streamlined armchairs, quilted walls and a gold-leafed ceiling.

That Despont and Meier are working on the same project is nothing short of amazing. Imagine if Frank Lloyd Wright had designed a museum and collaborated on the interiors with Julia Morgan, architect of San Simeon.

Despont tells a story about going to visit Meier for the first time, walking into the architect's pure white office with Getty Museum director Walsh. Despont brought along a fabric sample, a florid red damask. Walsh, Despont recalls, cautioned him: "Thierry, this is like a grenade."

Walsh's memory of the moment is slightly different: "I said, 'Thierry, no terrorist tactics, please.' " Despont, however, has no need for extreme tactics. A slim man with an intelligent face dominated by a pair of thick-framed, mustard-hued tortoise shell glasses, he possesses the quick smile and easy charm that are as vital to the success of a designer as a good eye. At lunch, while cheerfully devouring a thin-crust pizza that has anchovies the way a Busby Berkeley routine has chorus girls, Despont declares: "I have always been happy and lucky."


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