Meet the Costes, the reticent family who turned Paris cafe society fabulous
Xavier Veilhan’s Sophie sculpture drops through the ceiling from the private bar above Germain, designed by India Mahdavi.Benjamin Loyseau

by Stephen Todd

For most of last century, the Paris café scene buzzed along uninterrupted. The waiters were old and grumpy, the coffee burnt and watery, the decor merrily nondescript – at best. Then, in 1984, a style bomb dropped, the fallout of which was felt around the world. It was called Café Costes.

Devised by a then little-known designer named Philippe Starck, the Café Costes was a temple to high postmodernism, its vast, faux sky-lit interior anchored by a vertiginous staircase crowned with an oversized, opalescent clock. The designer’s now covetable tripod tub chairs were scattered all about, instant icons. At the time, Starck said this new epicentre of Parisian chic was modelled on a “Budapest railway station third-class waiting room circa 1956”.

For the Costes brothers, Jean-Louis and Gilbert, the Café Costes was the founding stone of an unpremeditated empire, one that holds sway on the French psyche to this day.

“Nothing prepared either my father or my uncle for the phenomenal success of the Café Costes,” admits Thierry Costes, son of Gilbert and part of the family business since 2000, the year he ushered the Georges restaurant, atop the Centre Pompidou, into existence. “Picture it. These two timid guys from the country who’d moved to Paris and been working as waiters are all of a sudden shot to global fame. Journalists kept calling, but they would say, ‘We don’t know how to speak to journalists. We’re not taking any interviews!’

Meet the Costes, the reticent family who turned Paris cafe society fabulous
Café Français, by India Mahdavi in collaboration with M/M (paris), has been transformed into an opulent den with a redux 1940s vibe.Matthieu Salvaing

“It was never about snobbism or elitism; it was completely the inverse. They were scared!”

Spend any time at the café Matignon off the Champs Elysées, the Café Beaubourg next to the Pompidou Centre, Le Café Marly at the Louvre or the Café Français opposite the Opéra Bastille and you’re bound to sense the presence of a real éminence grise. That’ll be ruffle-haired Gilbert Costes quietly doing his daily rounds, cleverly disguised as a slightly crumpled professor absorbed in his newspaper.

Meanwhile, Jean-Louis can be found at the Hôtel Costes, which is uniquely his domain. (In 2011 the brothers split their interests, Gilbert and his son Thierry founding the Beaumarly group which incorporates some 40 establishments across Paris, including the Hôtel Amour, Hôtel Grand Amour and Hôtel Thoumieux. Jean-Louis is focused on expanding the Hôtel Costes into a mega-luxury brand fit to rival the Ritz.)

The Costes clan’s influence on the Parisian landscape cannot be overstated. Showing a well-known Australian designer and friend around the city’s most striking venues last month, I found myself saying “Oh, that’s a Costes” everywhere we went. Till eventually he asked in exasperation: “What’s a Costes?”

Meet the Costes, the reticent family who turned Paris cafe society fabulous
The corner cafe Etienne Marcel, a collaboration between French artists Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, and graphic designers M/M (paris).Philippe Vaurès

Later, I caught up with Thierry Costes for lunch at the Etienne Marcel, near the bustling market quarter of Montorgueil in the 2nd arrondissement. Established 15 years ago as Thierry’s second venture, this corner café embodies all that is unique about his approach to hospitality design. A collaboration between edgy French artists Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, and graphic designers Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag – who under the banner of M/M (paris) have designed advertising campaigns for Balenciaga, Givenchy and Calvin Klein and cover art for the likes of Madonna and Björk – the interior of the Etienne Marcel is of no defined era or stylistic provenance.

Instead, it floats in a space of its own making, loosely evoking a slightly sci-fi mash-up of materials and mood. The one-off, sinuously globular lighting system links the multitude of disparate rooms. It’s unashamedly alien.

“In some ways I wonder if I was too young when I did this place,” Thierry ponders, looking around. “At 26 I’m not sure I had what it took to stand up to four of the most stubborn creative talents in town. We’re going to renovate, but using the same team to ensure a coherence, continuity. For me, venues are like human beings – if a little bit of cosmetic surgery is possible, why not?”

One of Beaumarly’s most recent watering holes, the Café Français on the Place de la Bastille, went under the knife in 2013. Designed by uber chic interior designer India Mahdavi – once again in collaboration with the lads of M/M (paris) – the once anonymous, cavernous space has been transformed into an opulent den, its looming arches, gilt and mirror finishing lending it a redux 1940s vibe.

Meet the Costes, the reticent family who turned Paris cafe society fabulous
Thierry Costes at Etienne Marcel, established 15 years ago. ‘In some ways I wonder if I was too young when I did this place,’ he says.
Stephen Todd

Mahdavi had previously worked with Thierry on the Hôtel Thoumieux and its spin-off gourmet patisserie in the 7th arrondissement, but the Café Français, she says, “was unquestionably the most challenging site we have worked on, given its layout and its location in a kind of non-neighbourhood’ – not quite the Marais, not quite the Bastille. We had to create a strong presence to stand up to the vast urban void that is the Place de la Bastille.”

