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.


Madeleine Castaing (1894-1992)


Salon de la rotonde - Lèves - Chartres, France


Salon de la rotonde - Lèves - Chartres, France

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.


Library/Lounge (Second Floor) - Lèves - Chartres, France


Winter Bedroom - Lèves - Chartres, France


"In Madeleine's bathroom, an unusual small chair is supported on ballerina legs en pointe. It was reputedly from a brothel ..." (Eerdmans 2010, 69)


Vestibule - Lèves - Chartres, France


Vestibule - Lèves - Chartres, France

It should be apparent by now that grasping le style Castaing in all its charm and evocativeness does not at all depend on historical accuracy let alone a specialist’s knowledge in the history of the Regency style. The latter after all was yet another rendition of Greco-Roman design, one bolstered by the archaeological discoveries at the turn of the eighteenth century, and one that indeed followed a long line of retrospective interpretations which date back to the Italian Renaissance. However, it would be wrong to interpret le style Castaing as yet another classical revival. It would surely be a mistake to see it as yet another nostalgic return to the “origins,” yet another wistful valorisation of an aesthetic that more often than not would be deployed throughout history as so many representations of political power and prestige. Le style Castaing harbours none of these ulterior motives. After all, its relationship to history is rather one of memory and private commemorations, of – and to borrow a title from one of Castaing’s favourite books –  the “remembrance of things passed.” Memories of a child enthralled by the interiors of her grandparents’ countryside villa, one which would be described with yet another reference to Proust as being “more Combray than Combray”; reminiscences of a young, avid reader being drawn for the first time into the interior spaces – so vivacious and so seemingly real – of the early nineteenth century, particularly those portrayed in books by Balzac and Stendhal; recollections of an intrepid youth who, whilst journeying through the woods of Chartres, would stumble upon a derelict mansion that would eventually become her own, one which would later be deemed her “masterpiece.” This once dilapidated house called “Lèves” (as pictured above and below) was indeed the primary space within which such disparate yet exuberant memorials were translated and enacted. History and memory, play and pastiche: such are the fundamental features of le style Castaing.

Lèves - Chartres, France


Ground Floor Plan - Lèves - Chartres, France


Madeleine and Marcellin Castaing - Boutique on 21, rue Bonaparte, Paris (ca. 1950s)

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).


Boutique on 21, rue Bonaparte, Paris


Boutique on 21, rue Bonaparte, Paris


Boutique on 21, rue Bonaparte, Paris | Swatches of Castaing's fabric line

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.


Madeleine Castaing (1894-1992)


Apartment on 21, rue Bonaparte, Paris


Apartment on 21, rue Bonaparte, Paris


Apartment on 21, rue Bonaparte, Paris | "Cobalt blue dazzled the eye in the games room and occasioned it to be dubbed the "salon bleu" (Eerdmans 2010, 122)


Apartment on 21, rue Bonaparte, Paris


Apartment on 21, rue Bonaparte, Paris


Apartment on 21, rue Bonaparte, Paris | "Sumptuous yellow taffeta curtains complement the myriad of blues which dominated the grand salon. Madeleine installed many of her favourite Soutines from Lèves in the apartment ... (Eerdmans 2010, 124)


Apartment on 21, rue Bonaparte, Paris

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).


Mantelpiece - Study - Jean Cocteau - Milly-la-Forêt, France


Study - Jean Cocteau - Works by Renoir and Dufy - Milly-la-Forêt, France


Study - Jean Cocteau - Milly-la-Forêt, France


Mantelpiece - Study - Jean Cocteau - Milly-la-Forêt, France


Bar - Drawings by Jean Cocteau - Alec and Francine Weisweiller, La Villa Santo-Sospir - Saint Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France


Drawings/Inscriptions by Jean Cocteau - Alec and Francine Weisweiller, La Villa Santo-Sospir - Saint Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France


Drawings by Jean Cocteau - Alec and Francine Weisweiller, La Villa Santo-Sospir - Saint Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France


"Tattoos" by Jean Cocteau - Alec and Francine Weisweiller, La Villa Santo-Sospir - Saint Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France


"The dining room was where Madeleine most made her mark. The walls were ingeniously applied with woven wickerwork panels over which Cocteau's magnificent tapestry of Judith and Holofernes was hung" (Eerdmans 2010, 177).

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).


Chaim Soutine, "Madeleine Castaing" (1929) - Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Image Sources:

Introductory Image & Image II from Christiane de Nicolay-Mazery & Christina Vervitsioti – Missoffe, French Interiors: The Art of Elegance (Flammarion: Paris, 2009)

All other images from Emily Evans EerdmansThe World of Madeleine Castaing (Rizzoli: New York, 2010)

Textual Sources:

Emily Evans Eerdmans, The World of Madeleine Castaing (Rizzoli: New York, 2010)

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)


20 March 2011 § Leave a comment

II. March/April 2011: Regency Redux

Madeleine Castaing (1894-1992)

Making a house is creating. I make houses like others write poetry, make music, or paint. A house is more of a likeness than a portrait. Don’t be intimidated by audacity; be audacious, but with taste. You also need intuition, originality, vigor. Avoid reproduction, that easy and banal method. Don’t get taken in by fashion. A secret: love your house.

Madeleine Castaing

Images from Christiane de Nicolay-Mazery & Christina Vervitsioti – Missoffe, French Interiors: The Art of Elegance (Flammarion: Paris, 2009)

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