Design doyenne still sets aesthetic agenda

A rare audience with Andree Putman


Standing well over 180 cm in her two-tone Chanel pumps, Andree Putman, the Grand Dame of modernist design, is at once icon, icon-maker and iconoclast. Born in Paris in 1925, her illustrious career traverses friendships and collaborations with many of the last century’s revered avant-gardist creators, from Samuel Beckett to Andy Warhol and Yves Saint Laurent.

While Putman is perhaps best known for designing the interior of Morgans, the archetypal boutique hotel opened by former Studio 54 owners Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell in 1984, design world insiders revere her for championing neglected designers such as Mariano Fortuny, Eileen Gray and Jean-Michel Frank.

After cofounding the short-lived Createurs et Industriels project, which matched young fashion designers like Issey Miyake and Jean-Paul Gaultier with manufacturers, in 1978 Putman founded the firm Ecart, which means “marginal” or “lonely” in French. She set about rescuing the instigators of the Art Deco revolution and other long-forgotten designers from obscurity. Besides Fortuny, Gray and Frank, Ecart reproduced the work of Antoni Gaudi, Robert Mallet-Stevens and many others.

Putman’s growing fame led to her being asked to design spaces for the likes of Balenciaga, Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, which she followed with her work on the epoch-making Morgans Hotel. Since opening an eponymous design studio in 1997, Putman has developed her own fragrance and lines of furniture and accessories, worked for Concorde, Ferrari, Louis Vuitton and beautified the homes of many wealthy individual clients.

Despite her age, the pre-eminent Parisienne is still much in demand. In Tokyo for the opening of a boutique she outfitted for French fashion brand Anne Fontaine, she revealed to The Japan Times that she had just been asked to re-design Morgans Hotel.

“It’s quite bizarre,” she says dryly. “They asked me to re-do it: ‘But please do it so that nobody will notice,’ they said — And they still have only a tiny budget.”

Seated on a designer chair on the second floor of the new Anne Fontaine store in Aoyama, Putman grimaces when asked about the current state of her homeland.

“It’s nothing but bad news from France,” she laments. On the subject of the nation’s disenfranchised youth and echoes of the 1968 student revolt, she sees a “big fight” on the horizon that will be “very ugly.”

But a singularly French spirit of rebelliousness is Putman’s defining trait. Not only did she defy her mother’s wishes by abandoning a highly promising career as a pianist and forgoing a university education, the gravelly-voiced paragon of modernism has always bucked the prevailing tastes of the times, championing creators sneered at by the establishment, and ushering in an era of sophisticated monotone austerity when her contemporaries were head over heels for brightly colored pop art.

“I was the one who saw what was beautiful and why,” she states, citing the example of “innovative and daring” furniture designer Eileen Gray: “Nobody had ever heard of her,” she recalls. “But now her work is literally priceless.”

Perhaps on account of her legendary black and white tiled bathrooms at Morgans, Putman has often been described as a minimalist. That label — although not entirely accurate — invites the obvious association with the Japanese aesthetic, and she acknowledges a long-standing affinity with Japan’s purist philosophy: At the age of 20, she persuaded her mother to purchase a spherical light shade signed by Isamu Noguchi.

From the days when names like Noguchi and Mies van der Rohe were known to only the cultural elite, this trendsetter par excellence sees the world as almost overwhelmed with design.

“Over the last five or six years, design has blown up: We’ve got to the point where design is everywhere — everything has to be design, everyone wants to be surrounded by design objects.” That, Putman argues, is having a negative impact on her field of expertise. “The abuse of design is more dangerous than a lack of it,” she declares.

Another change Putman observes is an increased awareness of culture.

“Culture is so fashionable now,” she says. “It as though these days, if you’re not culturally aware, you’re an animal.”

More than being simply culturally aware, Putnam’s knowledge of the arts is astonishing; from the age of six, her mother took her to the Louvre three times a week and made her sit through countless concerts, all as part of a rigorous aesthetic indoctrination.

Having started her career writing for French style magazines Femina, L’Oeil and Les Cahiers de Elle, she also has a talent for writing, and her passion for literature is no secret. On the plane from Paris she read Yoko Ogawa’s “The Gift of Numbers,” which she likens to the work of James Joyce: “She harnesses the power of hate with such elegance. Hate is quite a taboo topic, you know, but she uses it like a charm.”

Hailed as a “living national treasure” in France, Putman remains an influential figure on the international design scene and struggles to keep up with a steady stream of requests for her services.

Among several big projects in the works is an exclusive resort on an isolated island off the coast of Honduras. Does Madame ever think of retiring?

“No, no,” she says flatly. “I’m far too passionate about what I do to ever even contemplate taking a back seat.”