Beyond the stoic rigour of the interior, that sense of presence is guaranteed by a bespoke graphic identity devised by Augustyniak and Amzalag, variously articulated across customised carpets, bathroom tiling, table tops and light fittings. Mahdavi designed the plush red and blue Eva Gabriella leather and velvet club chairs (named after Thierry’s second child) especially for the Café Français.

In fact, following the success of Starck’s Costes chair (originals of which fetch around $1500 whenever they turn up at auction), every Beaumarly venue has spawned a seat appropriate to its narrative.

When he designed the Café Beaubourg in 1987, Pritzker prize-winning architect Christian de Portzamparc also devised the mock Gothic wood and leather armchair to sit underneath the café’s flying buttress bridge. Jacques Garcia designed the asymmetric velvet boudoir chair to kit out the Café Ruc; Olivier Gagnère, the jaunty Bridge chair for Le Café Marly with its erotic ring piercing at the back (more than $2500 for an original on 1stdibs.com). Jakob + MacFarlane’s rigid, low-back foam chair for the Georges is produced by Cappellini.

Meet the Costes, the reticent family who turned Paris cafe society fabulous
Georges restaurant, atop the Centre Pompidou, in Alain Bublex’s artwork Plug-in City (2000).Alain Bublex

As for the massive plastic tub chairs we’re seated on at the Etienne Marcel, “we stumbled across them at the Pompidou Centre”, explains Augustyniak. “They were no longer under trademark so we had them reproduced.” Chubby to the point of cumbersome, they appeal to the more design savvy among Beaumarly clientele.

“We like to build venues that take a stance,” says Thierry. “And if you want to build that kind of place you need to conceive and construct them with attitude. There’s no point making a place that is simply polite.”

French journalist and cultural critic Yan Cé says: “The Costes have always been in the avant-garde when it comes to sophisticated style. Each venue has its own identity, spins in its own orbit, but each is characterised by an extreme refinement of vision. They occupy their spaces with incredible self-assurance and, in a sense, they function as embassies of a slightly eclectic Parisian chic.”

While Thierry readily admits to the Costes family owning “a lot of places that people don’t know about – dingy neighbourhood bars and so forth”, these fly quietly under the radar. “They’re mostly traditional places, some charming, some not. I enjoy studying them, seeing how they function, or don’t,” he says.

Meet the Costes, the reticent family who turned Paris cafe society fabulous
Olivier Gagnère’s Café Marly armchair, designed in 1994.Philippe Vaurès

The Beaumarly ventures, however, are all on premium, mostly Right Bank sites and in direct dialogue with a significant cultural destination. Le Ruc is across from the Comedie Française, Le Café Marly is in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre overlooking I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid. L’Avenue occupies a prime site on the avenue Montaigne in the ‘golden triangle’ shopping district right opposite the haute couture HQ of Christian Dior.

On the Left Bank, the Germain café is sited just off the boulevard of the same name in the bustling rue de Buci. In a nod to the history of art-house cinemas in the area, downstairs is the club-like Cinéma Paradiso, which can be rented out for private screenings. India Mahdavi designed both spaces as a kind of homage to the bohemian glamour of the student quarter, all studded leather patchwork walls and quirky, slightly louche seating. Xavier Veilhan’s giant yellow Sophie sculpture drops through the ceiling from the private bar above, her faceted trench coat and high-heeled shoes an evocation of a very Left Bank take on chic. (Veilhan is representing France at the 57th international art exhibition of the Venice Biennale, which opens this weekend.)

“We’d originally invited Xavier to install some sculptures around the Germain, but he wanted to be engaged in the space in a more meaningful way and in the end we are incredibly happy with the result,” says Thierry, having just sent his main course at the Etienne Marcel back, unsatisfied. Beaumarly venues are not known for their gastronomic finesse, even it seems when serving one of their owners.

“We make it our mission to create really unique spaces, spaces that are driven by the architecture, by the interior design, by authentic creative interventions,” says Thierry. “We’re not interested in trends, those kind of cut-and-paste interiors that spring up overnight, everywhere. A bit of verdigris here, a curly chair there, some terracotta pots if they’re trending. We leave that to the amateurs.”

NEED TO KNOW

Gilbert & Thierry Costes Present BEAUMARLY PARIS, edited by Yan Cé, will be released by Assouline in September.

Meet the Costes, the reticent family who turned Paris cafe society fabulous
Café Ruc, in the 1st arrondissement, is the work of decorator Jacques Garcia.Matt Guegan
Meet the Costes, the reticent family who turned Paris cafe society fabulous
India Mahdavi’s “New Wave” sofa, designed in 2009.Derek Hudson courtesy of India Mahdavi
Meet the Costes, the reticent family who turned Paris cafe society fabulous
Le Café Marly, in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre, overlooks I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid.Benjamin Loyseau