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Christian Liaigre, minimalist interior designer, dies at 77
A triplex in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood designed by Christian Liaigre for Wendi and Rupert Murdoch, Oct. 6, 2005. Liaigre, a French interior and furniture designer whose muscular and elegant objects in wood, bronze and leather were emblematic of 1990s minimalism, and whose influential clients included Karl Lagerfeld, Calvin Klein, Rupert Murdoch, Larry Gagosian and the Mercer hotel in SoHo, died on Sept. 2, 2020, in Paris. He was 77. Fred Conrad/The New York Times.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Christian Liaigre, a French interior and furniture designer whose muscular and elegant objects in wood, bronze and leather were emblematic of 1990s minimalism, and whose influential clients included Karl Lagerfeld, Calvin Klein, Rupert Murdoch, Larry Gagosian and the Mercer hotel in SoHo, died Sept. 2 in Paris. He was 77.

His design firm, Liaigre, announced his death on Instagram without specifying the cause.

Liaigre (pronounced lee-AY-gruh) had been an art student and a drawing teacher and had worked with show horses before he began to make furniture in the early 1980s. By the turn of the next decade, a chunky, cracked wooden stool inspired by Brancusi’s sculpture “Endless Column” had become his calling card, its gutsy and elemental shape a corrective to the fussy opulence — the swags of chintz and Louis chairs — that had defined the excesses of the ’80s.

But it was the Mercer, which André Balazs opened in 1997, that introduced Liaigre to the United States. The hotel’s new-old modernism and loftlike rooms attracted movie stars of the era (including Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, who felt so at home there that he once hurled a phone at a desk clerk) and designers like Klein, who lived there before its official opening and liked his rooms so much that he hired Liaigre to design his own apartment at the Police Building, a few blocks south.

“It was a complete aesthetic, and I don’t think anyone did it better,” Klein said in a phone interview.

Other high-profile clients followed, including Murdoch and his wife at the time, Wendi, for whom he designed a triplex in SoHo and a 184-foot sailing yacht named Rosehearty.

Liaigre’s dark, low-slung wenge-wood furniture, and his clean-lined linen sofas in white and pale lavender, were soon copied ad infinitum, and for decades they would influence trendy hotel interiors, pricey condo developments and furniture emporiums like West Elm and Restoration Hardware. (By the late 1990s, wenge wood, his signature material, had been knocked off so often that it became a design-world punch line.)

Along with the austere architecture of John Pawson and the unadorned clothing of Calvin Klein and Helmut Lang, Liaigre’s work — sculptural tables, seats and lamps constructed of bronze, stone and ebonized woods — were touchstones for a generation that expressed its wealth in earth tones and a monkish lack of ornament.

His work resonated with craftsmen and architects, too, because the joinery was often the ornament. Ian Schrager, the hotelier and developer, hired both Pawson and Liaigre to design his penthouse at 40 Bond St. in the NoHo section of Manhattan, a Herzog & de Meuron showplace, as well as his house in Southampton, on Long Island. Schrager recalled that the contractors kept turning over Liaigre’s furniture to see how the pieces were put together. “His furniture was so refined, so beautiful and so well made,” he said.

Pawson remembered meeting Liaigre just once — in a chance encounter at the Mercer, as it happens. Both men were up early for breakfast.

“We were the only ones in the room,” Pawson said by email from his home on the island of Majorca in Spain. “We had a nice chat over a very minimal white egg, tea and toast. ”

Before working on the Mercer, Liaigre had designed the interiors of the Hotel Montalembert in Paris, a boutique hotel built in the 1920s and redone in 1990. At that time, boutique hotels, as pioneered by Schrager, were over-the-top theaters, designed most notably by Philippe Starck and Andrée Putman.

“They were extremely sexy, but they were not an intimate, personal style,” David Netto, an American designer, said in a phone interview. “The Hotel Montalembert was like a revelation. You walked in and saw the possibility of how to decorate that hadn’t been around since the 1930s. African sculptures next to Louis XV furniture, the neutrality of the architecture.”

He added, “People were beguiled by that hotel.”

Liaigre was born Aug. 10, 1943, in La Rochelle, France. His father was a veterinarian, and his grandfather, for whom he worked for a decade after attending the École des Beaux-Arts and the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, bred horses.

He is survived by his wife, Deborah Comte-Liaigre; their son, Leonard; and a granddaughter. His daughter, Virginie, died last year.

Liaigre’s design roots were French modernism, Asian furniture, African art and riding hardware — bridles, saddles and stirrups. Many compared him to Jean-Michel Frank, the early French minimalist, but “with less ennui,” as Mitchell Owens, the decorative arts editor at Architectural Digest, said in an interview.

“Liaigre’s work had a butchness to it,” he added. “It was very male and very architectural.”

Decades earlier, Owens had interviewed Liaigre about how his upbringing had influenced his work He recapped the interview on Instagram:

“We talked of his childhood near La Rochelle, his potent memories of his veterinary surgeon father’s tools and of accompanying him from farm to farm throughout the Vendee, his respect for woodworkers and love of chestnut and oak trees, and his belief in furniture that, no matter how reductivist, held the whiff of the terroir in its design.”

Former employees described Liaigre as a quiet, meticulous teacher whose drawings were always perfectly to scale. “He felt that to get the proportions right, the only way to do it was by hand,” said Kirstin Bailey, a designer in Liaigre’s studio in the 1990s.

Liaigre sold his company to a group of investors in 2016.

“To say that he was detail-oriented would be a gross understatement,” Balazs of the Mercer wrote in an Instagram post. “‘Obsession’ would be far more apt.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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