André Dubreuil-designed mirror, which reflects upside down, above a 17th-century bust in his dining room. A photograph of a hand by Robert Lavrero, the husband of Dubreuil’s gallerist, Gladys Mougin, and a floor-size candlestick by Tom Dixon flank the table, which seats up to 25.
With his characteristic wit and humble charm, the artist André Dubreuil has devoted decades to breathing life back into his family’s grand 18th-century chateau.
As the son of two scientists, it would seem natural that André Dubreuil would one day follow in his parents’ footsteps and carve a successful career for himself in the fields of research and medicine. After all, that’s what five of his six siblings did. But from an early age, the 62-year-old French furniture designer was more interested in aesthetics than in science. He wanted to create beautiful worlds to inhabit, because, as he puts it, “when I am surrounded by beauty, whether it’s in nature or with objects, that’s when I am at my happiest.”
In 1996, when the time finally came for Pierre and Denise Dubreuil to pass on their country home in France’s Dordogne region to one of their children, André was the obvious choice. Even as a teenager, he was always helping with the Château de Beaulieu’s restoration — in fact the pink flowered fabric wallpaper he picked out for his parents’ bedroom in the 1960s still remains there today.
“When I am here, I never want to leave,” he says as he heads down a tree-lined driveway to the 18th-century estate. “Occasionally I might go to Paris for work, but thankfully I can do the round trip in a day. I have everything I need here.” Dubreuil shares his living quarters with only his three beloved mutts. (Come summer his many nephews and nieces stay in the special boys and girls dormitories he built for them.) Although the estate is quite grand by anyone’s standards — an approximately 750-acre property with formal gardens and so many bedrooms that Dubreuil can’t remember the exact count — it doesn’t feel as ostentatious as some other chateaus in the area.
This may be due to the fact that Dubreuil has spent the last 20 years personalizing the place. When he first took it over, he wanted to tone down some of the modernizations his parents had made. “What mattered to them was if things worked, not how they looked,” he recalls. So he set about paneling many of the rooms, which had been plastered over in the ’60s; he painted the windows on the outside of the house a softer teal, as the original white paint looked too garish against the slate roof; he filled the gardens with water features and his own metal sculptures.
Though he kept some of his parents’ furniture, he brought in a lot of his own finds: antiques, paintings and ornate cupboards and mirrors that he had designed over the years. Armoires and cabinets are filled to the brim with china and glassware. Mantels are decorated with busts and small sculptures. The walls are covered with a mix of oil paintings, 1950s tapestries, photography and African carvings. Even his bathroom seems to be a showcase of sorts with a collection of Dehua porcelain surrounding his bathtub. So how does he take a bath? “I don’t,” he says with a laugh. “I take a shower. But I think they look nice here,” referring to the blue and white plates.
Not everything in the house is valuable. Dubreuil likes to point out that you are just as likely to find something here that he has found on eBay as from a prized auction house. “When I first came to live here, I thought, This is good, I won’t be tempted to buy anything because I am in the countryside. But then the Internet came and then eBay — and Boof! I was at it again. Little parcels delivered to my door,” he says. “It always will be an ongoing project — that’s the trouble with grand houses — they create a hole in your pocket but that’s O.K. What’s important is to breathe life into a house, to make your mark.”
In 1969, Dubreuil left France for London to study at the prestigious Inchbald School of Design. After completing his course work, he took a series of jobs dealing antiques, which helped him cultivate a passion for furniture and design. He also fell in with a creative circle living and working in trendy Notting Hill at the time: the fashion designer Georgina Godley, the Vogue editor Hamish Bowles and the industrial designer Tom Dixon, who would introduce Dubreuil to welding. “That was that,” he recalls. “I bought a welder and was welding in my flat — my poor neighbor — all night.”
He was soon twisting and turning metal into sconces, candlesticks and chandeliers. In 1986 he created his Spine Chair, a curvy loungelike piece resembling a human spine. Hand-bent from steel, the chair looks simple but the dramatic curves were a stance against minimalism, which was very popular in the design world then. His ornamental designs were viewed as art as much as they were as furniture, and as the work became more ambitious, he moved into different materials: iron, copper, even wood.
Dubreuil never wanted to be commercial. Most of his objects are unique, and if one of his customers asks him to make a replica, he typically refuses. “Most commercial furniture is made by machine, and that saddens me because you can’t leave a bit of your soul in the pieces you are creating,” he says.
Today those pieces can command six-figure price tags, his clients include Chanel and Louis Vuitton, and his iconic Spine Chair sits in the permanent collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, but the always humble Dubreuil claims he is no longer “fashionable.” These days he is content to run his business from an old converted barn on the estate. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much — a simple structure once used for housing sheep — but inside it’s a fully functioning atelier with workbenches, tools, anvils, lathes and forges. Here, Dubreuil works alongside five assistants and is very much involved in every aspect of the creation of each work — whether it’s a museum-worthy piece or the trophy he designs for the annual local bicycle race. “If I wasn’t involved, then what would be the point? I should just stop,” he muses. “If you have a huge workshop, you feel less free.” He refuses to be referred to as a designer — he sees himself as more of an artisan. But then he reconsiders even that.
“I’m not sure what I am really,” he says. “For Social Security, here in France, I say that I make metal kitchens."
A version of this article appears in print on 09/15/2013, on page M2144 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Labor of Love.