Come in. It’s horrible. This room is the opposite of everything I believe in,” says Andrée Putman, gesturing to the orangish interior of an uptown Manhattan hotel room where she is staying. Dressed in a black padded-shoulder sheath, her blond hair a cantilevered slash across her face, her mouth etched in scarlet, Putman resembles the quintessence of the sophisticated Parisienne. What she hates about the room, she explains, is the fact that it is all “received ideas,” handed-down notions of decor. “Who says beige is elegant, orange is daring, and that there must always be an art print facing you at the foot of the bed?”
This is not the carping of a disgruntled hotel guest but observations by France’s foremost interior designer, a woman who is as opinionated as she is innovative. She believes, for example, in decorating her rooms in black, white or gray (“People will provide the color in a room”); that touches of “bad taste” (like five-and-dime geegaws or resort souvenirs) in an elegant room are fine if they have personal value; and that printed fabrics should be avoided in decorating. “Prints,” she declares, “are an aggression you never asked for.”
Putman’s starkly dramatic interiors place her at the heart of the current 20th-century furniture revival. The trend focuses not on such well-known modern masters as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer but on their more obscure contemporaries of the ’20s and ’30s. Chief among them is Irish-born architect Eileen Gray, “The Dark Lady of High Tech,” whose lacquered furniture designs of the ’20s—such as futuristic satellite mirrors and sleek leather armchairs—prefigured the vogue in industrial-looking furniture. Putman began manufacturing Gray’s prototypes and incorporating them into her interiors in the late ’70s, and in 1980, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged a major retrospective of the long-neglected Dark Lady, Putman’s excellent copies began to gain cachet.
The Gray revival triggered a rebirth of interest in other obscure 20th-century classics, and Putman inevitably rushed in. By 1980 she had already tracked down and begun reproducing editions of such works as a giant 1907 reflector lamp by Venetian couturier Mariano Fortuny, metal-frame chairs with elastic strings by French architect René Herbst, and a bulbous lacquered table designed in 1919 by famed photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue. By retrieving and popularizing such long-lost designs, Putman has “expanded the definition of modernism,” according to Art in America architecture critic, Martin Filler. “She has shown us its other side.”
Her stylized approach has yet to filter down to Sears Roebuck, but in avant garde design circles, at least, Putman is all the rage. (“Just to know her name is status,” says respected furnishings author Joan Kron.) In France Putman designed interiors for Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Claude Montana, and now her influence is spreading to the U.S. Her current project is Morgan’s, an as-yet-unopened Manhattan hotel, where she is doing the rooms in bird’s-eye maple and the furniture in men’s pin-striped suit fabric. The dominant color: gray, of course, with a granite-floored lobby.
The 50ish Putman (née Aynard) has long been an influence on French design tastes. Raised by wealthy parents who immersed her in an artistic life early on, she abandoned dreams of becoming a composer, feeling that such a life would be “too abstract.” At 20, she became a furnishings writer for a French women’s magazine. Even then, she championed the clean, spare look of modern design, at a time when most Frenchwomen wanted only heavy decoration and, sniffs Andrée, “a lot of fake Louis XIV.” Later, working as a style coordinator for the French chain store Prisunic, she commissioned a line of low-cost furniture that became an instant hit, more with the very wealthy, oddly enough, than with the budget customer. Put-man also claims she sparked the Art Deco revival—unfortunately, years before it became a trend. “I was always starting things too early,” she complains.
Yet after 30 successful years in design, Putman was feeling incomplete. “I had had a good career, intense production, and personal happiness,” she says, but she felt she had not yet begun to express herself. The decisive change came in 1978, when she split from her husband of 18 years, art critic Jacques Putman. Feeling “so broken I thought I was going to disappear from the map” and convinced that all but a few friends thought her eccentric, Andrée decided to “use the shock to advantage and do something completely for myself.” Since she had decorated several of her own apartments as well as some for friends, Putman decided to open an interior design office. “I was so sure it would not be a success,” says Andrée, who formed a partnership with architect Jean François Bodin, that she named the firm Ecart, meaning “off to the side,” a phrase that summed up the impact she expected to make.
Despite her pessimism, the firm clicked immediately, winning commissions first from Yves Saint Laurent to decorate a Paris showroom and then from other fashion-designer clients. At the same time, she embarked on an even more daring enterprise: manufacturing her own furniture. This year she expects to turn out some 10,000 pieces, ranging in price from $200 to $5,000.
Today, Putman’s career is exploding on all fronts. Not only is she constantly adding new prototypes to her furniture series, she recently designed a nightclub in Tokyo, and is now working on a museum in Bordeaux and a line of china and glassware for a New York firm. Still, for Putman, who lives in a Parisian bottle factory she redecorated for herself and her two children, the important thing is that her work, like her fashionable self, should never look dated. “I believe,” she says, “in the timelessness of great design.”