The first thing that must be written about François Catroux is the last thing that would be written about most famous decorators: He was kind. He was patient, soft-spoken, not competitive. Self-promotion was anathema to him. He was as deeply embedded in the world of fashion and international glamour as it is possible to be, yet allergic to the bitchiness endemic to those circles. He never, ever, said an unkind thing about anyone else’s work. He simply refused to engage in any beau monde–style bad behavior—and ultimately this gentleness became a source of strength, because he was loved and respected by some of the toughest characters in the world. Some were friends, some were clients, many were both. All of them mourn the loss of this great gentleman, after the news on Sunday that François Catroux was no longer with us. He died in Paris three weeks short of his 84th birthday.
That explains a bit about his character. To explain his career, one must go back to a time when design as a profession was not the same as it is now. It was not as transactional. For François Catroux, designing was truly a lived thing—it extended beyond making rooms and houses and had more to do with elegance. Above all, he prized the elegance of behavior within a circle of relationships. A story to illustrate: Asked where a heroic figure supporting a globe came from in his living room, he explained that “the Atlas was given to me as a present by Hélène Rochas. She was an intimate friend of mine, she bought a boat, and she asked me to do the decoration on the boat. I did the decoration but I didn’t want to charge her anything, since I spent so much time as a guest in her beautiful houses…so she sent me this from [Galerie] Kugel.”
François was an excellent businessman and worked all over the world, and certainly not just for people with whom he had dinner or went sailing. But stories like this one appear consistently as threads in the narrative of how he conducted himself. His clients in turn looked up to him.
His style transitioned over the years from modernism (the shock of his 1968 minimalist showroom in a Milanese palazzo for couturier Mila Schon landed his first project on the cover of L’Oeil) to damask-and-mahogany opulence for the Rothschild, Patino, and Santo Domingo families (great clients, but also close friends) to a passionate return within recent work to a kind of muscular, yet always original sleekness. Throughout, his life with his dazzling wife, Betty, a former Chanel model and muse and collaborator of Yves Saint Laurent, became almost as well known.
This is the point, you see. He was trusted by people who could hire anyone, anywhere, to create environments for them not because there was an identifiable Catroux style, but because they wanted him. In multiple vocabularies and throughout several eras he stayed true to character. Whether the moment shaped the work or vice-versa was a fluid proposition. As with the careers of Philip Johnson or David Bowie, both could be true; they weren’t always form-givers, but their talent and grace ended up placing them astride their times. François Catroux absolutely did this in decoration—and the legacy of his work will continue to show students and fans, depending on what they come looking to learn, or on their mood, how to make interior design travel to space like a Stanley Kubrick film, or conjure the 18th century to life again.
David Netto is a designer based in Los Angeles and New York. He is the author of François Catroux (Rizzoli, 2016).
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