Dec / Jan 2012
Crossing Cultures

Writer: Sara White Wilson

When interior designer Alberto Pinto passed away this November, he left behind a legacy of opulent homes, amongst them, a magnificent villa in Kuwait, which was finished in the final year of his accomplished 40-year career.


The grand Parisian headquarters of Alberto Pinto’s design practice is a 17th century townhouse, or hôtel particulier, located steps from the circular Place des Victoires on the border of the 1st and 2nd arrondissments. A central marble fountain of a reclining female figure, created by an Egyptian artisan, is the centrepiece of a stunning, black-and-white chequered marble courtyard. An entrance leads to a small reception area. Poised on a table is a framed Studio Harcourt photographic portrait of Alberto Pinto, head in hands. Despite passing away early in November, the designer is still very present.

While Pinto’s studio now speaks for him, it does so collectively. “We prefer not to be quoted individually in this article but rather to speak as a team on behalf of Monsieur Pinto,” a long-term member of the studio explains, leaning across the back of a chair. The Master’s singular, aesthetic vision is to be continued by his team, which is approximately 80-strong. From the most large-scale spaces, to the most prestigious - Pinto has notably designed the private salons of France’s Elysée Palace - he subtly and harmoniously juxtaposes vastly different time periods and design styles.

Born in Casablanca to Argentine parents of French and Italian descent, Pinto travelled considerably as a child but developed his core sensibility attending the l’Ecole du Louvre in Paris and later in New York in the 1960s, when he began working on interior design stories for Condé Nast, founding his own agency for interior photography. In 1971, he established his studio in Paris, going on to build a reputation as one of the most worldly French decorators.

The Pinto team works on an average of 40 projects a year for the likes of American business moguls, international royalty and Middle Eastern billionaires. Their forte is extending their interior designs to sea and sky through private jets, boats and yachts. 

Several projects have highlighted the unique design attributes and cultures of North Africa and the Middle East, including a riad in Tangier and a palace in Marrakesh and a 1,500-square-metre villa in Kuwait, which underscore Pinto’s thoroughly cosmopolitan and sophisticated style. 

Every project begins with a client discussion in the generous open space located on the first floor of the Parisian headquarters, which is accessed by a winding central staircase. “Though there are rare exceptions, we generally insist that the first meeting takes place here in the salon,” says another member of the team, explaining how a project of the scale of the Kuwait villa, which took three years to complete, might begin. As we wander through room after room, some covered wall-to-wall with samples of fabrics, wood panels and mouldings. Every door leads to a new space. Somehow the ensemble maintains an ease and manages to feel like both a private home and a design studio at the same time. 

As most first-time visitors and interested clients quickly learn, it’s difficult not to give the studio carte blanche. “We never do only one room. We always take on the design of the entire residence or space. Each project is absolutely unique. Not one piece of furniture is the same, as each is made-to-measure. Every element is different from what we’ve done before,” my interlocutor says. “There are clients who see our work in their friend’s house, for example, and say to us ‘we want the same’ but we always encourage them to work with the character of their space and the way they intend to live in it. In the end, we may repeat a certain motif for them but in a different material and executed in a slightly different way.”

All the furniture under the studio’s auspices - all that is not sourced at a Christie’s auction, for example - is made-to-measure, mainly by French artisans, though Middle Eastern artisans are also employed for certain techniques that are unique to their culture. “If you take two separate homes, designed by us,” my guide continues, “one will never see the same piece of furniture twice.”

The Kuwaiti Villa is a case in point. The project director of the Kuwaiti Villa, who has worked with Alberto Pinto for 11 years, descends from the second floor to take a break from the sketching and creative brainstorming that takes place there. He speaks to me more about the project, recalling the weekly visits to Kuwait that were required during construction and the one-month stay when the project was in its final stages.

“Alberto Pinto adapts his cultural or design references according to the architecture in place and its surrounding environment,” he begins, musing on specific inspirations for the project. “The grand, central arcade certainly evokes references to the ceiling heights found in an old Syrian palace we had in mind but the place permitted us to have this as inspiration. The space provoked it, you could say.”

He continues. “Before we began, the owners didn’t have any specific requests. The main structure of the property was under construction when we started, so we worked in tandem with the architects, often altering the interior architecture according to our plans in order to achieve the final result.”

As a designer, Pinto was known for his subtle mixing of cultural references. The design element that reflects Kuwaiti culture the most, according to the project director, is the exterior. “The stones that we chose, which are in two tones, beige and light beige, are typical of the region, both in material and form. Each room though,” he adds, as if talking about his children, “has its own beautiful character.” 

In keeping with the Pinto approach, there are strong classically European design elements thrown into the mix. Take the study. It displays a strong Moorish influence, with the use of Cordoba leather, also known as Guadamacile, on the walls. The embossed leather technique was developed in Spain under the Arab occupation and imported from Ghadames in Libya where the technique was originally developed in ancient times. “So, here is Europe and the Arab world at once. There are also many French and Italian fabrics, brocade, for example, and a lot of Lyon silk.” The latter is used to upholster a wooden chair in the study, which is crafted in the traditional manner of the Levant. The contrast is captivating. “This is typically the strength of Pinto,” continues the partner, “that of mixing cultures”.

All of the marble used in the Kuwaiti villa is Italian Carrara. The series of chandeliers hanging in the main arcade were made especially for the space, with globes of crystal crafted in the Czech Republic hanging from bronze supports forged in France. The plasterwork is typically Moroccan. The stunningly elaborate bathroom is a display of mother-of-pearl masterwork in a style traditionally used in Mexico.

The main dining room is equally international in its design references but raises the degree of painstaking craftsmanship to new heights. “It is modelled after an Indian palace belonging to a Maharaja in Rajasthan. For the dining room walls, we sourced authentic, old mirror fragments directly from Rajasthan, which we used for the flower motif. Each fragment is a millimetre in size and hand-placed on the wall. The motif is then surrounded with hundreds of thousands of points in silver and gold stencil.” He pauses as he remembers this labour of love. “To be honest, this room tortured us but it remains something exceptional that we are proud of. Very proud.”

A visit to the villa in Kuwait means spending a lot of time looking upwards. “If the place is big enough, a flat ceiling is simply too boring,” continues the project director. “We give great importance to ceilings, as they give structure to the entire environment, setting the scene.” One room features a poem written in Arabic in a band around the ceiling that is carved from camel bone. The space, like most of those Pinto touched during his career, is an invitation to dream.

“We finished at the end of 2011,” he concludes. “But, as with most of our projects, we’re never really done. We often maintain close ties to our clients after a project is over.”

Though it was one the last projects that Pinto worked on himself, the villa encapsulates in many ways the designer’s vision, at times abstract, other times painfully precise.

Looking forwards, Pinto’s sister and longtime collaborator, Linda, will take over the direction of the studio, which to all intents and purposes shows no sign of slowing down. In addition to working on Monaco’s Tour Odéon, a double-skyscraper apartment complex slated for completion in 2014, the studio has also been building an eponymous home collection since 2008. Entirely separate to the bespoke items created for clients, the collection is displayed in the showroom on Rue du Mail, a mix of furniture, tableware, table linen and assorted home accessories. 

Having worked so closely with artisans over the years in the creation of bespoke items, as well as collaborating with manufacturers like Raynaud, Pierre Frey, THG, Ecruis, and D. Porthault, the collection is a natural extension of Pinto’s vision. The hand-painted porcelain tableware has been a particular success.

As evinced through project after project, the studio’s approach a timelessness born of confidence in their choice of reference. This in turn creates the notion that the living spaces and objects of Pinto’s design may become references in of themselves.

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