In architectural circles there's a story about Despont: that he won the contract to design Bill Gates's home by teaching the billionaire how to use a fish knife. The story is almost certainly apocryphal. It does, however, suggest how Despont is perceived by many of his peers—not as an artist, but as a tutor to wealthy philistines.

The Eminence of Excess

Thierry Despont's clients include Bill Gates, Mickey Drexler, Conrad Black and other titans of the new gilded age. So who cares if rival architects find his work embarrassing? 

It's a hot day in Palm Beach. A dark car with tinted windows stops at a polished gate, and the driver leans toward the intercom: "Mr. Despont has arrived," he announces. The gate slides open; our car slowly moves up a long driveway made of 500,000 hand-set pebbles.

It took a crew of eight men two and a half months to set those pebbles. It took even longer for the pebbles to be gathered from a beach along the Pacific coast of Mexico. The pebbles were then sorted and bagged and trucked here. Chosen because their natural color and texture compliment the princely home we are approaching, the 500,000 pebbles were to be no smaller in diameter than two inches, no bigger than four inches—this by edict of the man who designed the driveway and accompanying mansion, Thierry Despont. As an immense limestone palace comes into view, Despont, architect and raconteur extraordinaire, turns to me and says, "Once you arrive here you step into your own world."

Actually, the 21,000-square-foot limestone Palm Beach mansion is meant to be the world of Sidney Kimmel, a man worth around $1 billion, take or leave a few tens of millions. Kimmel founded and controls Jones Apparel Group, which, among other things, owns the Nine West chain of shoe stores, the Todd Oldham trademark and the license for Polo Jeans. At the moment Kimmel is not home, or rather he is at one of his other homes. Which is fine; there is only one person to lead you through the place, and that person is Thierry Despont.

Despont's list of clients reads like the Forbes 400 list. After all, other architects have rich clients, too—architects like Richard Meier and Robert A. M. Stern and Frank O. Gehry. But Despont is not like other architects—a point made by both detractors and admirers. "Thierry designs houses that are an hommage to the client," says Martha Stewart, who seems awed by her friend Despont. "To some degree, Peter Marino does this, too. Mark Hampton did it, somewhat. But this guy does it like no one else. He's really designing for a king."

Fortunately for Despont, 51, there's no shortage today of recently crowned kings. Bill Gates, for example, the co-founder of Microsoft (net worth, about $95 billion); Millard (Mickey) Drexler, C.E.O. of Gap Inc. (net worth, $900 million); Leslie Wexner, founder of the Limited (net worth, $2.8 billion); Calvin Klein, celebrity fashion designer; Terry Semel, outgoing co-chairman of Warner Brothers; Conrad Black, C.E.O. of Hollinger, owner of The Chicago Sun-Times, The Jerusalem Post and The London Daily Telegraph; Peter Morton, founder of the Hard Rock Cafe. Every one of these men is a Despont client.

Other big-name architects have developed styles that are easy to recognize. Despont, on the other hand, has no discernible style. He builds neo-Gothic manors and wood-shingle beach houses, Georgian mansions and limestone villas—whatever the barons and titans of late-20th-century America fancy. What Despont is known for is creating follies, fin-de-sicle exercises in excess, houses blown up to outrageous proportions—they sprawl from 20,000 to 60,000 square feet and cost perhaps $20 million to $50 million. Architects are often paid 10 percent of a project's cost; though Despont receives a flat fee agreed on before a project begins, his take is said to be higher—say $4 million or $5 million on a $35 million project. "I do not," he says proudly, with a French accent that seems unaffected by 20 years in America, "design shelter."

Like the Newport mansions built for Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jacob Astor at the turn of the last century, Despont's homes address a desire for permanence and recognition among those who have just arrived—that is to say, among the newly rich. "There is something he is providing that these people respond to," says Robert Ivy, editor of Architectural Record. Building a Despont home, Ivy offers, "is rather like putting on a fine suit of clothes: it's something that everyone can recognize and admire." The houses Despont builds are not simply status symbols, signs of conspicuous consumption; they are bids for immortality, lies against time.

