Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Eternally Chic

French antiquaire and interior designer Madeleine Castaing is the ultimate design insider. Her quirky style, a cult favorite, is revealed in the new book, French Interiors, recently published by Flammarion.

With her devil-may-care pairing of elegant Directoire styles and flamboyant Orientalism, her fierce disdain of beige, and her idiosyncratic use of bold color, Paris decorator and antiquaire Madeleine Castaing was one of the most compelling design originals of the twentieth century.

Beauty in a room derives from a touch of mysteryMadeleine Castaing

American designers like Mark Hampton and Charlotte Moss and hordes of design devotees made pilgrimages to her Left Bank shop to catch a glimpse of Madame herself, always nestled in an antique chair in a chic Chanel jacket, in a fragrant cloud of Arpege. Her sweetly smiling face sparked with red lipstick, she made no secret of the signature chin-strap that securing her cropped wig.

“Madeleine Castaing reinvented the 19th century, according to Mark Hampton” said New York photographer/ film-maker Christopher Flach, who recently made a documentary on Madeleine Castaing. “I think she turned herself into a work of art.”

I often used to stop in at Castaing’s corner shop over the years of Paris visits. She was usually seated so elegantly in an armchair, almost melting into the scene. I would call out “Bonjour, Madame” as I entered and a whispered “Bonjour’ would be returned.

Sometimes, her Moroccan assistant, Mamadou, would silently come downstairs from her apartment, and appear. I would see the same lamps, paintings, Napoleon III tables and chairs in her shop over the years. It was always rumored that she would not sell them. I always thought that just wandering around in a happy daze was the point. I might chat briefly, but it felt unseemly to ask a price.

“Au revoir, Madame” I would call out, on departing.

Castaing, a trend-setting Paris interior decorator and antiques dealer since she opened her Left Bank antique shop in 1947, died in 1992 at 98. Now her lavishly chic style is getting new attention, thanks to an elegant new book, ‘French Interiors The Art of Elegance’ written by French author Christiane de Nicolay-Mazery and with extraordinary photography by Christina Vervitsioti-Missoffe (Flammarion).

‘French Interiors’ features many images of Castaing’s divine country house, and while Givenchy and Saint Laurent are also displayed in the book, it is clear that Castaing was an inspiration for the photographer. The book is dreamy, poetic, and shows France at its most soulful.

Madeleine Castaing’s idiosyncratic design sensibility is now inspiring young designers like Miles Redd in New York, as well as high-profile decorators such as Jacques Grange in Paris and the chic Charlotte Moss, along with Stephen Sills in New York, who choose her ocelot-patterned carpet, Chinoiserie tables, distinctive lamps, Veronese green-splashed color scheme. Young designers channel her eccentric mix of antiques, and spike their rooms with Castaing’s flat-pitched black lamp shades, and the neurasthenic little bamboo chairs and tables she favored.

Fashion designer Christian Lacroix is among her greatest admirers.

“During the French decades of militant modernism, Madeleine Castaing lavished her rooms with fringe, crystal chandeliers, and nostalgia for the style of Napoleon III,” wrote Lacroix in his witty design book, ‘Styles of Today’ (Le Promeneur, 1995). “She lived to see her style admired and uncontested.”

Madeleine Castaing was always irreverent. She brilliantly created pure Napoleaon III, but tweaked it with eccentricity based on her unerring taste. Castaing: a bit textbook but with lots of side notes.
—Houston designer, J. Randall Powers

Castaing, whose iconic shop at the corner of rue Bonaparte and rue Jacob on the Left Bank was a must-see for a coterie of design fans, displayed there her passion for Veronese green, crimson, jade green, turquoise, with shocking pink on walls and as accents. Her shop and her rooms were a nervy combination of French history with an irreverent dash of kitsch.

As she established her career as a decorator, working for clients like Jean Cocteau in the austere post-war forties and fifties, Castaing muscled her way through high-Victorian and Napoleon III styles, as well as richly gilded Russian and Swedish antiques. She was a trend-setter with Orientalism, Charles X and Biedermeier, which were also not at all fashionable in France at the time.

Castaing never did classical French interiors with de rigueur Louis XV and XVI furniture. She loved the confection of elaborate fringes, banana-leaf patterned carpets, colorful majolica ceramics, and eccentric pieces like her Napoleon III-era side chairs with gilded wood frames carved to resemble twisted rope.

