Life on Neptunes
Forty stories above Miami, the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams is living the high life— surrounded by a mess of Murakamis, a closetful of kicks, and enough Vuitton trunks to sink a steamer. Mayer Rus takes stock.
The view from Pharrell Williams’s penthouse makes an unequivocal statement: “I am monarch of all I survey.” Topped by a frosted-glass dome, the empyrean apartment floats 40 stories above Miami. A gargantuan great room rises the full three levels of the space, which pivots around a white spiral staircase. Bold contemporary art lines the walls, and sybaritic delights—an outdoor pool overhung with an improbable vine-covered trellis, a supersize purple crocodile Hermès bag—can be found at every turn. But the coups de théâtre are the massive window walls, which provide a breathtaking panorama over the city, across Biscayne Bay and Miami Beach, and out to the Atlantic. “Living your life 40 floors up, looking out every day on ocean and skies, you see the world from a different point of view,” Williams says. “It’s like living in a very interesting fishbowl, but since no one can see up here, it’s like a fishbowl with a limo tint.”
More than a fishbowl, Williams’s penthouse feels like the world’s most luxurious tree fort. “Kidult”—a portmanteau of “kid” and “adult”—is a term he often uses to describe himself. For the adult half of the equation, there’s his track record as a producer and performer, a series of triumphs that makes him one of the most sought-after talents in the industry. And his work beyond the music world is also undoubtedly grown-up: In the past eight years, he has put his stamp on fashion, jewelry, furniture, contemporary art, and industrial design. But it is Williams’s inner child that is most immediately apparent in his quirky-luxe apartment, where he shuffles around on this bright Miami morning in a white T-shirt, sweatpants, and bulbous yellow Mickey Mouse slippers, his solid gold BlackBerry never far out of reach. His steroidal closet is filled with a teenager’s fantasy trove of Technicolor sneakers. In the living room, a pair of Christian Liaigre armchairs is drawn up to a low video-game table offering Ms. Pac Man and Galaga. And the home theater, furnished with cushy red leather seats, has been converted into another personal arcade. “I don’t watch movies here. I mainly use it to play Mario Kart,” Williams explains. Even at age 38, he says, “I’m finding it hard to grow up.”
Childlike is one thing, childish another. Though the penthouse bears all the hallmarks of an MTV Cribs pleasure palace, ripe for louche and Lucullan delights, Williams eschews the kind of bacchanals endemic to the music business. “I only entertain very close friends,” he says. As for the caricatured rap-star ethos of Cristal, hot tubs, and hotties and homies by the score, he insists, “I don’t even understand that.”
Still, like any kid, he can’t resist a prank. When visitors arrive at the penthouse, they are confronted with a life-size and startlingly lifelike statue of Agent Smith, Keanu Reeves’s relentless nemesis in The Matrix. A gift from film producer Joel Silver, the replica of the grim-faced villain strikes the only menacing note in the place, which Williams purchased from Miami real-estate titan Ugo Colombo in 2007.
In addition to his video-game addiction, Williams is a hard-core fan of cartoons, especially SpongeBob SquarePants, Family Guy, The Simpsons, and The Smurfs. It’s a quirk that’s reflected in the contemporary paintings and sculptures that dominate the apartment. A Takashi Murakami sculpture—a sphere covered in smiley-face plush fabric flowers—sits center stage on a round white platform on the main level. A Keith Haring drawing that depicts his moppets being gunned down by flying saucers hangs in a hallway off the great room. And the stars of the show are the dozen or so works by Brooklyn artist Brian Donnelly, known as KAWS, who made his name on the street devising sly alterations to advertising posters on bus kiosks and telephone booths. His early trademark was a sperm-shaped character with x-ed out eyes, which turns up here in a series of prints that riff on an old Chanel No. 5 image by Andy Warhol. More theatrical still are KAWS’s mural-size odes to SpongeBob characters and banner-size paintings of Stewie and Brian Griffin from Family Guy, which flank the second-floor landing. His seven-foot-tall sculpture of the Michelin Man stands vigil nearby, like a security guard minding the shop. “I just like the pop life,” Williams says. “And I like the way KAWS looks at it. Every time you look at KAWS’s paintings or sculptures, you’re trying on his glasses.”