A canny therapist, Despont plays to the culture of narcissism. When he insists that a house should not reflect its architect, he is really saying that a house should reflect and flatter its owners, as well-lighted mirrors do. "To be successful at my job, one must be very good at understanding not only a client's needs, but also a client's dreams and memories," he explained to me. "One must know where the client comes from and what they desire. Part of the craft is learning to read people, to see things they are sure about, the things they are unsure about; the things they don't convey verbally, but express through their surroundings."

Before starting a project, Despont visits his client's home, meets the children, looks through the photo albums; all the while he is taking mental notes, weighing the matter: do they ski in Aspen or in Gstaad? Do they collect Fernand Leger or Jasper Johns? The architect Richard Hayden, of the big Manhattan firm Swanke Hayden Connell, is one of Despont's dear friends. When asked to name Despont's single greatest talent, Hayden replies without hesitation, "Thierry is one of the greatest storytellers I've ever met."

A Despont house is the story of its owner's life, real or imagined. Conrad Black, the publishing baron for whom Despont built a neo-Georgian mansion in Toronto, told me: "Without being intrusive or indiscreet, he makes an effort to understand the personality of the client—to make sure that whatever he designs for them is distinctly adapted for them." Mickey Drexler, for whom Despont has done several projects, says, "He's not one of these architects who says, 'This is my idea, this is what I like and too bad if you don't like it.' " Some of Despont's clients—people like Drexler and his wife, Peggy—are clear about what they want from their architect. Others haven't a clue; they expect Despont to guide them. "I said, 'I see a house centered on an atrium,' " Kimmel recalled recently. "'The only other request I have is a dumbwaiter in my bedroom and a balcony where I can sunbathe in privacy.'"

Despont and his staff of 40 took it from there. Unlike most architecture firms, the Office of Thierry W. Despont Ltd. offers a full range of client services including the sort of esthetic hand-holding commonly associated with interior decorators. For Sidney Kimmel's limestone villa in Palm Beach, Despont and his staff supervised construction, designed most of the furniture and bought the china (four complete sets), glassware and cutlery. They chose the linens, stocked the bars (indoor and outdoor), created the gardens, had a security system installed, supplied fine English soap for the bathrooms and even recruited the household's major-domo—a handsome, efficient steward from South Africa named Gordon, whose many skills include the ability to make a delicious cheesecake.

Time after time, the upholstered love seats in Kimmel's home theater were adjusted—a half-inch here and there—until at last they accommodated their owner's ample frame. Just before Kimmel moved in, a Palm Beach florist was summoned by Despont, who told him which vase, which flowers went where. Finally, the major-domo received detailed manuals that anticipated household disasters: for example, a falling coconut might chip the limestone wall.

In architectural circles there's a story about Despont: that he won the contract to design Bill Gates's home by teaching the billionaire how to use a fish knife. The story is almost certainly apocryphal. It does, however, suggest how Despont is perceived by many of his peers—not as an artist, but as a tutor to wealthy philistines.

To such observers, Despont's homes are vulgar anachronisms, out of place, out of time, out of scale. Two years ago, when the new Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, opened to the public, critics were horrified by the marriage of Richard Meier's stark modernism and Despont's bloated interiors. Robert Hughes pronounced Despont's period rooms "a flop." "They are pure Vegas kitsch," added Jed Perl in The New Republic.

"I am not interested in debate," Despont says with disdain, waving away the architectural elite. True, he is not one of the world's great architects, but he also does not pretend to be. Rather than appear in Architectural Record, his homes are profiled by W and by Harper's Bazaar. "There is much talent among architects," he notes. "But there is not always the discipline or the business sense needed to run a successful practice."

