Pierre Paulin at the Centre Pompidou, at the heart of the one of a kind retrospective
Like an explorer of forms, Pierre Paulin was always one step ahead of his era. He is now the subject of a very beautiful retrospective at the Pompidou Centre reflecting on his avant-garde spirit that broke away from established codes.
Pierre Paulin is an adventurer in the world of design. He didn’t hesitate to set himself challenges because his is the audacity of innovation.
With his very methods of furniture conception – a lifestyle in line with a new society – Pierre Paulin’s work marked a rupture with tradition. And indeed from the 1950s he found in Scandinavian design (Alvar Aalto, Nordiska Kompaniet) and then American design (Charles & Ray Eames, George Nelson), an unprecedented source of inspiration. “He also sought a way of offering households well made things that were comfortable, of their time and low in cost”, notes Cloé Pitiot, curator of the exhibition dedicated to him at the Pompidou Centre.
He would soon employ industrial processes to create series of furniture but also to introduce brand new shapes thanks to innovative fabrication techniques. For his collaboration with the house of Thonet, largely inspired – and he never denied it – by the Americans Knoll and Herman Miller, he made some 40 pieces of office furniture, focusing on the structure itself of a seat. “This typology of furniture dominates with Paulin, to the extent that it represents half of his projects,” the curator explains. He also threw himself into researching new fabrics, which the Dutch company Artifort encouraged him to develop. Over a metal chair, he slid a sort of “sock” made from a stretchy material. In other words he covered a skeleton with a skin as elastic as a swimming costume. “That was the genius of Paulin who, from 1958, reinvented the shape of a chair, making it more sensual, all while evolving the upholsterer’s trade. Above all he had the gift of being able to perfectly visualise the volumes of an object,” adds Cloé Pitiot. Hence his true comprehension of proportions.
Pierre Paulin maintained this desire to make things happen throughout his long career, from his 1971 refurbishment of Pompidou’s apartments without changing either the structure or the gilding of the Elysées, to the designing of everyday irons and chairs. Those were Paulin’s ‘pop’ years which remain his most visually striking. He questioned the sitting position and offered a variety of chaises longues that played on the classics. At the end of the 1970s, he even conceived a rug whose corners could be folded up to become the backs of chairs. “Paulin would have liked to be an architect in fact. He was passionate about working with space. Often just one of his objects could transform a place, like in the lobby of the Nikko Hotel in Paris with its Amphis banquette,” continues the curator. But a few years later he didn’t hesitate to go back to pure craftsmanship when François Mitterrand asked him to redesign his office in the Elysées, or when he conceived an ensemble of rugs and armchairs for the hypostyle room of the Economic and Social Council. Through some hundred objects and archived documents, the Pompidou Centre reflects on the creative diversity that marked 50 years of career. “Pierre Paulin is a true adventurer in the world of design. He mastered the techniques and styles perfectly. And yet he never hesitated to set himself challenges because his is the audacity of innovation,” says Cloé Pitiot.
His light fittings, perhaps not his best known productions, are also on display. A video made from films of the era make it even easier to comprehend the elaboration of his projects. Better still, “The public can actually even sit on some of Pierre Paulin’s iconic pieces, and get a greater understanding of their comfort and ergonomics. Artifort and Ligne Roset, who continue to produce certain references, have lent us current editions for the show.” Completely forgotten during the early years of the new millennium, Pierre Paulin was recently acclaimed once more by fashion brands such as Miu Miu and Louis Vuitton. Could this provoke a new speculative value? “I don’t think his will be the same sort of phenomena as Jean Prouvé or Charlotte Perriand. Indeed a lot of his seats have never stopped being produced in large quantities, always with the same fabrication procedures. That’s typical of Paulin. The concept of being a vintage piece doesn’t really have any meaning for him other than being a witness to an era.”
at the Centre Pompidou (Gallery 3),
from May 11th to August 22nd.
By Olivier Reneau