Rebel Icon

28th June 2009 (Last Updated June 28th, 2009 18:30)

Internationally acclaimed French designer and interior architect Andrée Putman talks to Christopher Kanal. They cover conformism, style and living in the present.

Rebel Icon

Parisian Andrée Putman is one of the world’s leading interior designers. Born in 1925, she worked in the ’60s as a design journalist for the magazine L’Oeil.

She made her name reproducing the forgotten 20th century furnishings of designers such as Eileen Gray, Mallet-Stevens, Pierre Chareau and Jean-Michel Frank, who subsequently enjoyed a renaissance. But it was interiors that made Putman an icon, through projects including shop interiors for Yves St Laurent, Thierry Mugler, Azzedine Alaia and Karl Lagerfeld, and even Air France’s Concorde fleet.

When designer Ian Schrager created Morgans Hotel, designed by Putman, in 1984, the notion of the “boutique hotel” was born. Putman also created the film set for Peter Greenaway’s movie The Pillow Book, the office of former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang and the Bordeaux Museum of Contemporary Art.

In 1997 she founded Agence Andrée Putman, producing furniture and home accessories. In April this year at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile Putman debuted a minimalist all-aluminium chair for Emeco, conceived as a ‘soulmate’ for the Mallet-Stevens chair she used for Morgans.

Chairman of Emeco Gregg Buchbinder described Putman as ‘the most stylish woman I have ever known.’ ‘She told me she wanted to do with the Emeco chair what her friend Coco Chanel did with the little black dress.’

HMI: How would you describe the Andrée Putman style?

Andrée Putman: It is work that has to be almost invisible. I often say that it has to be omnipresent in its disappearance.

My interiors are simple but not impersonal, serene but not cold, tempting but not opulent, charming but not nostalgic, they are refined but not restrictive. Basically I always try to reconcile poor and rich materials.

“The idea with Morgans in 1984 was to redefine a hotel.”

It is an anti-ghetto and nonconformist idea about the arrangement of space and light, and about the elegance of details.

You have worked on many projects, including interiors for Yves St Laurent shops and Concorde. Which project did you enjoy the most?

A very remarkable industrial building that had to be transformed into a museum in Bordeaux. The most talented artists of the past fifty years have been shown there.

I like the way the curator was involved in my work; he added something of himself.

You created the boutique hotel concept. Did you ever think it would inspire so many imitators?

I never understand the relationship of these two words together. The idea with Morgans in 1984 was to redefine a hotel: this kind of exceptional parenthesis of dwelling, which is somewhere between public and private, unfamiliar and intimate, permanent and ephemeral, leads us to examine the question of hospitality.

I am happy that people liked it.

You are a great pianist. Did you always want to be a designer?

It happened by chance, in the precise moment when things were ready for changes. I studied piano for 15 years.

I was going to be a composer and I even received a prize for harmony at 16. Since my childhood the principal features of my character were my need for freedom and my ability to say ‘no’.

When I was 15 years old I decided to empty my room of all objects that I found too loaded with signs of the past, with symbols of the social status and the haughtiness of an environment that I could not stand anymore. I just wanted an iron bed, a contemporary chair and a Miro drawing.

With this emptiness, the emptiness of my room, I liberated myself, I turned down all the dictates of good taste, elitism and bourgeoisie. In a way, with this decision, I had already chosen to treat ‘space’ (interior design) rather than ‘time’ (music).

“My interiors are simple but not impersonal, serene but not cold, tempting but not opulent.”

Does the current global slowdown make design more or less relevant? Do you see new design styles emerging out of this period of uncertainty?

In spite of the fact that I have a great respect for my colleagues, I think that the media attention and the star system regarding designers went too far. They are treated like philosophers, like discoverers, like gurus.

For me, designers are quite simply people who put charm, spirit – in short, a heart beat – in places and in objects. They are people who are free from the concerns of being odd and original at any price.

I love objects that are totally pure from any effort of design; of a design that is too often arrogant and pretentious.

What makes a good design? What makes a bad design?

The artist always looks at the past while thinking about the future. Some people calculate and constantly search for the latest trends, but that’s not my objective.

I use my feelings and my mind to access a bazaar of different styles and concepts.

Are you pleased with the results of the redesign for Morgans? Did you want to start from scratch or continue its design legacy?

The original project in 1984 was especially enjoyable because of the owners’ enthusiasm. Their desire was to have the best and they put care into every detail.

They also had the courage to take risks. I think that The Morgans had a mystique to it that others found exciting.

I hope that people will find this new incarnation to be just as intriguing. I have not changed the essential elements, which have worked from the start.

How do you approach a hotel design project?

How does one find the subtle point of equilibrium between a traveller, a passer-by and a place that is unfamiliar to him? How does one make people feel at home in a hotel without falling into the trap of giving the place the (caricatured) feeling of an illusory home?

The main purpose is to innovate by creating an architecture with a very vivid expression, powerful enough to create particular atmospheres poles apart from the usual hotel clichés.

Are you working on any hotel projects at the moment?

I am working on two projects in Paris and Hong Kong.

You sparked the Art Deco revival years before it happened. Did you ever think you were ahead of your time?

As a child I always wanted to go to where things started, where they were invented. I was carried by the enthusiasm of curiosity, in search of ecstasy or simply of the happiness one can find either in books or in the thoughts or the words of others.

“As a child I always wanted to go to where things started.”

I believe that I am modern; even if I take an ancient object, the way I will choose to present it will be contemporary.

What has been your life philosophy?

I have always cultivated the rebel spirit. From my early childhood I felt very different from the others.

But what I’m interested in is the balance between discipline and revolt. I prefer to listen to the present, to live in this contemporary world rather than in nostalgia.

I never take myself too seriously and I am full of contradictions. For example I love cities but I also like to immerse myself in places of strong spirituality, like, for instance, a 12th century Roman abbey.

I like contemporary art, Egyptian art and Chinese art, but I also like simple, everyday objects that can be found easily. I am very curious by nature and very sensitive to various flows of information.

I believe that to be happy one just needs to find something to be passionate about.

What was the last design that really excited you?

The wonderful work on the Beijing Opera by Paul Andreu and an exhibition of Marc Newson’s unique and limited edition pieces shown at the Gagosian gallery in New York in 2007.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given?

Go ahead!