Meeting Alexandre Vassiliev and visiting his magical Paris apartment quickly persuades you that theatrical flair resides in the genes. In three tiny rooms, the Russian-born stage and costume designer, who has worked on ballet and opera productions in 26 countries, has re-created, he says, an interior in "the style befitting an early-nineteenth-century Russian aristocrat who lived on a country estate somewhere between Moscow and St. Petersburg."
Vassiliev should know. Born in Moscow in I958 to a family of artists-his father was a stage designer, his mother an actress. Vassiliev studied costume design in Moscow before moving to Paris in I982. While still in Russia, he was an avid collector of Russian antiques and dresses, and so he spent his student days salvaging many of these things and, with the help of his mother, cleaning and restoring them.
But when he moved to France, he had to leave everything behind and start all over again - this time with a difference. "I had very little money,” he says, "so I just bought pieces of dresses, books, and photographs." Vassiliev concentrated on the period from the I780s to the 1840s.
His small apartment became the canvas for his artistry. The three rooms, which belonged to the city of Paris, were given to him in exchange for a small rent by Bernadette Chirac, the wife of the president of France, and Vassiliev, in seemingly less time than an intermission between acts, completely transformed them. "I wanted to fill the place with wonderful colors and antiques, but as money- or the lack of it-was an issue, I took the theatrical side," he explains. Each room and hallway ('They are small, but I have many of them," he says) was painted a different, vibrant color - from the emerald green of the foyer, to the ruby red of the jam-packed living room, to the deep blue of the bedroom. "Every single color is very bold, very romantic, and very early-nineteenth-century," he says. Against these vivid backdrops, Vassiliev placed his inimitable collections of furniture, objects, costumes, and portraits.
"I have taste, not space," adds Vassiliev, whose book Beauty in Exile (Harry N. Abrams) was published last month. Atmosphere is everything. Friends, he says, extol the Russian feeling of the apartment. But Vassiliev would rather the place evoked something less specific. "It's not Victorian, or Empire, or Restoration," he says. "It's an irony of a certain style, an illusion of something bigger than it is. “What could be more romantic, or Russian, than that?”