Paragons of Style: Madeleine Castaing
29 March 2011 § Leave a comment
Wall-to-wall leopard print carpet; clashing patterns adorning the walls and seat cushions; a motley of furnishings whose origins range from Regency Classicism to its French and German counterparts; a colour palette reflecting the bolder colours of the natural world: such are the characteristics – to name but a few – that mark the “classical avant-gardism” of French interior decorator and antiques dealer Madeleine Castaing (1894-1992). With influences ranging from early nineteenth-century literature to Soutinian expressionism, the interiors of Chateau de Malmaison to scenes from Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Castaing’s vigorous renditions of the Regency style may not only convey a skilled and thoughtful kind of eclecticism, but one whose emotive forays into the past were somehow and in part a veritable reflection of her age.
Those familiar with the more “Hollywood” renditions of the Regency Style, from Dorothy Draper to Kelly Wearstler, will find similar elements in what would become known as le style Castaing. Whilst Draper and Castaing were contemporaries, the latter can be credited for imparting a distinctively French interpretation of Regency Classicism, one which would be carried forward in a quite radical way by one of her most noted acolytes, Jacques Grange. Not without a taste for the hyperbolic, Castaing once noted that “when it comes to decoration, the marriage of English comfort with French taste is quite possibly the most important event of the mid-twentieth century” (Eerdmans 2010, 155). Whether or not one holds this to be true, it is without doubt that le style Castaing managed to distinctively harmonise the prominent opulence of the French Empire Style with the simple yet elegant boldness of Regency Classicism.
The ravages of World War II became a harsh reality for Castaing when Lèves was requisitioned by the Nazis in 1940. Upon returning to Paris and living in the Saint-Germain-de-Près quarter, financial necessity led her to translate her skills as a keen decorator into those required for entrepreneurship, a role that, needless to say, was largely inaccessible for most women during that time. Her first boutique opened on rue du Cherche-Midi in 1941 and was moved to rue Bonaparte in 1946 (Eerdmans 2010, 80-3); true to character, it carried an assortment of antique furnishings as well as fabrics of her own design. Indeed her boutique’s eventual success owed little to conventional methods. Le style Castaing was the only curatorial standard, one in which her distinct “eclecticism of period, style, and quality was in stark contrast to the prevailing ethos of connoisseurship and provenance emphasised by other dealers” (Eerdmans 2010, 91). Such an eclecticism, however, was not of the flighty sort, riddled as they are with indecision and incertitude. What mattered was whether or not the object would fit within a particular narrative, whether the story that would be told – as opposed to the style of a purist seeking rigid expression – could accommodate the object regardless of its condition, its time period, and where it comes from. This principle likewise explains the boutique’s ever-changing configuration (as pictured below), one which was governed less by frivolous, haphazard schemas and more by the simple desire to create a worn and lived-in atmosphere, one resembling a number of possible, intimate spaces, such as those meticulously narrated in Balzac or in Zola, or those that remain imprinted in her memories of youth. No wonder, then, that Castaing would describe the experience of buying in almost existential terms:
It’s a big moment and there’s a lot of emotion. But before anything there’s the discovery, the object that lures me, that lures me to the point that I buy it. And right away I know what should surround that object. Right away it creates is own atmosphere (Eerdmans 2010, 101).
Le style Castaing’s tasteful pastiche of patterned fabrics and furnishings would be naturally extended to her apartment (as pictured below) that was located just above her boutique. Living across from her was another notable figure in interior design history – Eileen Gray.
Castaing’s aesthetics wouldn’t remain confined to her boutique, an apartment, or Lèves (which, due to the success of the shop, was reacquired in 1949). Castaing’s influence initially hit the Parisian salons she frequented, which included a number of potential clients and imitators who yearned for her aesthetic. One such client was Carole Weisweiller – a patron of writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (whose own dwellings bear the mark of Castaing [as pictured immediately below]) – who owned a villa in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France (as pictured further below). Cocteau was indeed responsible for “tattooing” its walls with figures (some in outline, some more abstract and assembled in collage) from Greek mythology. The historical yet personal ethos that underpins le style Castaing indeed remains constant, wherein a story – whether fictional or factual – is yet again an essential requirement, the material for translation:
I do a long psychological study. I live with the people who are entrusting me with their houses for two weeks. We eat together, we go to museums together, we take walks around Paris. And I talk to them a lot. They even talk to me about their lives. And I translate. I translate. Translation work, that’s what I do. Their houses, their portraits. That’s what you need. They give off a good feeling. No two houses look alike. But in each one, there’s something in common … There’s a life, a lived-in feeling, but there’s still a pursuit. There aren’t any ugly objects. If an object isn’t pretty, I put it in front as if it were an extraordinary wonder (Eerdmans 2010, 210).
Le style Castaing is perhaps a fitting moniker. For style is generally defined as the manner and mode by which a work of whatever sort is brought into existence. However, a style that is discernible, remarkable, and above all remembered is so much more than this. Virginia Woolf once wrote that a distinguishable style bears the mark of “personality” – “the triumph of style”; in a similar vein, Susan Sontag claims that style is the works’ “principle of decision” – “the signature of the artist’s will.” Madeleine Castaing perhaps falls within that category of designers and decorators wherein idiosyncrasy forms the crux of the entire process. For Castaing in particular, this would entail a sort of variegated expression of private memories, an assortment of individual recollections of intimate places, of scenes of either fictional or empirical origin. These storied spaces indeed convey a nostalgic yet renewed form of Regency Classicism that is, in our view at least, simply sui generis.
For me, a client is always a friend. Doesn’t the mere fact that he comes into my shop prove that he has taste? When he comes in, I go towards him. I want to be friendly, to be useful to him. But I judge him. I follow his eyes. Are his eyes turning toward that dresser, toward that bibelot? I understand very quickly what he expects of me. So I take him into one of my rooms, we discuss literature, we reminisce. I absolutely need to understand his personality … (Eerdmans 2010, 209).
Introductory Image & Image II from Christiane de Nicolay-Mazery & Christina Vervitsioti – Missoffe, French Interiors: The Art of Elegance (Flammarion: Paris, 2009)
Susan Sontag, “On Style,” Against Interpretation and Other Essays (Penguin: London, 1961)
Virginia Woolf, “The Modern Essay,” The Common Reader, Volume I (Hogarth Press: London, 1925)