And to catch a whiff of Castaing in Paris today there are still several possibilities.
  • The space that once housed her antiques shop was acquired by Laduree, the legendary patisserie and macaroon specialist. Decorator Jacques Garcia and his team painted the walls of the popular macaroon shop in Castaing’s favorite pale turquoise decorated with white plaster bas reliefs. The ground floor and mezzanine tea rooms, with tropical landscape murals and Castaing blue Napoleon III furniture, pay homage to Madeleine and hint at her seductive style.

  • A few door away, at 30 rue Jacob, Madeleine’s grandson, Castaing, an autograph dealer, has decorated his shop with Castaing blue walls and many of the antique lamps, chairs, tables, and decorative pieces from her Leves estate.

  • Ring the door bell and meet the scholarly M. Castaing, and he will reveal his fascinating shop, an homage to the lasting influence and style of Madeleine Castaing.

Photographs of Madeleine Castaing’s country house at Leves are all from ‘French Interiors The Art of Elegance’ (Flammarion). The very talented and inspired photographer is Christina Vervitssiolti-Missoffe. All photographs used with permission from the publisher.

San Francisco photographer and filmmaker and photographer Christopher Flach recently launched his new 34-minute documentary, "Madeleine Castaing," about the antiquaire extraordaire. Flach artfully captures her décor, her color sense, and her enduring charm. The portrait is vivid and wistful. Christopher Flach's DVD by email:, $26 (including shipping).


This is the first part of a two-part feature
on Madeleine Castaing.
Catch Part Two coming soon.


pve design said...

Surely you must meet Emily Eeerdsmans, Regency Redux, she has a fascination with MC too.

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

This book-I think is one of the best of the best books in years to come out-Sumptuous. I adore the quote by designer Powers- textbook with lots of sidenotes- that is great, I will write that one down. I would like to invite you to my blog to see my reading list. I am relatively new to blogging and have just started a Summer Reading Series , my picks are out today with some other side notes(yes!) and I will have lots of other bloggers weighing in too- yesterdays post. Come over-little augury.

Brillante Interiors said...

Cocteau and Castaing, Proust and Gallimard, Grange and many connections come to mind.
Reading your articles is like breathing class, style and beauty.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Madeleine Castaing: she lived to be 98...a great life.

Her country house--so superbly presented, and at length, in the new FRENCH INTERIORS--was a dream
Her shop was on the corner of rue Jacob and rue Bonaparte , and two rooms of magic. There was always the question and rumors that nothing was for sale. Certainly MC never got up from her corner chair to ask if you wanted to know a price, a provenance, or to make a purchase. On the other hand, she was in her nineties so perhaps she preferred to simply sit.
One day, when Mamadou suddenly appeared and stood silently watching--MC asked if I would like to view her apartment upstairs (I can't imagine that I would have asked to...) so I went up the spiral stairs with Mamadou and walked, rapturously, to her dusty bedroom, all blue and white, and then from room to room. It was so poetic, a little tragic, theatrical, and with the edging of dust and time passing/passed. One of my best memories of Paris. So many new shops in Paris now--all lacking the patina of age and time. I must say, however, that the little Laduree pastry shop--where MC used to be--does still, with the bas reliefs and turquoise walls, have a Castaing feeling. Landmark and all that. OH! And if you feel like splurging--there is/was a turquoise box they sell that is Castaing-inspired--they fill it with I think 12 macaroons (whatever is inside is a set thing) is pale turquoise with a white bas-relief bust on top in white. Beautiful. I have two. Highly recommend.

Valerie Wills Interiors said...

I love Madeleine Castaing... I read about her a while ago - what a delight it must have been to work with her... I would have loved to see her wig with the chin strap too! Great post Diane. Thank you.

vicki archer said...

French Interiors is the most fabulous book and I enjoyed all the chapters. Thank you for the wonderful post - I am a Madeleine Castaing fan also, xv.

home before dark said...

Congratulations on entering a new world, The Blogosphere, I hope it brings you much pleasure. It will be our pleasure to learn from you.

I enjoyed your Madeleine Castaing post very much. I admire her ability to take her inspirations from the true muses of art, books, history and blend it all together with her own fantasy.