François Catroux, decorator of choice for aristocrats, dies at 83
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François Catroux, decorator of choice for aristocrats, dies at 83
A portrait of Betty Catroux, the wife of François Catroux, in their Paris apartment, on Feb. 12, 2020. François Catroux, a glamorous designer for the Rothschild family, Russian oligarchs, Greek and Arab princesses, fashion designers, media moguls and South American billionaires — what used to be known as the jet set — died on Nov. 8, 2020 in a hospital in Paris. He was 83. Maxime La/The New York Times.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- François Catroux, a glamorous designer for the Rothschild family, Russian oligarchs, Greek and Arab princesses, fashion designers, media moguls and South American billionaires — what used to be known as the jet set — died on Nov. 8 in a hospital in Paris. He was 83.

The cause was a brain tumor, said his wife, Betty Catroux.

François Catroux was movie-star handsome with a perennial tan and a taste for expensive sports cars, the grandson of a noted French general and a Spanish heiress, and a high school friend of Yves Saint Laurent. Along with his wife, Betty Catroux, the lanky androgyne beauty who was Saint Laurent’s muse and playmate, the Algerian-born François Catroux was at the center of Paris’ glittering 1970s-era social scene, a complicated fantasia at which art, fashion and money collided.

Catroux was self-taught, with a sophisticated eye, and his first design job, when he was 30, was for Mila Schön, a stalwart of Italian fashion, who in 1967 asked him to design her showroom in a Milanese palazzo.

He turned it into a white laminate spaceship, Stanley Kubrick by way of Eero Saarinen, “a futuristic, minimalistic theater in the round for fashion — exactly right for the times,” wrote David Netto, the interior designer and writer, in his 2016 monograph about Catroux, “delivered by an ingénue and it caused a sensation in the design world.”

“It looks like tomorrow,” Eugenia Sheppard, the syndicated fashion and society columnist, wrote in 1970, “all space and no furniture.”

So did the apartment he shared with Betty Catroux on the Quai de Béthune, a neo-futuristic playground made from vinyl, leather, plexiglass and steel, and photographed by Horst P. Horst for Vogue, with the couple dressed, rather terrifyingly, in matching Saint Laurent khaki, and sprawled on a vinyl banquette.

“My apartment happened during the French revolutionary year of 1968,” he told Netto, “when everyone was against everything — and without knowing it myself, I was against everything too. Against things, so for two years I thought only of volumes and levels, without any furniture … cushions instead of a sofa, a cube for a coffee table …”

“It was a boule de neige — it snowballed from there,” Catroux told James Reginato of Vanity Fair. “Voilà, my career started.”

François Philippe Frédéric Catroux was born on Dec. 5, 1936, in Mascara, in northern Algeria. His grandfather, George Catroux, was a French general and diplomat who joined Charles de Gaulle in the Free French movement and later served as a governor general of Algeria and minister for North Africa. His father, André, managed the family’s properties in Mascara, which included a vineyard. His mother, Alphonsine Mallet, who was known as Sinette, was a homemaker.

Describing his family as “grand bourgeois,” their tastes, as their son said later, ran to lots of fake Louis XI furniture that he was already irritated by at age 5. At a Catholic boarding school in Oran, Algeria, François met Yves Saint Laurent, a day student, who was bullied by their classmates. When they met later in Paris, as Catroux told Netto, they never spoke of their days at school together.

After serving in the French army, Catroux worked as a location scout for Elle magazine, and in 1963 Catroux spent six months in New York City, where he met decorator Billy Baldwin, composer Cole Porter (whom he did not like, though he approved of his Waldorf Towers apartment), architect Philip Johnson (who invited him to spend weekends at his Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut), socialite Babe Paley and other midcentury society figures.

A decade later, he would return to Manhattan to work on apartments in Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue, then a brand-new glassy high rise, for a Chilean tin baron named Antenor Patiño, and for Helene Rochas, the French couturier.

Back home in France, Catroux would design a lodge for Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, a friend, on the grounds of her chateau outside Paris, as well as portions of the family’s Hôtel Lambert, mixing the storied Rothschild collections — the Dutch master paintings, 17th-century tapestries and 18th-century furniture — with his own modernist tastes.

For a television room, he sliced up 17th-century Verdure tapestries and upholstered the floors and lozenge-shaped mod ’70s sectional sofas with them.

Catroux’s clients were generational: The children of billionaires who had grown up in his houses in Paris, Greece or South America tended to hire him when they had their own. Catroux was still working — on a hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, among other international projects — when he learned he had cancer a few years ago.

“He looked like this Riviera playboy,” said Madison Cox, the garden designer and widower of Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner, “but he was also extremely hardworking. He was able to project that kind of ease that comforted his clients. 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.”

For Diane von Furstenberg, a friend of five decades, and her husband, Barry Diller, he designed houses in Los Angeles and Connecticut, as well as their megayacht, Eos.

“He had that military side, so things were very precise and symmetrical. He liked things in pairs,” von Furstenberg said in a phone interview, “but everything was very cozy, too, that very grand coziness which was never pretentious, a luxury just for you, not to show off.”

In addition to his wife, Catroux is survived by their daughters, Maxime and Daphné, and two grandchildren.

He met Betty Catroux at a nightclub in Paris, when she had the bartender send him a drink; she met Saint Laurent the same way, though it was the designer who sent her a drink. She often said she was very clever in managing both men.

While for decades Betty Catroux and Saint Laurent careened in and out of trouble — their shared benders and stints in rehabs were renowned — François Catroux was at work every day, bright and early.

“The truth is, it was a huge love affair,” said Netto. “She was this mysterious person who could not be captured and he was perfect for her because he didn’t need that from her. I think he just adored her cat power. He was devoted to her and she set the terms.”

“They were like Adam and Eve,” said Cox, “the eternal couple.

“I knew she was the one for me immediately,” François Catroux told Reginato of Vanity Fair in 2016. “If I missed this one, there was nobody else. I couldn’t miss this one. We’ve been together for 50 years. No regrets. But she’s not something … normal. She’s a special case.”

Betty Catroux would agree.

“I’m not interested in fashion and I’m not interested in design and I got the two geniuses on the subject,” she said in a phone interview. “I could live in an empty room as long as there was a bottle of wine and good music. But I know what’s beautiful. I was so lucky. It’s been a fairy tale life.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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