Madeleine & Me
A Parisian downpour, a chance meeting, and a friend for life.
Recently, when I heard a Dallas decorator refer to a powder blue glass vase as “Madeleine Castaing” blue, I knew that Castaing’s fame had hit critical mass. Coupled with Sotheby’s September 2004 sale in Paris of her belongings for $2.1 million, and the spate of recent articles in design magazines extolling her genius as an antiques dealer and decorator, I decided that I might as well weigh in with my memories of this unique woman, who died in 1992.
After my mother, everything I know about decorating and antiques came from the mentorship of three exceptional women: Betty Gertz, proprietor of East & Orient Co.; the late Marguerite Green, one of Dallas’ greatest decorators; and the now-legendary Madeleine Castaing. I met Castaing on a rainy spring day in Paris when I ducked into her black façaded shop. I was attracted by an architectural drawing of a grand staircase in the window, but I really just wanted to get out of the deluge.
Barely into my 20s and immersed in the world of fashion, I had no idea who Castaing was. All I knew about interior design was that Karl Lagerfeld was in his Memphis phase and Calvin Klein’s New York digs had floors of steel grating cooked up by designer Joe DUrso. It was the late ’70s and high-tech or the cartoon-like goofiness of the Milan-based Memphis collective ruled.
As my eyes adjusted to the sepulchral darkness in the shop, dusty shapes of furniture emerged. A shapely gilded leg of a Louis XVI chair here, the rigid lines of a metal Napoleonic campaign bed there. And from the back, an odd-looking little woman emerged. Dressed in an oversized sweater and leggings, what was most remarkable were her huge mascara-caked false eyelashes and a clearly synthetic bobbed wig secured in place by a thick elastic strap under her chin.
She truly defined the French concept of “belle laide,” or beautiful ugly, that difficult-to-translate phrase that the French have for describing appeal without classic notions of beauty. I had no clue who she was, nor did I imagine that a 15-year friendship would develop from this chance meeting. In fractured high school French, I explained that I was a young fashion designer with no money, but was interested in what (I could now tell) were the unfamiliar but alluring things arranged in her store, located on the Rue Jacob (her flat was upstairs). She looked me up and down slowly, let out an enormous cloud of cigarette smoke and croaked: “Do you smoke?” I said yes, and she pointed me to a stool next to a hot plate with a kettle upon it. And so began my biannual visits that evolved into an ongoing seminar on the decorative arts, literature (Balzac, Stendhal, and Proust), and friendship – French-style.
During that time, I discovered the numerous peculiarities that would eventually become part of the Madeleine Castaing lore.
She hated real flowers, preferring pots of plastic ivy. (“So practical, you can just hose it down to clean it,” she’d say.) She detested Chinese porcelains, oriental carpets, and any strict adherence to “period rules or styles.” She was passionate about Directoire and Charles X furniture, both of which were highly unfashionable at the time, and dared to promote the sleek lines of English Regency furniture, something unheard of in the xenophobic world of fine French furniture, what Billy Baldwin (also a Castaing client) referred to as FFF. She also had a fondness for stuff that – at least to my nascent eyes – verged on tacky, like her creation of wacky-shaped ottomans covered in a revolution of velvets, toiles, and brocades, the whole lot of them tufted to death and with enough gimp, fringe, and gold rope to hide all of the glue and staples underneath.
Castaing taught me how to tell a real 18th-century French chair from a fake (the back legs of the real one are always straight, among other things), but she cautioned, “Just because something isn’t period doesn’t mean it isn’t good.” She’d take my hand and glide it across highly polished Biedermeier tables and bronze-inlaid Baltic chairs so I could feel the difference between finishes. She taught me that fine antiques were to be touched, used, and lived with every day. Such furniture, though extraordinarily beautiful to her, was not even remotely on the radar of other antiques dealers or collectors. She simply liked them, and in a matter of years people would be extolling the genius of her foresight.
Castaing was a bit slow to reveal personal details, but gradually she let bits of her life slip out. She had been born in Chartres “in the last century” (1894). She had been married to a man who adored her (an art critic and businessman) and bore him two sons. She was friends with Modigliani and Soutine (who lived at her country house in Leves and left his entire estate to her).
Castaing adored the blue that you see in old French opaline glass, a color that became known as “bleu Castaing,” which is simply a wonderful blue that one finds easily in France. Conversely pale and intense, it is a robin’s-egg hue trying to become turquoise, with a pull that seems to have enchanted a whole new generation of decorators.
In her country house, which was formalist Directoire in architecture, she had wonderful niches painted this blue. But the color didn’t totally cover the niches, and the paint petered out toward the top. I have heard many decorators exclaim “what genius” this detail of the unfinished look was. The truth is, the painter never finished, and Castaing left it as is. Anal she was not.
So what was her style? Better writers than I have written countless words about her unique spin on decorating. The best that I can do is to say that she imposed a strict classic order on her rooms. Cool, flat, white plasterwork, strong arches, and Neoclassic proportions (Palladio was one of her idols) were the hallmarks of a Castaing-designed room, furnished with a disciplined arrangement of furniture that encompassed every period after the 18th century. She loved stripes, particularly the type of striped tenting that one found on military tents of the Napoleonic era. And then there were those weird Second Empire ottomans scattered about. And over this formal, almost rigid structure she layered her love of the romantic. This was the Proustian part of her, with lush taffeta draperies, tiny leaf-and-flower patterned rugs, and tawny animal prints. Her color palette was basically restricted to greens, whites, or blues, with the occasional hit of girlish pink. Her style was that of an “invented past,” two parts Directoire with one part Proustian Belle Époque.
The shop and the apartment above it have since been gutted. The tony Parisian patisserie Ladurée commissioned über-decorator Jacques Garcia to design a Left Bank outpost on the site. I never bought anything from her. Her pricing structure while always capricious (if she didn’t like the person she simply would say that something was not for sale), was also always far too high for me. But I did spend every free hour in Paris in her shop, talking, listening, arguing (I just didn’t get Proust), and learning. The last time I saw her, the pen-and-ink drawing that first caught my eye on that rainy spring day had disappeared from the window. As she never bothered with window décor, I assumed it was sold.
I finally asked about it out of curiosity, since the entire time I’d known her the drawing had sat there gathering dust in the window. She must have known I admired it. To my query she responded: “Oh, that little drawing done by a 19th-century student at the École des Beaux Arts?” She handed me a brown-paper-wrapped parcel. “After that first day you came in, it was always yours.” Today it hangs above my desk at home, a souvenir of a Parisian downpour and no umbrella more than 20 years ago. She gave me an education you can’t get in any school. And that storm gave me a friend.