Charles Zana, A Master of Light

To his clients, Charles Zana embodies the best of what France has to offer. An architect rigorously trained at Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts and steeped in his country’s rich decorative arts history and tradition of fine craftsmanship, Zana is also a man who wears his voracious curiosity about contemporary art and Italian design on his sleeve. He conceives of his interiors as “curated stories” in which volume, light and flow combine to create subtle, modern-classical environments that are often organised around his clients’ collections. While completing residences around Europe, Zana has recently taken on such commercial commissions as the Hôtel Le Marianne and the Condé Nast offices in Paris. Closing out the year with a suite of rooms in St Barth’s five-star Cheval Blanc hotel, the architect-designer is preparing for a busy 2017, when London’s Kensington Hotel, a new Restaurant Guy Martin at Charles de Gaulle airport, a 3,500-square-foot Venetian palazzo and an Ettore Sottsass-Carlo Scarpa exhibition for the Venice Biennale will all require his attention. Recently, Zana made time to speak with Brook Mason in his Left Bank office

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How would you define your approach to interior design?
In all my projects I tap into constituent elements of the particular locale. For example, when it came to designing a Swiss chalet, I turned to indigenous rock for fireplaces and native wood for beams, which set the stage for the furnishings and art. For a 17th-century farmhouse in Normandy, I thought it essential to retain the beamed ceilings and carved doors, but I offset these traditional features with a contemporary vibe in the form of spare rooms.

Can you detail how you use light to accentuate spaces?
I always opt for bringing the outside in, so maximizing natural light is a dominant concern for me. In a London flat, for example, while I incorporated the large, checkered black-and-white marble flooring that is characteristic of Georgian town houses, I ramped up the master bedroom by punching in a dramatic circular skylight. To supplement natural light, I frequently turn to pieces by Yonel Lebovici, the French artist-designer who created remarkably inventive and sculptural light fixtures from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Your black-and-white interiors are never stark or rigidly geometric. How do you achieve that?
I take colour cues from the city in which a project is situated. In Paris, subtle greys and taupe along with rose complement my interiors. Adding texture with shagreen, highly polished lacquer and straw marquetry is another way I enhance black-and-white spaces.

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Paintings and sculpture do not appear jarring in the interiors you design. How do you create such harmony? I’ve always shied away from placing contemporary paintings and sculptures in isolation. There has to be a dialogue. For instance, I will align a highly reflective Anish Kapoor sculpture and a sleek Ron Arad stainless-steel rocker with a classic piece by French ceramicist Georges Jouve, who worked a lot with Jacques Adnet. In another instance, to give a client’s entire collection a sense of unity, I designed vitrines, pedestals and lighting to best showcase his group of African masks alongside his Damien Hirst and Christopher Wool paintings.

You often include commissions by contemporary furniture designers in your interiors. Who are some of your favourites?
I don’t merely turn to Martin Szekely or Byung Hoon Choi and order a contemporary spin on a guéridon or a massive dining room table with a basalt stone top. I think it’s critical to involve clients in the process, so I often take them to designers’ studios so they can understand how a distinctive patina is achieved. When it comes to injecting colour into furniture in novel ways, I often call on the San Francisco and Milan designer Johanna Grawunder who, among other wonderful creations, has a pair of rectangular Lucite coffee tables incorporating LED lights: one gives off a magenta glow; the other a soft, emerald green light. They’re mesmerising.

Can you tell us about your own art collection?
It is steeped in Italian Modernists such as Alessandro Mendini, Andrea Branzi and Carlo Scarpa. I have more than 300 ceramic vessels by Italian designers from the 1970s to the 1980s. A few years ago, I showcased portions of my collection in an exhibition at the Musée National Eugène Delacroix in Paris. Staging a show devoted to Ettore Sottsass’s Totems is next on my list.

Your next big project is the Cheval Blanc hotel in St Barth, opening in December. What can we expect? First, a suite of rooms that highlights the captivating landscape, with native woods and local stone framing endless views of the Baie des Flamands, the island’s longest and widest beach. The entire project creates the sense of peace we all need after a harried autumn.

LEAD IMAGE: A Swiss apartment includes a Pierre Jeanneret banquette and vintage Edward Wormley chairs along with custom bookshelves and a silk carpet by Zana. © COLLECTOR SQUARE © JACQUES PÉPION
Brook Mason is US correspondent for The Art Newspaper. 

Images and article featured on by Brook Mazon | 17 Nov 2016