One afternoon a few years ago, while Diane von Furstenberg was talking to designer Bill Katz about how to renovate the 19th-century Connecticut barn that had served as her beloved retreat for more than 25 years, Katz told her she should demolish the place. The building, one of five on von Furstenberg’s 100-acre farm, was beautiful, Katz acknowledged, but it was poorly laid out with no proper foundation, and rebuilding was the best option. Von Furstenberg looked pointedly at Katz (who’d previously designed four other spaces for her, including her New York home and studio) and asked, “Are you sure?” He was, and she agreed to move out of the barn so Katz could start over.
Katz’s name may be unknown to the general public, but for decades he has served as designer, architect and aesthetic consigliere to many of the world’s creative heavyweights—particularly A-list artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns. Although these aren’t generally the kind of people who seek out second opinions about how things should look, they all rely on Katz as their secret weapon. When Kiefer saw a run-down 17th-century hôtel particulier for sale in Paris’s Marais neighborhood, he flew Katz in from New York to help decide whether the space could be transformed into his new home and studio. Recently completed and already legendary in art-world circles, the compound now takes up 60,000 square feet of central Paris real estate, including three underground floors that stretch almost an entire city block.
Katz’s latest project, opening in late February, is the much-buzzed-about new European headquarters of auction house Phillips de Pury & Company, in an old mail-sorting depot on Howick Place in London. Over the years he has also worked on dozens of more personal projects, from installing Twombly’s exhibits to designing every detail of Johns’s Connecticut house—even the artist’s bed and kitchen countertops.
If Katz has a signature style, it’s a kind of glorified invisibility—a penchant for pure materials, clean lines and details so subtle that they don’t register as details. “An architecture of no effects” is how he himself describes it. As he gives a tour of Kiefer’s Paris lair, Katz, a tall, unflappable 66-year-old dressed in a navy shirt and Banana Republic pants, combines a folksy loquaciousness with occasional Zen-like pronouncements. “When people walk into a building, they should have a sense of something, but not of the building itself,” he says.
Like his designs, Katz’s career path evinces a deceptive simplicity: You don’t immediately see the effort and ambition behind it. While an undergrad at Johns Hopkins University in the Sixties, Katz was staggered by a Baltimore production of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. He found Albee’s address and convinced him to guest-lecture at Hopkins. Afterward, “Edward said, ‘If you’re ever in New York, come visit,’” he recalls. Katz managed to squeeze it into his schedule a week later.