We are at his office, a converted 1920's bank in TriBeCa. Wearing a dark blue suit, a starched white shirt ("If I wore pink shirts my clients would think I am just a designer") and handmade J. M.Weston shoes, Despont could be a rich European investment banker. "Talent is great," he continues. "Condition necessaire—mais pas suffisante." Talent is essential, but not sufficient.

Whatever his talents, Despont is a consummate businessman and, above all, a gifted showman. Even his home, a five-story town house a few blocks from his TriBeCa office, feels like a stage. In his immense white marble bathroom, on a small table next to a chaise longue, lies a biography: "La Vie de Napoleon." Perhaps Despont reads about Napoleon while bathing; more likely, the biography is a prop. Either way, Despont's house has its intended effect. "You couldn't have a better showroom," remarks the hotelier Ian Schrager, who is considering having Despont work on his house. "I think the theatricality is what makes it unique. I was quite taken by him."

Each year for the past three years, Despont, quite taken by himself, has been host of a fancy-dress ball in Normandy, in a rented chateau. As director and star, dressed in full costume—powdered wigs, satin breeches, tight white hose—Despont plays a historical or fictional figure (Baron Munchausen, Don Giovanni, the Last Emperor). The guests, who include friends, family and clients, dress according to his script. There are fireworks. "I love fireworks," Despont explains, "because they are beautiful and absurd."

A few years ago, in a gesture that says a great deal about his approach to buildings, Despont added the middle initial W to his name. As he admits with characteristic indifference to ridicule, the W stands for nothing; he chose it for its looks, because it lends his initials visual balance.

Born in Limoges, France, a provincial town best known for making china, Despont is the son of a local architect who designed post offices and modest homes. Despont fils earned a degree in architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but from the beginning had bigger ambitions than designing post offices.

In the early 1970's, he left France to study urban planning at Harvard. After graduating, he worked in Iran, as part of a team hired by the Shah to remake Teheran. His big break came a few years later when, while working in the New York office of the British firm Llewelyn-Davies, he became friends with Marietta Tree, a socialite and an associate at the firm. She introduced Despont to Conrad Black, his first major residential client.

In the early 1980's, Despont built for Black a Georgian mansion in Toronto, with a circular, two-story, 26-foot-high domed library inspired by Palladio's Villa Rotonda. Black granted Despont access to his social circle, seating him next to Princess Diana at one party, and inviting him to the annual Hollinger dinners, where the rich and powerful gather. Adept at using a fish knife, Despont had no trouble fitting in.

Or spotting an untapped market. "I looked around and said, Where are the residential firms? Yes, Richard Meier was doing a few houses. There was Bob Stern. But there was almost no firm dedicated to residential projects," recalls Despont. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to read the Forbes 400 list and to realize that there are at least 400 people in America who can afford such homes." Before long, Despont's list of clients (or patrons, as he likes to call them) included John and Susan Gutfreund, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin and Kelly Klein and so on.

Then came the project completed in 1992 for Leslie Wexner, founder of the Limited (which owns or has spun off Henri Bendel, Express, Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria's Secret). For Wexner, Despont constructed a 30,000-square-foot manse on 340 goodly acres three hours from Cleveland. One remarkable feature of the 50-room manor is the ballroom floor, part of which, like a mammoth dumbwaiter, can be lowered to the cellar, where servants may set the dining table before it's raised into place.

This beautiful, absurd production marked the beginning of Despont's current reign. And these days money alone will not buy you access to him—he can pick and choose his clients. Recently, a very successful San Francisco financier considered hiring Despont: "I called Thierry and, in that French accent of his, he says, 'Tell me, do you want to build an impooortante house?' I understood right away that 'impooortante' was a proxy for expensive. So I said, 'I don't know.' Then he asks me, 'What do you dooo for a living?' And I thought, Wait a second, I'm thinking of hiring him and he's interviewing me?"

Needless to say, they did not work together. "With experience," Despont says, "you can read if people are going to be exciting and challenging and fun to work with. And the ones who are not, I do not want to do a house with those people."

