The second coming of Pierre Paulin
Portrait of a designer
Furniture designer Pierre Paulin bestrode the 1960s and 70s with his instantly recognisable, futuristic style. At Design Miami last December, Louis Vuitton launched a new 18-piece series based on designs that had never been realized in Paulin’s lifetime.
Pierre Paulin’s furniture makes a statement. With its lines, of course, but most notably through the way the designer conceived its use, and especially its relationship to the body. Just try sitting in the Mushroom chair (1959), or reclining in the Tongue chaise longue (1966), or sinking into the Butterfly leather chair (1963), or the Face to Face sofa (1968) or the Ribbon chair (1966). You’ll feel cocooned, comfortable, relaxed. Paulin’s pieces resemble the designer himself: austere, stern even, but entirely concerned with well-being and voluptuousness.
“Paulin tried to communicate through objects with honesty, authenticity and poetry. He wasn’t always easy, but he had infinite tenderness and sweetness,” recalls Maïa Paulin, his second wife and widow. “He was a rebellious clerk. And from this internal turmoil these ‘objects’ were born. There wasn’t an eruption in the strict sense, but rather cycles of slow gestation,” adds Nadine Descendre in her handsome new book Pierre Paulin – L’Homme et l’œuvre.
Born in 1927, Paulin caught the creative bug at an early age from his great uncle, sculptor Frédy Stoll, and above all from his uncle Georges Paulin, a car designer. He studied at the École Camondo, but saw himself more as an autodidact, greedy for knowledge. This insatiable curiosity informed his iconoclastic approach to design, where the body and its
position in space are envisaged in total freedom of movement.
“The opprobrium heaped on Paulin during his lifetime by the powerful in French design, like the attempts by some to lift this incomprehensible condemnation, obviously say nothing about his talent and influence,” recounts Descendre in her book. For despite it all, Paulin operated at the heart of French public life. In 1971, he was commissioned to fit out President Pompidou’s apartments in the Elysée: a dining room, a smoking room and a picture gallery. And in 1984 he was called on to furnish President Mitterrand’s office in the palace. After this official consecration, he retreated into a more discreet but no less successful
phase, working with Allibert, Calor, Tefal and others.
Today his visionary thinking is resurfacing, and has captivated figures in the creative world. Nicolas Ghesquière, artistic director of women’s wear at Louis Vuitton, collects Paulin pieces. “We lunched together, and Ghesquière already had a genuine attachment to Paulin, and vice versa. They really liked each other,” recalls Maïa Paulin. So it’s hardly surprising that Vuitton should show an interest in his furniture, CEO Michael Burke taking just five minutes to say yes to resurrecting a project which had been brought to a halt by the 1973
oil crisis. American manufacturer Herman Miller’s decision to terminate their collaboration with Paulin, after two years’ research, left a bitter taste, but Paulin’s beautiful models remained, stored away at the Centre Pompidou. “Originally, Pierre saw this as a prototype for a minimalist, nomadic project. The intention was for furniture that tends towards architecture, in answer to the idea of ‘I put everything in a wagon and change house. I take everything with me and, depending on the pace of my life, add elements, and it becomes something else,” enthuses his widow.
In just six months, Vuitton fabricated the entire Playing with Shapes series, which was shown for the first time at Design Miami Basel in early December. The carpets, carpet-seats and other floor-seating solutions clearly display one of Paulin’s major influences – Japan, with its tatami mats. “All the riches of his cultural influences come together in a project like this,” concludes Maïa Paulin. And with a major show coming up at the Centre Pompidou, the Paulin rehabilitation is well underway.
Pierre Paulin’s furniture makes a statement. With its lines, of course, but most notably through the way the designer conceived its use, and especially its relationship to the body.
Pierre Paulin, au Centre Pompidou, du 21 octobre 2015 au 12 janvier 2016. Pierre Paulin – L’homme et l’œuvre de Nadine Descendre, éd. Albin Michel.