Meet Andree Putman, 'Grande Dame' of design

10th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

She revamped the inside of the Concorde, helped coin the concept of the boutique hotel, and even gave her name to a skyscraper in Hong Kong: meet Andree Putman, the 84-year-old Grande Dame of French design.

The tall, chic Parisienne with a deep, husky voice and blonde bob, and her trademark style -- all black-and-white checks and sober minimalism -- are the subject of a three-month retrospective opening this week at Paris city hall.

For her daughter Olivia, who now runs the Putman design studio and who curated the show, Andree Putman "became a style ambassador in spite of herself -- she just did her own thing, she would never have claimed such a role."

From her upbringing in a wealthy, art-loving home on Paris's Left Bank, to summers spent in the family's historic abbey in Burgundy, Putman was born into a world of elegant comfort and refinement.

But her first design project -- her teenaged bedroom -- marked a break with her milieu when aged 15, she emptied it to get rid of all objects associated with the past, loaded with social status.

Despite showing promise as a pianist, she signed up as messenger-girl at a woman's magazine, "Femina", and began gravitating towards the design world.

"She had no training -- she just opened her eyes and looked around," said her daughter. "When she went over to a friend's for dinner, she would offer to haul around the sofas, or drape a dishcloth over a lamp to soften the mood.

"Until one day she was noticed," and was invited to help design a line of tableware for the French supermarket Prisunic in 1958.

The 1960s and 1970s brought her marriage to the art dealer Jacques Putman, her discovery of the art scene, and stints in a design bureau and a talent incubator that launched such designers as Jean-Paul Gaultier and Issey Miyake.

But Putman truly came into her own after divorcing her husband, setting up her own design firm, Ecart, in 1978 -- and hungrily embracing the Paris night scene where she cut a distinctive figure at the age of 53.

As a designer in her own right, she was the first to re-edit pieces from the 1920s and 1930s, restoring figures such as Eileen Gray to global prominence in the process.

"She saw herself as an archaeologist", of design, searching the archives of design for ideas, says her daughter.

High-profile projects flooded in through the 1980s and 1990s, as Putman designed stores for the likes of Guerlain or Yves Saint Laurent, in France and the United States, movie sets for British director Peter Greenaway, a suite for the French culture ministry, or a revamped interior for the Concorde aircraft in 1994.

And from around the world came commissions like the Putman skyscraper, a luxury apartment-hotel complex in the heart of Hong Kong.

One of her most emblematic projects was the 1984 revamp of the Morgans hotel on Madison Avenue, creating what star architect Jean Nouvel dubbed the world's first boutique hotel -- and launching her on the international design scene.

"With few rooms, but a lot of style, in a neighbourhood that was still seen as rough back then -- she started a real craze," said Olivia Putman.

The New York hotel came complete with a bathroom in black-and-white checked tiles -- recreated for the Paris show -- that was to become part of the Putman signature. Another marker was her taste for mixing so-called poor materials, like basic tiles, with luxurious ones.

Putman's 65-year career was also a story of encounters -- with Andy Warhol or Pierre and Gilles, whose portraits of her are on display in Paris, or Karl Lagerfeld who once sent her a rich collage summing up her design universe.

For her daughter, Andree Putman's "contribution to contemporary design is both complex and discreet."

"She never sat down and said to herself -- 'I am going to redefine the bathroom'. But she was first to put the bathroom -- which back then was a poky, damp room, in the centre of the home."

"And three decades on you have entire department store floors devoted to the art of bathroom design."

Likewise, Putman brought back soft, indirect lighting at a time when neon strips were everywhere -- "and doing humanity a great service in the process," quipped her daughter.

© 2010 AFP

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