Such haughtiness does not seem to harm Despont's business. On the contrary, it appears to make him more desirable. "It's so unfair," cries an architect at one big New York firm. "He's French, so, naturally, to these people, he's seductive." Another peer puts it more sharply. "He's perfect for people who have an inferiority complex and need to be acculturated," says this New York architect—who then proceeds to repeat to me the myth of Bill Gates and the fish knife.

I like to think I have reinvented the Palm Beach house," announces Despont, as we walk through the double entrance doors to Sidney Kimmel's limestone palace. It's the comment of a man who is thinking beyond the criticisms of the moment and dreaming, like his clients, of immortality. Certainly Despont is an admirer of men who defy their critics: Napoleon, the poet Arthur Rimbaud and, especially, Nicolas Fouquet, the finance minister to Louis XIV.

After Fouquet built for himself one of the most spectacular chateaus in France, Vaux-le-Vicomte, he was sentenced to life imprisonment by the King. Charged with embezzlement, Fouquet may really have been punished for his pride—for having the audacity to build a chateau grand enough for a king. A few years ago Despont wrote: "I have a passion for men who create their beings totally, forcing their creation onto the world and then, their work done and immortality secured, let haughtily the remainder of their lives go by."

During the four years it took Despont to build the Palm Beach mansion, Kimmel had his doubts. He worried that the house would be too ostentatious. A man who rose from modest means, Kimmel has never felt comfortable displaying his wealth. To quote Despont, "He said, 'It's O.K., Thierry, we'll finish it, then I'll sell it and we'll start over.'"

In truth, selling the home would not be easy. The Palm Beach Appraisal Department has placed a value of $20 million on Sidney Kimmel's house, probably a little more than half of what was actually spent. The land alone is worth $10 million. "We assess at market value," explains John Fable, a longtime appraiser who works only oceanfront property. "Nobody's going to pay what he put into it because most of it isn't what anyone else would want. It's a showplace." So far, only one of Despont's properties, a country manor built in the early 1990's for the Canadian department-store heir George Eaton, has been put on the market. According to the listing agent, at $12 million, the 25,000-square-foot house is a steal; it could never be duplicated for that price. Yet after seven months on the market, it hasn't sold. (Despont wrinkles his nose at my vulgar questions about resale value. "My houses are not investments," he says, as if money was somehow beneath him. "They are investments in joie de vivre.")

Making our way carefully across the limestone floor of Kimmel's palace, we enter the atrium, a vertiginous space 26 feet high. On one side is the ocean; on the other side, a long pool is lined with exquisite fragments of blue Murano glass. High above the atrium are 34 enormous beams of Honduran mahogany, each 115 feet long and curved like the rib cage of Moby Dick, or the hull of a racing yacht. It took a shipbuilder in Pensacola, Fla., nearly a year to make these beams.

As one might expect from Despont, the house includes one piece of pure theater: on one side of the atrium, in a line 32 feet long, are six massive glass doors, each one framed in mahogany, each one 20 feet high. Instructed by Despont, Kimmel's major-domo touches a button, setting into motion a hydraulic engine. Slowly, the huge doors begin to sink, inch by sublime inch, until they disappear utterly into the ground. In less than three minutes, the villa has become an open-air forum. Looking out to the sea from the atrium, one is enchanted by the blue pool, the sculpture by Henry Moore, the formal gardens and playing fountain.

On a beautiful evening in November, Despont invited Kimmel to view the house, which had just been completed. Upon his arrival, a butler, holding a simple sterling salver, offered him a flute of Dom Perignon. "I was in shock," Kimmel recalls. "It came out so much better than I could ever have dreamed. I knew it would be good. I just didn't know how good." He had never dared to imagine that such an edifice might be his.

That night, walking across the limestone floor into the atrium, gazing out toward the ocean at sunset, Kimmel had tears in his eyes. "I'm the son of a cabdriver, a boy from the slums of Philadelphia," he said. "How did I get here?"