When Swiss-born developer Gabriel Barbier-Mueller began constructing Uptown’s first office building for Rolex in 1982, he surprised his contractor with a rare request. He wanted a 100-year warranty on granite. “The contractor tried to give me a 10-year warranty,” Barbier-Mueller says. “I said, ‘When you buy stone and you’re building The Parthenon in Athens … you want something that has a fighting chance to last.’” Eventually, they compromised on a 50-year warranty. Thirty-five years, 18 blocks, and 10 buildings later, Barbier-Mueller is proud he fought for quality.
He looks at his pieces like parents look at their children: each is special in its own way.
It’s hard to say whether Barbier-Mueller’s eye for quality, which eventually led him to collect samurai armor, came from nature or nurture. As he grabs a couple of Swiss chocolates out of a glass bowl inside his office at Harwood International, Barbier-Mueller reminisces about his childhood. “I still remember the first time my family took me to museums in Italy,” he says. His father, mother, and grandfather were art collectors. “What stuck in my mind is getting exposed to quality,” he says. Barbier-Mueller’s father, Jean Paul, taught him to pay attention. That stuck with him, and as he grew older, Barbier-Mueller began collecting his own art.
Barbier-Mueller spent the bulk of his early career as a traveling salesman finding investors and tenants for Harwood International, the real estate firm he founded in 1988. At that time, Barbier-Mueller met Philip Johnson, architect of The Beck House, Thanksgiving Square, and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza. When Barbier-Mueller asked Johnson to build a bridge between two of Harwood’s buildings, Johnson didn’t think he could work with Barbier-Mueller because he believed Barbier-Mueller was too focused on the business and not on the art. Johnson cared more about the aesthetic. That bothered Barbier-Mueller, since one of the reasons he started his business was to allow him the freedom to collect more art. Soon after, Johnson wrote Barbier-Mueller a proposal anyway, and Barbier-Mueller began integrating art into his buildings’ lobbies.
Barbier-Mueller had a particular interest in Japanese samurai armor after learning about the life, culture, and pageantry of the warriors who wore it. A suit of armor in the middle of his office appears big enough to fit him. The power of samurai armor is in its details—every component had a purpose. Armor became a symbol of prestige during times of peace, as samurai displayed their status and wealth in everything from helmets to horses. When Barbier-Mueller tries to explain the strengths of his pieces, he hesitates. They each have so many unique characteristics. He looks at his pieces like parents look at their children: each is special in its own way.
Like the armor, the power of Harwood is in its components. There’s Barbier-Mueller’s daughter Niña, who oversees the collection that has been viewed by more than a million visitors around the world; his oldest son Alexis, who works in finance and marketing; and his youngest son Oliver, who runs their architectural firm. While Barbier-Mueller isn’t planning on retiring anytime soon, the infrastructure sets him up to choose the right moment.
Barbier-Mueller also enjoys curating and displaying art because it allows him to educate others. After more than 25 years of collecting more than 1,300 pieces, Barbier-Mueller and his wife, Ann, opened The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, on the second floor of the Saint Ann Restaurant and Bar. The museum features craftsmanship dating as far back as the 7th century.
One of Barbier-Mueller’s mentors, Neiman Marcus founder Stanley Marcus, used to tell him, “Quality stands long after price is forgotten.” It’s something Barbier-Mueller took to heart. He recalls once paying thousands of dollars for a helmet. “I paid 10 times the price,” he says. “But today I’m rewarded because it’s become much more valuable. If you do your homework and you invest in quality, financially you will come out ahead.”