Andree Putman: Acclaimed designer who helped pioneer the concept of boutique hotels

 

When Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, the New York entrepreneurs behind the famous late-'70s discothèque Studio 54, emerged from a 13-month stint in a federal prison for embezzlement and tax fraud, they had thought up a new concept: the boutique hotel. They secured enough financial backing to acquire the Executive Hotel, a nondescript brick building in Manhattan, and approached the French designer Andrée Putman with a simple query: "We've heard you can design bathrooms without using any marble." Her reply was forthright. "There won't be any marble in your hotel. I see it as somewhere simultaneously austere and elegant, with a few whimsical touches. Your budget is totally unrealistic. We'll have to choose the least expensive stoneware tiles, but avoid pink."

By chance, the bathroom tiles she favoured were available in black and white, enabling Putman to create a checkerboard pattern that became her trademark. "Not using colour broke the rules of luxury hotels," explained the designer, who lived on-site during the transformation of the building into the sleek, monochromatic Morgans.

Popular from its opening in the mid-1980s, Morgans set the benchmark for the boutique hotel and enabled Schrager to launch the similarly styled Royalton and Hudson in New York, and roll out the concept in Los Angeles and Miami, as well as London, with the Sanderson and St Martins Lane. While Putman was not involved with the design of Schrager's other establishments, Morgans proved a career-changing commission, enabling her to design apartments and hotels all over the world, including the striking Im Wasserturm in Cologne, in what used to be Europe's largest water tower, and a 31-floor apartment skyscraper in Hong Kong named after her; she also renovated the Pershing Hall in her native Paris in 2001.

She was born Andrée Christine Aynard into a wealthy family of bankers related to the Montgolfiers, the hot-air balloon inventors. Indeed, she spent many a summer holiday at the Fontenay Abbey, once the brothers' workshop, in the Burgundy region. The austere beauty of the Cistercian monastery instilled in her an understanding of light and geometry and fostered the minimalism that remained a constant in her work.

Rebelling against bourgeois conventions was in her blood: her polyglot father, a graduate from the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, also embraced an ascetic lifestyle. She grew up surrounded by artists and intellectuals but had little formal education, and was encouraged to play the piano by her mother, an accomplished pianist. However, she was told she didn't have the hands to become a virtuoso and studied composition at the Conservatoire National instead.

At the end of the Second World War, the French composer Francis Poulenc presented her with the first prize in harmony but reminded her of the hard road ahead for a would-be composer. A few months later she had a serious bike accident, which accounted for her characteristic straight-up posture, and concentrated her mind on an alternative career.

She joined the magazine Fémina as a messenger girl, soon graduating to writing. Throughout most of the 1950s she contributed to Elle and the influential art magazine L'Oeil. At the end of the decade she met Jacques Putman, an art critic, collector and publisher, after her boyfriend's car broke down in Vézelay. "He was an incorrigible dandy, but six months later, he was divorced and we were married," she said of Putman. "For better and especially for worse. I often told him that he was so beastly to me that he made my career. I threw myself into my work."

The Putmans moved in the same circles as the artists Alberto Giacometti and Niki de Saint Phalle, and Andrée met Denise Fayolle, of the Mafia style agency, who hired her as art director of the home department with the retail chain Prisunic. Her ability to, as she said, "design beautiful things for nothing" and her belief in making art affordable to everyone, saw Prisunic sell editions of lithographs by contemporary artists for as little as Fr100 (the equivalent of £12 today). In the early 1970s she joined the haute couture entrepreneur Didier Grumbach in Créateurs & Industriels, a fashion collective attempting to bridge the gap between industry and designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler and Issey Miyake, whose first solo shows she helped organise. She also showed her flair for rejuvenating buildings by transforming former French railway premises into the Créateurs & Industriels showroom and offices.

Following the Créateurs & Industriels collapse and her divorce in 1978, she founded Ecart International, which reintroduced Art Déco furniture pieces by Jean-Michel Frank, Eileen Gray and Robert Mallet-Stevens in the 1930s. She created her first black and white bathroom for the Rome apartment of her friend Karl Lagerfeld in 1982, and reprised the idea for Morgans. Never one to miss an opportunity for publicity, Jack Lang, the then French Minister of Culture, hired her to decorate his office. Subsequent commissions included an interior makeover for Concorde Air France in 1993, the Sheraton at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, Bally, Guerlain and Yves Saint Laurent flagship stores in Paris, and the CAPC, the Centre d'Arts Plastiques Contemporains, the museum of contemporary art, in Bordeaux.

In 1997 she launched Studio Putman and designed the Vertigo silverware and jewellery range for Christofle, a champagne bucket for Veuve Clicquot, and the Steamer, a checkerboard version of the Louis Vuitton bag. In 2007 she handed over the reins to her daughter Olivia, but continued with projects including a baby grand for France's oldest piano manufacturer Pleyel and stage designs for the enigmatic French singer Christophe. In 2010 the Andrée Putman, Ambassador Of Style exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris drew more than 250,000 visitors.

Lionised as the grande dame of French design she lived in a Saint-Germain-des-Prés loft years before the idea became fashionable in France. Despite being the epitome of French chic she name-checked the comic strip heroine Bécassine when asked about her fondness for black and white. "I loathe pompous luxury," she said. "I am interested in the essential, the framework, the basic elements of things. I like the idea of being irreverent and free."

Pierre Perrone

Andrée Christine Aynard, designer: born Paris 23 December 1925; married 1958 Jacques Putman (divorced 1978; one son, one daughter); died Paris 19 January 2013.

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