James Swan

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Episode 523: Weekend with Robert Couturier


Welcome to the first in our new “Away From the Office” series.  Each Saturday and Sunday we’re visiting with our guest alumni and learning from them how they spend their time away from the office. We’ve also added transcripts from our interviews to allow you to read them at your leisure.

We kick-off the “Away From the Office” series with our friend Robert Couturier.


James                                       Join me as we chat with Robert Couturier and discover what his life is like when the weekend comes. Robert, it’s a pleasure to welcome you back to the show.


Robert:                        Thank you, James. A pleasure to be with you on this show.


James:                          Thank you so much. For our listeners, Robert, give us a snapshot. Tell us a bit about you and your business and all that it entails.


Robert:                        Okay. So I’m an architect interior designer and decorator. I work – actually mostly in America at this point and I’ve been working a lot in Europe as well and Latin America, even in the Middle East. And I have an office that varies between 25 and 50 people depending on the season. And very busy at the moment, quite happy.


James:                          Busy is a good thing, right?


Robert:                        This is an excellent thing.


James:                          It’s an excellent thing. Indeed. So I’m curious to get your thoughts on how people around you view you. Sometimes it’s interesting to get a snapshot of what we think people are perceiving us as. How do you feel your staff perceives you, Robert?


Robert:                        I hope perceives me incredibly well. I think you always have a good comeback back up. I think I have done this in probably a good cut up. I can also be very opinionated, quite headstrong, and a little priggish in many ways. I’m very definite in what I like and what I don’t like and I like things to be done. I think ultimately we owe it to our clients to give the very best that we can give and I abhor mediocrity so I can be very demanding and I’m sure that people in my office find me so. And I hope I’m not demanding in a mean way and if I am, I apologize. That’s not the way I want to be.


James:                          It’s a balance, isn’t it between being demanding and then being conscientious of the people that work for you?


Robert:                        Yes, and also I think it’s quite difficult for people, for staff to understand my own demands and my own choices and how I like things to be done. And there’s a tendency, there’s a judgment also that some – myself can have and I think it’s a natural thing to say that this is important and this is not important when I’m the only person who can decide what is and what is not. So, of course, it’s a balance. But on a certain level, I am the ultimate decision maker and everything comes out of me and comes back to me. So if there’s a mistake, ultimately, it’s mine and now I try to fess up to mistakes that often my staff has made because I haven’t been looking because you can’t look at everything. And those mistakes happen –


James:                          They do. They do. So the key to getting things right, would it be communication? Is that the cornerstone of getting it right?


Robert:                        I think there is a natural tendency of humanity being perfect and I think imperfections is a fact of life. And when you think that everything should work the way it should work, there’s always something that doesn’t. And it’s always the one thing that you thought ought not to have been a problem that turns out to be a problem.


James:                          Of course.


Robert:                        So the next time that you do that thing, that’s the whole problem I will not have the next time. But something else creeps up and there are always problems. There’s always a problem. The problem is that, for a client, the problem that they are having is the most important because they are the only ones that matter. But for me, as owning my own company, having 30 clients means that I have 30 problems daily. And it’s very difficult sometimes to handle.


James:                          How do you believe your clients perceive you, Robert?


Robert:                        I think the clients that love me, are very happy with my services think that I’m very good and I’m very precise and very – I never am insisting. I never insist on anything because I think it’s ultimately the client’s house and if the client doesn’t like something, he has the right to tell me that he doesn’t. I think that the clients don’t like me, and I’m sure that there are because not every job is a success. You try to make every job a success but it’s also the nature of the beast. And I think they might perceive me as somewhat – I must admit that if I don’t like a client it’s a problem because if I don’t like someone I’m never very good at servicing them. That’s a big problem. So it’s a big problem to decide who you should work for and who you shouldn’t because also it’s like everything else.


There are certain people that you get along with and certain people that you don’t. And how do you know the first time you meet them because when a client comes to see you and interviews you, the client always presents his best behavior. And you as a designer working for someone, you, of course, want that person to choose you as their designer. So you present both best sides, both natures and sometimes it doesn’t work that way.


James:                          Sometimes reality sets in, right?


Robert:                                    Exactly.


James:                          Indeed. When you think about the people who are even closer to you than your staff or your clients, your partner, your family, how do you believe they perceive you?


