J’étais une rebelle

Andrée Putman in conversation with Petra Schmidt

Paris is on strike. A city in exceptional circumstances. The Paris metro and trains have stopped running. However, Andrée Putman doesn’t appear to be very troubled by this chaos. She is running late and even she has had problems with the difficult transport situation and obviously also has a lot of appointments. Despite all this, the 82- year old remains calm. She is, and remains, the “grande dame” in all situations. International boutique hotels are the speciality of Andrée Putman’s design studio. This comes as no surprise seeing as she was the one who designed the Morgans Hotel, which was the world’s first boutique hotel. She has just completed work on a luxury boutique apartment hotel in Hong Kong which is named after her. The Putman is a luxury apartment hotel that has been designed with business travellers in mind who value the service provided by a hotel but want to live as if they are at home.
Anyone who thinks it unusual for a designer to receive a tribute of this kind doesn’t know Putman. She has been a veritable heavyweight in the design world for decades now and is considered to be a great expert on issues of style. She was the one who discovered fashion designers such as Thierry Mugler and Issey Miyake, was responsible for the interior design of the legendary Concorde and was the first person, with her company Ecart, to reintroduce the classic pieces by Eileen Gray. She has also worked alongside the great British Film Director Peter Greenaway on the film “The Pillow Book”. She doesn’t need any tributes. She is one.

Petra Schmidt: Ms Putman you have just come from the centre of Paris which has been brought to a standstill by strikes. Rail workers have gone on strike in order to retain their privilege to retire at the age of 50. You are still working full-time at over 80 years of age. What do you think of all this?
Andrée Putman: They have completely lost their minds.

P.S.: You set up your first company at this very age.
A.P.: I set up Ecart and began re-introducing design classics when I was about 50. In fact, this is when it all really started for me. You should work for as long as you don’t feel the burden of age. I don’t feel any need to stop.

P.S.: You have now been working in the design industry for so many years, but you never studied to be a designer. How did you begin your career as a designer?
A.P.: Oh, right from being a little girl, I felt the need to change our parents’ houses. I didn’t like their bourgeois knick-knacks. I thought that the Louis XVI armchair and chandelier in my room were truly awful. Even then, I longed for large empty rooms that were not so cluttered. I used to torment my mother and ask her: “When can I have some modern furniture.” At the age of 18, I finally got my way.

P.S.: But was the plan not in fact for you to become a musician rather than a designer? At least as far as your mother was concerned.
A.P.: Oh, yes. My mother was very ambitious, but having spoken to a few musicians myself, I knew that as a pianist, I wouldn’t be living the life that I had envisioned. I didn’t want to be shut away in a room day in day out practicing the piano. That was the reason why I put the piano behind me and went to work initially as a stylist and journalist. I was a little rebel back then.

P.S.: What do you mean by you “put it behind” you? You must surely still play the piano at home.
A.P.: No. I have never touched a piano since. What you must understand is that I played to a very high standard back then. I was very ambitious. If I had just played at home, it would have only been of an average standard and average is something that I despise.

P.S.: What actually made you go to New York in the 80s?
A.P.: My friend, Didier Grumbach, had managed to secure me a couple of contracts there. That was when I designed the showroom of Yves Saint Laurent. This meant that I simply became part of the Yves Saint Laurent clique and that opened an awful lot of doors for me. Back then, I met the most brilliant people like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe.

P.S.: You must have had a great time back then.
A.P.: Oh, yes. I really liked going out. I think that the best side of people’s personalities is revealed at night. Rivalry is what it’s all about during the day.

P.S.: At that time, you also met the artist Louise Bourgeois, who is now somewhat advanced in years and just as tough a person as you.
A.P.: Yes. Louise and I used to meet up at one time when both of us were not so young anymore, but we understood each other very well right away. She’s crazy and always up for a surprise. Back then, we used to go to the CBGB night club in New York and we didn’t like the whisky there so she hid a bottle of whisky under her coat and we drank that instead.

P.S.: Was such a night out also how your contract to design the legendary Morgans Hotel came about? After all, your clients Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell were the founders of the legendary Studio 54.
A.P.: No. Steve and Ian paged me at the airport in New York. They had survived the big scandal surrounding Studio 54 and had just been released from prison. They had this idea about the hotel but hardly any money.

