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What a beautiful book.
No. That's too little praise. What a work of art. What an inspiration.
Look at the American decorating books of the last decade, and what you mostly see is how important it was for the clients --- and their compliant decorators --- to spend tons of money. And they didn't spend it just on the walls and rugs and art and furniture. They went right on to the little things, the chotchkes. Every possible surface has stuff on it; these rooms are busy. Your eye darts around, looking for an idea that centers the space, but there is none. Indeed, none was intended --- the overarching concept here was, apparently, to overwhelm the visitor.
Now let us open "The World of Madeleine Castaing" and consider any of the 275 color and black-and-white illustrations. They're not all the work of Madame Castaing, but the rooms designed by others have her sensibility: simplicity, boldness, originality. The color combinations are like nothing you've ever seen. Often the rooms are almost empty. Instead of a framed painting, you might find that Jean Cocteau has drawn on a wall.
Why isn't Madeleine Castaing a household name?
Because she's impossible to describe in a sound bite.
She was French --- born near Chartres in 1894, dead at age 98 in 1992 --- but you can't really say she was a French decorator. "I can take inspiration from a scene in Chekhov as from a dress by Goya," she said, and she wasn't kidding. In one of her rooms, you could be in Russia, in another room London. Most of the time, the mood she created was timeless, poetic, a fantasy. As she said, "There is always beauty in mystery."
She was, as you might guess, quite a character. Daughter of the engineer who built the Chartres railway station, she was 15 when she saw the 36-year-old man she wanted to marry. She walked right up to him and, in record time, sealed the deal.
In Paris, the Castaings knew everyone, did everything. Most importantly, they started collecting. And not from the approved list. One day they saw students throwing rocks at a gallery window. They moved closer; in the window was a Modigliani nude. They stared for an hour --- and then went in and bought it.
Her husband was tall, handsome and aristocratic. To make sure he didn't stray, she bought a house in Lèves, a lovely village a few miles from Chartres, and set about personalizing it.
World War II took the Castaings by surprise. "We were living in our own world --- we wouldn't even open the letters we got in the mail," she recalled. "All of a sudden soldiers in blue-green got through to the garden and wrecked the bed. My poetic universe had suddenly collapsed."
The Germans occupied the house. The Castaings and their two children moved back to Paris. And as the war ended, Madame Castaing opened her first boutique.
Never had there been a shop like this. For one thing, it did not look like a store --- it was a series of rooms that looked as if someone lived in them. And no two rooms were alike. Indeed, no single room had an identifying theme or style. English Regency tables, Swedish chairs, a Russian couch --- her rooms didn't make statements, they told stories.
The most amusing story about her shop was that Madame Castaing had only modest interest in commerce. As Emily Evans Eerdmans notes, "She opened a shop not because she wanted to sell, but because she liked to buy and make poetic settings out of her acquisitions." So her prices were stratospheric --- she took the real value of her wares and just added a few zeroes. And if she didn't like you, she wouldn't sell to you at any price. On the other hand, a child who told her that a piece was beautiful could have it for almost nothing.
By the 1950s, Madame Castaing was the most admired decorator in Paris. (The gorgeous wallpaper she designed --- there are four dazzling pages of those papers in the book --- is still available, and still looking fresh.) Here too she was a one-off; she gave her clients the rooms she thought they needed, not necessarily the rooms they asked for. By the evidence of this book, there were no complaints.
Until her death, I never made a trip to Paris without visiting 30 rue Jacob, her final location. Her shop was on the first floor; from the street, it looked like an apartment with picture windows. Madame was often on the scene. She was as idiosyncratic as her antiques --- her lips were flaming red, her eyelashes were pasted on, and she wore a wig that announced itself as a fake because she kept it on with a black elastic chin strap. And as she had for decades, she would dress to match her upholstery.
Her family kept the shop going for a decade after her death, and then, in 2004, the contents of her residences and store were auctioned. Life moves on; now there's a branch of Ladurée dispensing pastries at 30 rue Jacob.
You can look at Madeleine Castaing simply as a decorator, and, if you're interested in lovely rooms, you can learn quite a lot from her. Or you can leave the narrowness of occupational identity behind and consider her as an artist and a teacher. What did she have to teach? In essence, this: "Don't be intimidated by audacity. Be audacious --- but with taste... Don't get taken in by fashion. A secret: love your house; love makes miracles."
That's not decorating talk. It's something else. As is this book.