Architectural Digest: August 2013
Hairstylist Guido Palau's Artful Manhattan Duplex
The fashion-world favorite's New York City home is as distinctive as the coiffures he devises
One day about four years ago, interior designer Robert Passal noticed a scruffy, boyish figure browsing the storefront window of his New York gallery and studio. The man walked in and said he’d like to buy the acrylic skull lamp with the stainless-steel shade on display. He asked if it could be shipped to London for a friend’s birthday, then jotted down an address. The name of the recipient, Alexander McQueen, was, of course, known to Passal, but the purchaser’s signature rang no bell. “As soon as the door closed behind him, our fashionista assistant freaked out,” Passal remembers. “He said, ‘That was Guido Palau, the best hairstylist in the world!’”
Back then the prolific trendsetter had already tousled, teased, and braided more than a decade’s worth of influential looks for the runways of Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, Prada, and other fashion titans, as well as for the pages of glossy publications around the globe. Yet to come were conceptual headpieces for exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, including the posthumous McQueen retrospective in 2011 and this year’s “Punk” extravaganza.
The skull lamp had barely cleared customs when Palau returned to Passal on a mission closer to home. Having moved to Manhattan from his native England, the hair guru needed a collaborator to help furnish the brownstone duplex architect Jane Kim had recently renovated for him. “I did my own houses in London,” Palau explains, “but with my heavy workload, I never really finished them.” Besides, his domestic compass had spun far from the minimalism of his prior digs. “Part of minimalist living involves hiding your stuff and, in a way, concealing who you really are,” he continues. “Here, I want to have things I’ve collected on display—for myself more than anyone. It soothes me to look at my bits and bobs.”
Given Palau’s constant exposure to eye-popping ideas, the last thing he sought was “another statement,” he says. “I wanted to come away from my job, flop down, relax, and not be too precious.” Letting his hair down on matters of taste, however, was a different story. “I have strong visual opinions,” Palau says, “but I felt that I could get along with Robert and that he would understand what I wanted—even when I contradicted myself.”
Passal reveled in the affable give-and-take with his client. “Guido is a professional, and he respects my opinion,” the designer says. “But he is not wishy-washy. I’d bring something in and say, ‘Live with it for a few days.’ I might get a firm no, though he’d often tell me later, ‘You know what? I’m feeling it now.’” Their affinity could be downright uncanny. When, for example, Passal suggested that his client might enjoy Hendrik Kerstens’s old-masterish photograph of a woman with toilet-paper rolls in her hair, Palau dashed to his laptop and pulled up shots of a McQueen show that featured hairstyles based on that very image.
“Guido appreciates the evolutionary process of interior design,” Passal notes. “His own styling for fashion shows often starts with one concept and morphs into a different one, which is exactly what happened here. Initially he wanted something unstructured and moody—he talked about Paris and New York in the 1920s and ’30s, and the old houses that English travelers fill with mementos. Then as the project grew, he wanted a clean, linear, masculine edge fused into that look.”
Passal has layered his client’s far-flung pursuits—from history to nature studies to pottery—into vignettes that unfold gradually. Nevertheless, he adds, “it’s either one end of the spectrum or the other for Guido—17th-century tapestry or industrial shelving. Nothing transitional. It’s about authenticity, juxtaposition, contrast.” An African mask gazes over a Danish-modern armchair. A tufted chaise fit for Empress Eugénie lounges beside a graffitied stool by ceramist Reinaldo Sanguino. Rock crystals glint atop a 1960s lacquer sideboard.
As it happens, a similar blending of periods and styles can be found in some of the artworks in Palau’s home, such as Jeff Muhs’s Venus of Urbino (After Titian), where Renaissance imagery meets color-field abstraction, or Hunt Slonem’s Warholian take on Mathew Brady’s classic 19th-century portraits of Abraham Lincoln. In the stairwell an assemblage of pictures by photographers near and dear to Palau is joined by a set of trophy antlers—a sly 21st-century wink at the traditional portrait galleries of stately British homes.
Perhaps the most rewarding spot in Palau’s apartment is the lush upstairs terrace, planted in the joyously untamed style of English gardens. “When it’s a beautiful day, I open the terrace doors, have my tea, and just sit there and contemplate,” he says. “I’ve had bigger and grander apartments, but this is by far the happiest. I can’t imagine ever wanting to leave.”