When the rich and famous wanted a futuristic look for their mansions, apartments, corporate headquarters, showrooms or yachts in the 1970s, they knew who to call.
Futurism, along with minimalism, was the hallmark of the French interior designer François Catroux, who at the age of five had decided that the faux Louis XVI décor favored by his well-to-do parents was definitely not the way forward. He would go on to throw contemporary ideas of style up in the air before sweeping most of what fell back into the gutter.
What his clients, who included the Rothschilds, their cousins the Van Zuylens, the Goulandris shipping family and the Bolivian “tin king” Antenor Patiño, all had in common was money — and, as is sometimes the case, money bought style. Madison Cox, the widower of his longtime business partner Pierre Bergé, told The New York Times: “Catroux looked like this Riviera playboy but he was extremely hard-working. He had an innate sense of true luxury and well-made things, and he worked for people who strove for that, and he knew exactly how to produce it.”
Another of his clients, the Marquise de Ravenel, told Vanity Fair: “He used materials like stainless steel, plastic and bronze that at the time were not fashionable. He was far ahead of his time.”
Among his closest friends was the couturier Yves Saint Laurent. Catroux married the fashion designer’s enduring muse, the Brazilian-born supermodel Betty Saint, in 1968. The couple remained together for the next 52 years in spite of what looked to outsiders to be conflicting characters.
Catroux, who with his movie-star looks could have been a model himself, always seemed calm and measured. Betty was more hedonistic and edgy, often going on drink and drug-fueled benders that could last for days on end. Their tastes were different too. She said once that she could live happily in an empty room so long as there was plenty of wine and good music.
What his clients, who included the Rothschilds, their cousins the Van Zuylens, the Goulandris shipping family and the Bolivian “tin king” Antenor Patiño, all had in common was money.
Catroux could not. The emptiness he created, based on the manipulation of space, was carefully weighed. Yet he adored his wife, whose extravagant good looks and ability to create a stir wherever she went provided the perfect cover for his more reclusive nature.
François Philippe Frédéric Catroux was born in 1936 in Mascara, capital of the Algerian wine-growing region some 50 miles south of the port of Oran. His father, André, the son of General Georges Catroux, one of France’s most distinguished military leaders and a close friend of Charles de Gaulle, was a well-heeled member of the French colonial class, with interests in property and wine. His wife, Alphonsine (née Mallet), who managed the family’s extensive household, was a pied-noir, of part Belgian extraction, whose family had moved to Algeria in the 1860s.
The future high-life designer grew up amid provincial privilege and ease. His grand-bourgeois parents made few demands of him and seem to have allowed him to develop in his own way. He went to school locally and then, aged 11, was enrolled at a Catholic boarding school in Oran, where he met his fellow pied-noir Yves Saint Laurent for the first time, the two becoming friends and allies in what was sometimes a hostile environment.
Saint Laurent died in 2008, leaving the Catrouxs without one of their oldest friends. Yet they were never alone except by choice. Their two daughters successfully built their own careers. Maxime is a senior editor at the publishing house Flammarion; Daphné, an executive with Christian Dior, is married to Comte Charles-Antoine Morand, descended from one of Napoleon’s generals. Catroux’s wife and daughters survive him.
In 1955 Catroux was called up to do his two years of army service. With that out of the way, he showed no interest in attending university, still less design school.
His next stop was at Elle magazine, where he worked at finding and organizing locations for fashion shoots. In the 1960s he spent time in New York, reporting for American Elle on apartments of the great and the good while building up a rapport with a number of the city’s better-known arbiters of taste, such as the post-modernist architect Philip Johnson and Billy Baldwin, known as the “dean of American interior decorators”. Baldwin could see that the young Frenchman had talent and made a point of introducing him to his wide circle of friends and clients, among them the composer Cole Porter, whom Catroux never liked.
Commissions began to flood in as the Sixties gave way to the Seventies, first in New York, where the celebrated New York gossip columnist and style critic Eugenia Sheppard said of one of his interiors: “Looks like tomorrow, all space and no furniture.” Catroux would go on to make his name in France and Italy and work in Bolivia (for the Patiños) and Morocco. At the same time, Catroux and his wife became favorites of the Paris social scene, mixing with nobility as well as movie stars and rock singers, including Mick Jagger.
Tall, tanned and genial, Catroux mixed easily with his jet-set friends and clients. He made no secret of the fact that he enjoyed the life they led, but he never lost sight of the fact that it was his work, and the money that came with it, that made everything possible. This awareness even applied to his everyday living. The couple’s opulent Paris apartment, part of a centuries-old listed building on the Île Saint-Louis, overlooking the Seine, was over the years transformed into a showpiece of his interior design work. Out of town, home was a stone-built manor in Provence, listed some years ago as having a value in excess of $11 million.
Later in his career Catroux began to fall out of fashion, but never wanted for commissions. His most recent work, completed in 2016, was the interior renovation of a villa in Los Angeles. He adjusted his technique, reintroducing older materials such as wool and leather, without ever compromising on his insistence that light was the constant and that most furniture was vulgar, little more than an unwelcome intrusion into space.
François Catroux, interior designer, was born on December 5, 1936. He died of a brain tumor on November 8, 2020, aged 83