P.S.: Was it the two of them who came up with the idea of the boutique hotel?
A.P.: Yes. It was the first ever boutique hotel, but the building that they had found was well and truly revolting. It was an ugly old house on Madison Avenue where drug dealers and prostitutes would congregate. I thought that the whole thing was a joke when they led me in. I laughed and said: “Come on, now let’s be serious and show me the real hotel.” But it was the hotel.

P.S.: I’m assuming that they didn’t have the money to buy a better building.
A.P.: They had heard that I could also create beautiful interiors with simple resources, which was why they gave me free reign. The ridiculously low budget gave me the idea of using black and white for the tiles. I actually had to resort to using the cheapest tiles in the whole of the United States. At first, I was offered pink tiles. And I said: “Out of the question!” I asked if they had white. They did of course. The only thing was that I found white too boring. Then I asked if they had black. They had black as well. Finally, we came up with the black and white chessboard pattern, which we then combined with attractive-looking metal washbasins and beautiful lighting, and suddenly, we had this unusual-looking bathroom which became the hotel’s trademark.

P.S.: People say that you have a particular weakness for bathrooms.
A.P.: The bathroom is the most important room in a house or even in a hotel room, as far as I am concerned. I love the idea of spending an awful lot of time in the bath, perhaps even an entire afternoon with some books and a pot of tea. Bathing and caring for yourself in total peace and quiet is something wonderful and something that is very important for your wellbeing.

P.S.: You barely use any color in your designs? Not even in the bathrooms. Is it because you don’t like color?
A.P.: No, quite the opposite. I like color, but I am of the opinion that interior design should take a back seat. It should provide the setting for other things like art, for example, which is also usually made up of color. And it is a different situation once again when it comes to the bathroom. There are so many accessories in the bathroom in particular that are colored, such as small bottles etc. These can be used often enough to create focal points. There is no need for color here.

P.S.: How do you go about designing a bathroom?
A.P.: For me, the bathroom is like a workshop. It is not in a particularly good state when you walk in, but it looks perfect when you leave. The bathroom must therefore also function like a workshop. Everything must be within arm’s reach.

P.S.: Is there any material that you don’t like to see in the bathroom at all? What do you think of gold taps?
A.P.: Oh, no. I don’t like this kind of ostentatious display at all. Anyway, the sole point of these is to show off your own wealth and therefore your own power. You won’t find any such things in my interiors. There are always people who want to impress me with their luxurious fittings. “Oh, just look at that. These taps are made of solid gold.” In fact, the only thing I can say in response is that it is of no interest to me whatsoever.

P.S.: What does interest you then?
A.P.: Modesty is the basic principle on which my designs are based. I begin with the simple things. This is also what I am known for. It is important to me to make cheap furnishings look expensive. I am also fascinated by combining simple things with expensive items. This combination gives a room particular charm.

P.S.: What does the ideal bathroom look like?
A.P.: For me, the bathroom is a place where I keep very unusual objects. This encourages me to spend more time in it. It is a place in which to allow your senses to run wild and a place where you can have a change of heart.

P.S.: Am I right in saying that you have chosen to use MADISON fittings in your interiors time and time again? What interests you about MADISON?
A.P.: I like the shape of these fittings. It is so playful. These crossed handles and the shape of the shower head, in particular, are very very attractive. It reminds me of times past, of the beginning of the last century. I really like to combine them with very defined and modern shapes. This is the very eclecticism that characterizes my work.

P.S.: What do you mean by eclecticism?
A.P.: I put things together according to my own personal tastes and in such a way as I feel is harmonious. I do not follow any kind of trends. I am not interested in that. Nor do I read any design magazines or observe trends.

P.S.: Do you have a vision of what the bathroom of the future will be like? What will our bathroom look like?
A.P.: I am convinced that the significance of the bathroom will change. In the future, it will be the center of the house, similar to the living room. It will obviously not be a place where you entertain your guests though, so it will not be similar in that sense, but it is the room where it really is all about you. This is where you can retreat and only care about yourself. Similar to the way in which the significance of the kitchen has changed over the years to become the social center of each and every house, so our attitudes towards the bathroom will also change in the long term.