Williams’s passion for collecting was ignited during his travels through the increasingly intertwined demimondes of art, fashion, and music, where collaborations and mutual admiration have been the order of the day for the past decade. He is a popular presence at Art Basel Miami Beach—the annual orgy of kunst and commerce fueled on cross-promotion—stirring curiosity among the jaded gallery set whenever he appears. It’s a far cry from Virginia Beach (or “Normalville, USA,” as Williams refers to it), where he grew up and kicked off his career, forming an off-tilt house music group called the Neptunes with high school pal Chad Hugo in 1990. During the next few years, the group morphed into a production duo, with a signature sound based on a platform of luscious beats, sparked by tweets, blips, sirens, and a heavy layer of sexy sighs. Soon Williams and Hugo were shaping tunes for the likes of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, and Mary J Blige. An oft-cited survey from August 2003 found that the Neptunes had produced nearly half the songs playing on pop radio stations that month.
For a music impresario to expand his purview beyond the recording industry is hardly a rarity these days (see Jay-Z, Diddy, and Russell Simmons). But Williams’s side projects have had a uniquely sophisticated spin from the start. In 2005, with Tomoaki “Nigo” Nagao—the Japanese record producer and designer of the street-wear label A Bathing Ape—he founded two fashion lines, Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, which straddle the line between hipster and hip hop. That same year Williams’s fashion cred got a major boost when he and Tomoaki designed a sunglasses collection for Louis Vuitton. And in 2008 he returned to the venerable French luxury goods house to create Blason, a line of hefty, diamond-frosted jewelry with cherub, crown, and shield motifs. Today a dozen vintage Vuitton steamer trunks—some covered in stickers from customs inspectors, grand hotels, and defunct airlines—dot the apartment. “We’re family,” Williams says of the label. “They’re good to me; I’m good to them.”
His recent entrée into furniture design, meanwhile, came through another French connection: Parisian dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, whom he met four years ago at the now shuttered Miami outpost of Perrotin’s gallery. “I had an idea, and he thought it would be interesting to make it as a chair,” Williams says, recalling the genesis of his Perspective chair, models of which are displayed near the kitchen. The design is made up of an Eamesian, midcentury-style shell seat upholstered in leather and supported by resin legs that are, well, legs—the front pair are those of a woman poised on her toes; the rear are those of a man. Clearly, the two are enjoying each other’s company, to put it politely. “I wanted to offer a perspective on what love must feel like,” Williams explains. Perspective was followed by a second limited-edition design, Tank, which utilizes the same classic shell supported by stationary acrylic wheels that resemble the treads of a combat vehicle. After debuting at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2009, the chair was featured at the French boutique Colette in 2010 and then displayed at Perrotin’s Paris gallery.
During that same period, Williams was upping the ante on his artmaking aspirations by collaborating on a sculpture with Murakami, who, like KAWS, is represented by Perrotin in Paris. Called The Simple Things, the piece comprises seven of Williams’s favorite objects—a cupcake, a Trojan Magnum condom, a can of Pepsi, a bag of Doritos, a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Lotion, an Ice Cream sneaker, and a bottle of Heinz ketchup—all encrusted in diamonds and other gems and spilling from the mouth of Mr. DOB, Murakami’s magic mushroom monster character. According to Perrotin, the piece, which was unveiled at the original Swiss location of Art Basel in 2009, sold for $2 million to a pair of unnamed collectors. Before settling in with its owners, the sculpture migrated to Murakami’s blockbuster 2010 installation at Versailles.
Projects and collaborations continue to multiply. There’s the Velo bike for the French firm Domeau & Pérès (which fabricated the Perspective chairs), covered in hand-stitched water buffalo hide and available through Larry Gagosian for about $28,000. And there is Williams’s work with Chinese conceptual artist Yi Zhou, who featured him in her 2009 video, “The Ear,” and her 2010 3-D animated film, “The Greatness.” On a less lofty plane, Williams is also working on a series of ice cream–flavored liqueurs: “I think beer tastes nasty—and wine, for that matter. I like anything sweet.” And he also “has some ideas” for chocolate. But back on the domestic front, his ambitions are far bigger than bonbons. “I love everything that Frank Gehry does. I wish I could have that man build me a Wayne Manor–style mansion, like his idea of it,” Williams says wistfully, gazing out at the sea from his tricked-out aerie. “And Zaha Hadid. I’d like her to do a house for me that is partially submerged in the ocean. Those would be my two dreams.”