There are those grandees of interior design, the likes of Madeleine Castaing (1894-1992), Billy Baldwin (1903-1983) François Catroux (1936-2020) and Jacques Grange (b. 1944) who are acknowledged as having contributed to the canon of design by creating interiors that are universally admired for their elegance and audacity. The majority of those unique talents that stand out from the crowd have an understanding and appreciation of design history, and how architecture and interiors, which are both intimately and inextricably intertwined, developed over time (e.g. the way in which, during the twentieth century, Art Deco led to the elegance of “pure” Modernism, the banality of Post-Modernism, white box Minimalism and so on). The ability of a designer to identify and interpret periods and styles leads to informed choices, consistency and overall refinement that is as relevant when working within the sometimes stifling confines of historic interiors, as it is to something wholly contemporary. Indeed history and originality go hand in hand, as can be seen in the work of maître of understatement Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941), whose designs for the Rockefeller apartment at 810 Fifth Avenue — a confident and original reinterpretation of the classical Louis XV style — were nothing short of genius. On that note, often such a reverence for the past is somewhat more oblique, for example, in the nineteen-fifties French decorator Jean Royère (1902-1981) employed traditional artisanal wood-bending techniques, similar to those used in Louis XVI canapés, in the construction of his whimsically rotund, yet avant-garde Ours Polaire (or “polar bear”) sofas.
The little known designer Isabelle Hebey (1935-1996) is often credited with curing the French en masse of their penchant for period pastiche (or rather what Andrée Putman (1925-2013) referred to as the “vulgar” clichés of luxury, “too much Louis and too many flowers”), yet by no means did that necessitate a wholesale disregard for decades past: “For me, nothing compares to a piece of Boulle furniture placed before a wall clad in steel”, Hebey said in 1968 (a principle that can still be felt in the work of contemporary designers such as Dimore Studios and Fabrizio Casiraghi).
The torch was passed to Putman, Christian Liaigre (1942-2020) and Philippe Starck (b. 1949) et al who took the lessons of the past and reinterpreted them for contemporary living (sometimes directly as with Starck’s now-iconic Louis Ghost chair, which since its release in 2002 has been endlessly copied and riffed upon), while at the same time, remaining utterly modern and au courant.
First and foremost, each of these designers stands out for their ability to create interiors with atmosphere, which, in and of itself, is a term difficult to pin down, being something of an ethereal concept, relating to the overall feeling a place conveys.R