Gabriel Barbier-Mueller’s Passion for Samurai Armor

By Kevin Cushingberry / November 2017 / D Magazine

The founder of Harwood International on his interest in art and the life, culture, and pageantry of Japanese samurai warriors.

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.

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.