Robert:                        I think my partner thinks that I’m very troubled. When I’m with him I have no screen. I mean, it’s all of me and my neuroses and my craziness and my fears and he probably thinks that – he’s the opposite of me so he’s infinitely calmer. He doesn’t get distracted. He has his feet on the ground probably in a firmer fashion than I do and all these sorts of things. And I hope that he doesn’t find me too crazy or busy. He wouldn’t have married me if he did think –


James:                          Exactly. Love prevails, right?


Robert:                        Exactly. I think that my other – my closest, closest friends hopefully think of me as a thoughtful, kind person and a good friend. I am quite passionate about my friendships and sometimes a little exclusive so I get to be possessive in a way. But I always try to respect a person’s independence and their choice is also to be your friend. Friendship is a two-way street.


James:                          Indeed. Indeed it is. We hear much today about the work, life balance, finding and maintaining that balance. What are your thoughts on that and how do you go about seeking that balance in your life and in your professional work?


Robert:                        I think it’s essential because I think it’s a good way to renew yourself, to rest obviously. And you need to rest. I have very little belief in rest a long time ago because of course I was younger and I was able to work much harder than I am now probably. And I probably never saw the difference between work and pleasure because most of my friends are my clients. Most of my clients are my friends so it’s something that can be very tricky because you might have lunch with a very close friend of yours who’s also a client. But at the end of the day, she’s your client so you have to – there are boundaries between friendship and client relationships that are very difficult to establish when you’re very close to the people you work with.


And I think I’m a very emotional person. I have very emotional relationships with my clients and my friends. So it’s very difficult even for me to know where I am. That makes it difficult to sort of get away. And one of my closest, closest friend in the world for whom I’ve done many, many houses is – I go to her in the summer in France and we are very, very close. So when she asks me things about our project, I don’t think it’s work because she’s my friend. So I want her to be as happy as possible in the space that we’re designing for her. So it’s difficult.


I think during the week if I didn’t have the country where I go on the weekends, I think I’d go bananas. And I never thought it was important to go to the country as much as I do now. I don’t think I could work without having my house in Kent that I have with my partner.


James:                          That’s excellent.


Robert:                        Where we have our private life is there and all of my private life is there and it is to a large extent my own private paradise in which I feel completely, completely happy.


James:                          What was the initial motivation for securing a place like that? Was it this need to get away and to have some distance between your personal and professional life?


Robert:                        No, I think a lot of the things that we do unconscious. I think we do things for reasons that we are not completely aware of when we start doing them. When I first started going out with Jeffrey – Jeffrey always lived in the country. Jeffrey never liked being in New York, he couldn’t sleep in New York. He didn’t like New York. So I didn’t have any other choice but to go there and to be there. And we’ve been together for 20 years. So when I first went there, my weekends were always not shortened, but there were always moments were I worked, where I wasn’t entirely there. I was at work during the weekend. And so we built that house – I think there was an aesthetic need that I had and that Jeffrey had probably too for what we created in the country.


I don’t think I created the house that I have or the gardens that I have only to be there. I think I created all of this as an aesthetic need to create a house in the country that unconsciously corresponded to many things in my own childhood and personal there. And then when it was mostly created, then the need to be there, this skin-deep need that I had to be there became more and more urgent. And then I spent more and more time there and then when I was there, when I am there now, I don’t work. I might have a telephone call with a client, but it’s a 10-minute telephone call during the weekend.


It’s not hours and hours that I would spend sort of going through books and going through selections and sketching and doing things like that. It’s not that. And so I go to the country on Friday usually I arrive there around half past one in the afternoon and we have lunch. And then I’ll feel that my weekend begins. And I come back to New York on Monday just after lunch. I leave at about half past one and then in New York by three or something. And so those three days that I spend there are days that I spend with Jeffery. That’s our life, the two of us. This is our garden, our house, the pleasures that we get from looking at objects that we own and eventually also the immense huge deep pleasure that we have in each other’s company.


But in the pleasure that I take with our dogs and I have five dogs. We have five dogs. And they are a huge part of my life in the country.


James:                          Do they travel back and forth to the city with you?


Robert:                        No, they do not. They used to. The first dog I ever had which goes back 27 years, used to go back and forth with me when I had a different life. And then when I started going out with Jeffery 20 years ago, they also went back and forth. And then slowly they decided, they themselves decided they didn’t like to be in the city very much. So they did make my life in the city unbearable and I went to the vet thinking they were gravely ill. And the vet looked at them and said, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your dogs. They just simply don’t want to be here.” And then it was very funny because the weekend that I left that I knew was going to be the last Friday that they were ever going to spend in the city. Then the dogs were waiting for me at the door with their toys in their mouth saying, “Goodbye, we’re leaving.”


