“Unless you have a feeling for that secret knowledge that modest things can be more beautiful than anything expensive, you will never have style.” - Andrée Putman
Known as la reine du damier (the queen of the checkerboard), the interior designer Andrée Putman (1925-2013) had an outlook of “radical simplicity” that made her seem perpetually modern. In a career that spanned more than four decades, she was designated “Above taste” by the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung. “Materials are not objects, like letters in a vocabulary,” she once said. “They have connotations, they belong to a code, like shapes or words.” Her work, which included the first boutique hotel, Morgans, in New York (1984), and the Guerlain flagship store in Paris (2005), defined modern elegance for so much of the last century. Born Andrée Christine Aynard, in Paris, the granddaughter of a wealthy banker; her father was a polyglot intellectual and her mother a concert-caliber pianist. A family of aesthetes and eccentrics, her grandmother, Madeleine Saint-René Taillander, displayed Egyptian mummies in her Paris apartment and sat on the jury for the prestigious Prix Fémina literary prize. Putman grew up in Paris, but spent summers in Burgundy at her family's country home, the Romanesque Fontenay Abbey, where she said, she was in a state of “visual arousal bordering on the spiritual.” The austere beauty of the Cistercian monastery instilled in her an understanding of the geometry of architecture, the views and perspectives, “the effects of stone and light, the richness and the diversity of non-colours”. All these elements would foster in her a hard-edged minimalism that remained a constant throughout her work. “Aged 15, I told my mother I wanted to clear my bedroom of all the objects that crowded it,” Putman recalled. She removed what she saw as status symbols, leaving little and only the best: a bed and chair by Mies van der Rohe, a Noguchi globe chandelier and a Miró poster. Rebelling against bourgeois conventions was in her blood: her father was a graduate from the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure who spoke seven languages, but embraced an ascetic lifestyle in protest against his social situation.
Putman would enter the world of design as a journalist, joining Femina in 1950 as a messenger girl, moving to Elle in 1952, and then finally to L'Oeil, the prestigious art magazine, as interiors editor. In 1958, she met Jacques Putman, a wealthy art critic, collector and publisher, after her boyfriend's car broke down in Vézelay. “He was an incorrigible dandy, but six months later, he was divorced and we were married,” Putman said of her husband. “For better and especially for worse. I often told him that he was so beastly to me that he made my career. I threw myself into my work.” It was through Jacques that Putman was exposed to the world of Modernism and contemporary art, which served to refine and nuance her instinctively modernist voice. The Putmans moved in the same circles as the artists Pierre Alechinsky, Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle and Alberto Giacometti; and Putman met Denise Fayolle, of the Mafia style agency, who hired her as artistic director for the home accessories range of Prisunic, a chain of shops known for its cheap fashion fixes. Under the evocative slogan “Beautiful for the price of ugly,” Putman was entrusted with a mission to democratize style, a theme she would forever hold dear: “I was like a nun giving up her life to the modest goal of making inexpensive things look beautiful,” she said. Putman’s focus became more populist and egalitarian, foreshadowing the revolutionary social changes precipitated by the Paris uprising of May 1968. “French taste was conservative then. Every bourgeois dining room mantelpiece had two candlesticks either side of a clock,” Putman said. “We were fighting to breathe new life into French culture.” Putman left Prisunic in 1971 for Créateurs et Industriels, a fashion collective attempting to bridge the gap between industry and designers, where, as artistic director, she was credited with helping the early careers of Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler, and Claude Montana, among others; but it, and her marriage, failed a few years later, leaving Putman with an intense feeling of emptiness. She chose to live in a room furnished with only a bed and two lamps “in total austerity, because I no longer knew what I liked”.
Taking her friend Michel Guy’s advice, at the age of 53, she founded Écart International, which reintroduced and popularized classic, but largely forgotten, French modernist furniture that she culled from flea markets: “I love the crazies, the solitaires,” she said. “Mariano Fortuny, Eileen Gray, Pierre Chareau, for example, were delicate creatures, failures condemned to a fatal solitude.” She added, “My supreme reward was to realize that my work as an amateur archaeologist of my century made famous names that I once had to spell, with rage, even to art historians.” Putman had almost abandoned the idea of an interior design career – hence the name of her company, Écart, meaning “side step” in French. Then, in 1981, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, the New York entrepreneurs behind Studio 54, emerged from a 13-month jail term for tax evasion, having thought up a new concept: the boutique hotel.
Having secured enough financial backing to buy the Executive Hotel, a dowdy brick building at 237 Madison Avenue, they approached Putman with a simple query: “We've heard you can design bathrooms without using any marble.” Her reply was blunt. “There won't be any marble in your hotel. I see it as somewhere simultaneously austere and elegant, with a few whimsical touches. Your budget is totally unrealistic. We'll have to choose the least expensive stoneware tiles, but avoid pink.” Putman, who lived on site during construction, eschewed the “vulgar” faux-Versailles cliches of grand hotels — “too much Louis and too many flowers,” she decreed — in favor of simple lines and a few well chosen pieces that enhanced an otherwise pared-back, monochromatic interior. “Style and money have nothing to do with each other,” she once mused on the concept of luxury. “Good design is pure and simple, and I am interested in that family of things that will never date.”
