How To Nail A Renovation With Mr Matt Hranek

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How To Nail A Renovation With Mr Matt Hranek

Words by Mr Chris Wallace | Photography by Mr Martin Bruno | Styling by Mr James Sleaford

31 July 2019

A few months ago, during a design meeting in New York, Mr Ralph Lauren pulled out the latest issue of Wm Brown magazine and leafed through it, page by page, holding up each of the spreads for his team to see. “This is the most Ralph Lauren thing out there right now,” he said. This is, at any rate, how the story was relayed to Mr Matt Hranek, the creator of Wm Brown.

The magazine is a print-only evolution of his late 2000s blog The William Brown Project, which he began in order to document his “lifestyle experiment”, as he called it, after buying a plot of land in upstate New York on William Brown Lane. Back in the Americana age of menswear online, the topicality of Mr Hranek’s blog (hunting, workwear, cooking outdoors, decorating a cabin in the woods), an updated version of Mr Lauren’s own mythic worldbuilding, was super zeitgeisty and brought the former photographer a newfound following.

The windows, doors and the Juliet balcony are all reinforced with the same local limestone with which the row houses were built

The house’s original mantelpiece

The praise from the godfather of Americana was, Mr Hranek says, “just the best thing possible. And then a few weeks later I get a call that Ralph wants to meet, so we sat down and just talked for almost two hours. At one point he asked me why I started the magazine and I told him that there were all these things that I wanted to see and say and no one else was doing it. It didn’t exist. And then he looks at me and says, ‘Is your name Ralph? Because that is exactly what I did.’ Pretty great, huh?”

Mr Hranek was born in raised in Binghamton, New York, the son of two first-generation immigrants (Italian and Czech, both the children of local shoemakers) and began his career assisting photographers, including Messrs Horst P Horst, Dewey Nicks and Steven Klein, before striking out on his own to shoot for Wallpaper* and other publications. For a time, he had a travel show on Esquire Network and he has written the best book on watches there is, A Man And His Watch, which he will soon follow up with a book on cars. He talks about his many pursuits, about Mr Lauren, about Binghamton and photography and the wines of Bordeaux with the unbridled enthusiasm you might expect from him if you follow his brimming-over-with-good-times-and-good-cheer Instagram account in which he documents his frequent escapades around the world with his wife, founder of Yolo Journal, Ms Yolanda Edwards.

The hallway connection that joins both row houses

If he seems wildly peripatetic online, in real life he’s even more so – always on the move, buzzing, humming, singing, hosting, cooking, cleaning, arranging and telling a tale. In our somewhat cynical “lifestyle”-saturated moment, it is refreshing to see Mr Hranek fastidiously arranging charcuterie and negronis in the garden of his stone cottage in Saint-Yzans-de-Médoc, making it all just so before he photographs a little still life. He has the eager appreciation and glee of a kid who can’t believe he has the toys that he’s always been obsessed with right here, for his enjoyment. And he wants to share his joy.

Mr Hranek’s collection of vintage barware and ashtrays

The newest of his toys is this French home, a pair of 1870s terraced houses knocked into one, in southwest France, which he and Ms Edwards bought five years ago and have been restoring and decorating ever since. Apart from a pool, which the rocky former marshland of Médoc may have a hard time accommodating, Mr Hranek feels like they are just about finished.

“Yolanda and I had been looking for an excuse to have a house in Europe,” says Mr Hranek. “We had good friends who lived across the street here. We came here a few times to visit. And all of a sudden, they said these two houses were for sale, houses from one of my favourite periods of French architecture, which is Napoleon III, 19th-century architecture, limestone, squares, neoclassical. And we did it. We bought these two houses and brought them together with the help of an amazing architect friend of mine named Oscar Kaufman.”

Mr Kaufman designed the pre-fab house that Mr Hranek dropped onto the William Brown property in Upstate New York 20 years ago, and they have been pals ever since. For the Bordeaux houses, he helped the couple completely gut and restore the interiors, put in under-floor heating, yank out attics to create cathedral ceilings on the first floor and shore up door and window fittings with new limestone to match the rugged brick of the existing construction. All the fireplaces, some with beautiful tableaux built into the mantles, and even several dining chairs and armoires original to the house remain. Other than the ceramic outlets and modern electrical bits, the only new fixtures are in the kitchen, the nerve centre of the house, where Mr Hranek has his beloved Lacanche range cooker and custom cabinetry and fridges designed by Mr Kaufman. The rest of the house is furnished with Mr Hranek’s and Ms Edwards’ many secondhand finds, which include a hand-painted Indian tapestry, farm tables and leather club chairs, Limoges porcelain espresso cups and vintage Campari ashtrays.

Street views in Bordeaux

“I love the antique rummage-sale experience,” says Mr Hranek, sitting at the metal table in his garden, which he found at a seondhand shop up the road. “I think it’s George Carlin who said, ‘A house is just a place to keep your stuff.’ I was like, let’s create this framework for some stuff.”

It is interesting to hear Mr Hranek describe his project as a way to return to his roots, to the hunting and fishing he did with his father when he was growing up. In many ways the Bordeaux home is an important step in the process of that reconnection with his father, who died when Mr Hranek was 18. “My dad was a big oenophile,” he says. “He loved wine. He was a quite aspirational character and was sort of obsessed with this region [Bordeaux]. Fast forward to when I first visited here, driving around the property of Latour. I’m like, ‘Wow.’ This was such an unachievable level for me and then, all of a sudden, I’m here.”

Now that they are here and this extension of the project is up and running, Mr Hranek has begun again to think about what’s next. “Yolanda and I, no matter what town we go to, from Como to Cincinnati, we’re always like, how do we get to live here?” he says. “And I think what’s interesting about houses – and Yolanda and I own two vacation houses and rent in Brooklyn, which is the most ridiculous economics you could ever imagine – is that they are about what brings you joy. Really, that’s everything. Does this bring me joy? Does it bring me pleasure? I never bought watches or cars or property as an investment. I bought them because there was this romantic story. I bought them because I was in love with them.”

It is that romance, he says, which first led him into photography and which has sustained him as the publishing world has “imploded” around him and is the foundation of Wm Brown. “I loved photography and it became this great conduit to exploring the world,” he says. “I didn’t care if it was a portrait of a country and western star in Nashville or an assignment in Bangkok. I loved it all. It was the romance of the image making and the conduit to the experience. With digital, I sort of saw the writing on the wall. I realised that there are great, scrappier photographers who will do it cheaper and faster and better than I could, but I think my value is in ideas.”

Even fairly radical ideas, such as publishing a print-only magazine in 2019. But as with his perpetual movement, his staging of tablescapes, his flea-market hunting and grilling, you get the impression that Mr Hranek couldn’t not find places for his stuff, canvases for his many affections, and a magazine about the things he loves. “I always knew what and whom I was in love with,” he says. “To a fault. And I think that’s a major factor in one’s life. Maybe it’s nurture or nature, what your personal experience is, how vulnerable you’re allowing yourself to be and how you kind of navigate relationships with objects. And I am deeply in love with the things that I love.” The light changes, making the stone walls in his back garden glow umber and gold and, for a moment, our little tablescape looks a bit like the cover of a great old magazine – or an ad for Ralph Lauren. And we both have to stop to take a picture.