And then I moved them to the country and then we subsequently had more dogs and now we have five. That’s a huge pleasure of my life. It’s a huge part of my life in the country.


James:                          And they seem to be incredibly happy there, don’t they?


Robert:                        I think that if you have pets, it’s your duty to make them happy. I think that actually personally we have a duty if luck makes it to be in the privileged positions in which we are to make everybody around us as happy as possible. I don’t think there is any excuse for grouchiness, meanness, and cruelty and anything like that.


James:                          An important message in these times for sure.


Robert:                        Very much so.


James:                          In hearing you speak about creating the gardens and the home in the country, your husband’s seemed to have played a large part of that. Was it a collaborative effort, the design, and creating that or was it truly a creative effort on your part?


Robert:                        No, I think that creation is such a complicated way, it’s a complicated word, and it’s a complicated act. And you create – I don’t think creations is gratuitous either. I think that whenever you create something, you create it for yourself. But not only for yourself, for yourself with your own life. What I created in the country, I created for me, but for me with Jeffery, for me with the dogs or our life together. If I had had a different husband and other animals, I would have done another house, a very different one. And I think it’s sort of you project the better part of yourself in what you’re doing in something that is so personal and so deeply involved. And in many ways, there are many gestures that you do whether in architecture or in gardening or in the selection of furniture which is dictated by your unconscious by many events that have happened to you earlier on in your life.


And so you have to recognize that. And actually, it was very funny because we – there are many things that I have done in my house which sort of a homage in a way to the person who raised me. It was my grandmother who I was incredibly close to and whom I love infinity. So there are many things that I did in my house that were probably more due to her than due to me. And the last thing – there was something very funny because when she had her house done just before the war and Defry who you know that’s a bigger house designed some particular fabric for her which she had in her bedroom in Paris.


And I loved that fabric. And I told Defry, the grandson when he came to me and we were talking about fabrics. And I said, “You remember the fabric?” And he said, “Well, let me look in my archives.” And I said, “Oh that would be great.” And so he sent me the fabric. He said, “I found it.” And he sent me a sample of the fabric which of course, brought tears to my eyes because it was back to a different time. And I brought it in the country and Jeffery looked at me. He says, “There’s one thing you have to realize is that you are not your grandmother.” And that’s just the point where just enough is enough. And it was a very nice message that he gave me.


James:                          Very gentle.


Robert:                                    Very gentle. Very, very gentle.


James:                          But firm.


Robert:                        But very firm. And so I didn’t use the fabric so there are that creation or the process of creation is truly – and I wouldn’t have done that house the way that I did it and wouldn’t have done the gardens the way that we had them done without Jeffery. For sure.


James:                          An important person in your life for sure as it should be.


Robert:                        He’s the most important person in my life. You know it’s incredibly personal and I’m not entirely sure it has anything to do with design when we first met – and you know there’s always a resistance against happiness. I think there is a large part of ourselves where we don’t really want to let go. We want to be in control of everything and happiness is something that is, it’s really difficult to be happy. It’s actually more difficult to be happy than being unhappy. And I realized I was asking myself, my own questions and I said, “There’s one thing that I can’t see myself being with anyone else than him as well as I can’t see myself dying next to anyone else than him.” So he is an immense part. He’s my destiny in many ways that when we find a person that we are going to spend the rest of our lives with. They are your destiny.


James:                          They are everything.


Robert:                        Yes, and our dogs – again, our things that we have in common is the love that we have for them.


James:                          A beautiful family.


Robert:                        I hope.


James:                          Let’s do a hypothetical just for a moment, Robert. If you could trade places just for one weekend with anyone, anywhere from any time, who might you pick and why?


Robert:                        Such a complicated question. I think that we look at the past in a very idealized fashion and thinking it was better then. I don’t think there is any better moment than the present. Maybe I would have liked to have been Jean Michelle Frank in the 1930s because I think that his creativity is something that I feel very akin to. But his end was not something that I would look for, for myself. So we always think about wouldn’t it have been nice to have been, I don’t know the Duke de Lecellier in 1752 in France. And it might have been a wonderful thing. You might have had beautiful castles and it could be a fun life, but then you wouldn’t have anyone fixing your teeth. You wouldn’t have anyone curing you from a cold.


You certainly didn’t have running water or flushing loos or – there are many things that we don’t see so you would have had beautiful clothes, but the beautiful clothes that you have never were washed. So I don’t think that there is any moment, any person in the past that I would have liked to have been that I would exchange my place with. Truly. I think also that the relative knowledge I have of the past makes me look at the past not in an idealized fashion. So I really, really don’t see the past as a better moment than the present.


