Andree Putman, ‘The Grande Dame of Design,’ Revolutionized Interiors

Tracy McNicoll remembers famed interior designer Andrée Putman.

Catherine Gugelmann/AFP/Getty, via Newscom

A model of French elegance—tall, striking, poised, and opinionated, instantly recognizable with her trademark blonde sweep—Andrée Putman revolutionized interiors to international acclaim. The so-called grande dame of design died Saturday morning at her home in Paris’s sixth arrondissement. She was 87.

Putman, née Aynard, was born in Paris in 1925. A true musical talent promised to a monastic existence at the piano (at 19, she earned top honors at the Paris Conservatory), she spurned a bourgeois upbringing and her musician mother’s wishes to drop music for style. Her first foray was a job as a messenger girl for the French women’s magazine Femina, where she would soon become a journalist. Steeped in the Left Bank milieu of artists and intellectuals at Café de Flore—eulogies this weekend in France cite sculptors Alberto Giacometti and Niki de Saint Phalle, playwrights Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, and actress Juliette Gréco among early friends and acquaintances—she married art dealer and critic Jacques Putman in 1958. The same year she would be recruited as a stylist for French retail chain Prisunic and called on to design home furnishings. Under the evocative slogan “Beautiful for the price of ugly,” she was entrusted with a mission to democratize style, a theme she would forever hold dear.

Putman would rise to become an icon of French chic. She was an “ambassador of style,” the title of a 2010 retrospective on her work at Paris’s City Hall. She cultivated close associations with the fashion world in the 1970s as artistic director of Créateurs & Industriels, a design bureau and breeding ground for talent famed for launching the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, and Thierry Mugler.

“This woman had a style entirely of her own in the way she dressed and in the way she looked at places,” Didier Grumbach, who heads of the French Couture Federation and founded Créateurs & Industriels in 1971, told Agence France-Presse on news of Putman’s passing Saturday. “She changed the style in the 20th century and even redefined elegance à la Française,” Grumbach said.

In 1978, at 53, after a difficult divorce, Putman founded her own interior-design agency, Ecart. She resurrected, reissued, and popularized classic 1920s and 1930s interior pieces by Pierre Chareau, Mariano Fortuny, Eileen Gray, and others for new audiences around the world. She would design interiors and boutiques for fashion luminaries Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Azzedine Alaïa, and many more.

In the early 1980s she was commissioned by French Culture Minister Jack Lang to design his office. Her masterpiece half-moon-shaped desk is still cherished today. In his ode to Putman on Saturday, Lang noted that the desk has been 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.”

Putman has been credited with inventing the very concept of the boutique hotel with her game-changing interior design of the Morgans Hotel on New York’s Madison Avenue in 1984. Her black-and-white-tiled bathrooms epitomized sober elegance and helped make Putman’s name internationally. She put her stamp on hotels in Germany, France, Japan, and Hong Kong, where a luxury skyscraper apartment-hotel was named for her. In 1994 she redesigned the interiors of the supersonic Concorde for Air France.

Jean-Charles de Castelbajac called Putman “my second mom, a model of talent and discipline,” in a flowing tribute Saturday. “Andrée Putman was the Joan of Arc of design. There was genius and heroism in her work,” the fashion designer told AFP, calling Putman “the heiress to Bauhaus, in the lineage of Eileen Gray and other great woman designers.” Castelbajac declared, “There was a visionary dimension to her work that is today a style unto itself, based in black and white.”

Putman's funeral will elicit new tributes Wednesday at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés church in Paris.