By chance, the bathroom tiles she favoured were available in black and white, enabling her to create a checkerboard pattern that became her trademark: “Not using colour broke the rules of luxury hotels,” she explained. Morgans was the epitome of Putman’s particular brand of laid-back sober elegance, and when it opened in 1984 it was both a critical and popular hit; within weeks, celebrities were flocking to the small, gray-toned rooms. Much imitated all over the world, although not by Putman in her subsequent hotel designs, Morgans became the prototype of the new boutique hotel: a small, artistically designed answer to the standardized mass-market fare. Putman went on to work with other hotels, including the Wasserturm in Cologne and the Pershing Hall in Paris, creating sleek, cutting-edge designs poised at what she called “the perfect balance between discipline and revolt.”
With Morgans, Putman established herself as an international purveyor of chic interiors, and became the go-to for the fashion world: “Because I started working in New York, the French suddenly asked for me.” Hired by the likes of Azzedine Alaïa, Karl Lagerfeld and Balenciaga, Putman had an innate ability for translating their fashion aesthetic into brick-and-mortar retail experiences. Lagerfeld would later describe Putman’s style as “very French, impeccable, very clean, like herself.” Whilst her interiors weren’t minimal, they were certainly streamlined. Taking inspiration from the elegance and simplicity of the Art Deco — as evidenced with Écart, she was heavily influenced by the era — but with a unique play on geometry, tempered by restraint. Her connection to Alaïa in particular ran deep. As the story goes, the designer was picked up by Bergdorf Goodman when a buyer for the upscale department store saw Putman walking down Madison Avenue wearing a leather Alaïa coat so remarkable that he chased her down and demanded to know where she got it. Putman also helped Alaïa secure the twinkling Palladium night club in New York for an impossibly lavish fashion show in 1985, thanks to the fact that she had designed the club's interior.
In 1984, Jack Lang, the then French Minister of Culture and creator of the Regional Fund for Contemporary Art — never one to miss an opportunity for publicity — hired Putman to decorate his office; her half-moon-shaped writing desk is still in service, adopted by the last five French prime ministers. Lang, who called Putman a friend, spoke of “a great dame, inhabited by a true utopia: that art should penetrate every layer of society.” Subsequent commissions included a revamp of the cabin for Concorde, the Sheraton at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, Bally, Guerlain and Yves Saint Laurent flagship stores in Paris, and the Centre d'Arts Plastiques Contemporains, the museum of contemporary art, in Bordeaux. In 1997 she launched her eponymous design studio — where her daughter, Olivia, took over as art director in 2007 — specialising in interior design, product design and scenography. Besides more designs for shop interiors in Paris, New York and Tokyo, and a Hong Kong skyscraper that bears her name, Putman also worked on a number of small domestic objects, including the Vertigo silverware and jewellery range for Christofle, a champagne bucket for Veuve Clicquot, and the Steamer, a checkerboard version of the Louis Vuitton bag. In 2010 she was celebrated with an exhibition, Andrée Putman, Ambassador Of Style, at the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, curated by her daughter, which drew more than 250,000 visitors.
An emissary of Parisian chic, Putman was one of her own most arresting creations. Her bold personal style was based on her imperfections, which she embraced, her characteristic posture — like that of a tightrope walker — the result of a near fatal bike accident: “Why is it asymmetrical?” she said of the ring she designed for the jewellery brand Christofle, “Life is made of imperfections”. Her Mount Rushmore features and awry smile were in theory all wrong for the cameras, yet she photographed beautifully. With a unique take and sense of humour, Putman once referenced the comic strip heroine Bécassine when asked by a documentary maker about her fondness for monochrome interiors. “I loathe pompous luxury,” she said. “I am interested in the essential, the framework, the basic elements of things. I like the idea of being irreverent and free.” Stephen Bayley, the critic and columnist described Putman as “the Simone de Beauvoir of interior design”. Indeed Putman often spoke of her work in the lingua franca of the Latin Quarter avant-garde, where she knew the great intellectuals of her day, including Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. She spoke of “the interiority of emotion, of emptiness and of the inner scenography of space.” She brought a literary sensibility and a philosophical approach to design. Donald Albrecht, the curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, described Putman’s work as “the embodiment of ‘French Style’ — luxury tempered by restraint, cool geometry enriched by warm sensuality.”
“In the 1970s, my work was said to be bizarre,” mused Putman. “But it was absolute classicism. When you look at it today, you could think that it was designed yesterday, 20 years ago, or in a month.” Yet, despite her enormous success, Putman saw herself and her career as perpetually unfinished projects: “I’ve had so many occasions to start believing in myself, and I never will. Strange. I am protected by a lot of angels from any self-esteem, from the capacity to feel content with myself. Perhaps that also gives me a certain capacity for wonder at the world, like a child before a Christmas tree. This is very strong in my life, and maybe it’s what opens me to other people, and to new ventures and experiences. In French, we have a nice word for that: ‘partant,’ ‘ready to go.’ I’m always ready.”