James:                          That’s a healthy perspective I would say.


Robert:                        I don’t think there’s any other choice. I do believe in the joys of the present. I do believe in the joys of our lives. I do believe that we make our lives the way they are. I guess I might be a realist in that sense. I think that we have to enjoy the present for what the present is and the present is all we have. So it’s all that we are sure of is that very moment right now. And that’s something that is very, very profound when I arrived in the country and I am with Jeffery and I am so happy when I arrive there especially if the weather’s beautiful. And we drive into the driveway and we arrive and I see the gates open and we drive down and we arrive in the courtyard, the bottom of the hill and I come out of the car and the door opens and the five dogs that rush out to greet me.


And they’re all over me. And this I would not exchange that pleasure of being happy that very moment with anything else. I don’t think there’s any amount of money that could buy that moment of happiness. And the moment of sadness when I leave on Monday because I leave them behind me. But as everything, if there is no sadness, there’s no happiness. If there is no dark, there’s no light. So that’s the balance of our lives which is trying to make light and dark live together without one overwhelming the other in a destructive fashion.


James:                          Indeed. Think about houseguests for a moment, Robert. If you could gather one houseguest from the past, one from the present, and one from the future and have them join you for a weekend, who might your guests be?


Robert:                        I think probably the one person in the past – I mean in the recent past because also the person that you invite on the weekend, your guests are the ones that are going to be with you for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And they are there and you have to enjoy their company. They have to bring something that you can relate to otherwise it makes it for a very dry weekend. I think the person in the past; the very recent past that I would love to probably be with is the Princess de Besco who wrote just wonderful books in the 1930s and 1940s. And I love her writing, honestly. I think her writing is fluid and very descriptive and beautiful and there’s a beautiful sound of her voice is lovely.


So probably would be so much fun to have her on the weekend because she’s a great gossip and I’d know many, many people whose great grandchildren I’d probably know today. So it would be so much fun to have that with us for the weekend. And it’s also the gift you think with your guests is what do they bring? Do they have the guests to you? So it makes it for an interesting weekend for everyone. I think for the present I think wouldn’t it be interesting to have Macron, the new president of France to spend the weekend with us because there’s something so pretty astounding in his having become the president of France and now overnight, representing hope for the Western world basically. And it’s something incredibly encouraging that when we think on one side that we are going back to heinous, horrible moments and then we have that balance again between light and dark and we have this man coming out of nowhere and representing so much hope.


So I think having him would be an interesting person to have on the weekend. And having him with the Princess de Besco would also be very interesting because they do come from opposite parts of society and yet they’re both intelligent and cultured. Somebody from the future? I don’t know because who knows what the future is? Who knows if we even have a future?


James:                          Well, we keep our fingers crossed.


Robert:                        Our fingers crossed. I think probably I would love to have of the future the president will find the way to save the world from drowning in pollution and killing our earth. That would be a moment of immense hope for me. I have a very hard time today of it being hopeful and having somebody with you on the weekend who presents hope would be a wonderful change and a wonderful person to have with you especially with – if you think about having these three people together, having the actual President of France, I think the future, the president who will save us and having this glamorous, scintillating image of the past as a Princess de Besco.


The one thing that you have to do in my own opinion when you look at the past, you shouldn’t look at the past with any form of regret and thinking that it was better then. It was never better then. Never. I have a very close friend again; the President could talk to her. Earlier when we’re talking about this and she said, “You know, think about us. Think about our grandmothers. Our grandmothers had absolutely horrifying lives.” We think of them because we have the pictures of them elegant and with furs and looking so beautiful but it wasn’t like that. The past was riddled with immense fears and with fears that you could not also escape the way the people probably can a little bit today. So the present is the present.


James:                          The present is all we have and it’s thus the most important thing.


Robert:                        Absolutely.


James:                          And on that note, focusing on the present. Robert, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a joy getting to speak with you again.


Robert:                        You’re very welcome.


James:                          Looking for a tool to quickly draw a 2D plan and see your designs in a 3D photorealistic render using your own furniture items? Then check out Roomstyler. Got to roomstyler.com now. I want to say thank you to our subscribers for tuning into the show today. Go visit the website, milliondollardecorating.com where you can enjoy the transcripts of the show. While you’re there, click on a few buttons. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and on Instagram. And finally, and most importantly, remember that it’s up to you to make your world more beautiful.

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