In the 1970s, Maria Pergay counted Pierre Cardin, Salvador Dali and the Saudi Arabian royal family among her collectors. The last few years have seen a resurge of interest in her elegant, stainless steel work.
The story of Maria Pergay's life unfolds like a film script and is that of a strong-willed woman succeeding against the odds.
Born as Maria Alexandrovna Kachnitskay in Romania in 1930, she is the daughter of a Russian spy and immigrated to Paris with her mother as political refugees after her father was taken by the gulag. After studying costume and set design, she opened her silverware and antiques store, taking orders for silver objects from the likes of Christian Dior, on Place des Vosges in Paris in 1960. As the only female silversmith on the square, she fought to prove herself in a male-dominated environment. Her next challenge was taming stainless steel to make elegant furniture, including making pieces for Pierre Cardin, and designing the décor for the Saudi Arabian royal family's palaces. Pergay achieved all this before turning 40.
Today, the veteran designer's work is enjoying a huge comeback. So much so, that her "Flying Carpet" daybed from 1968, which resembles a sloping chaise longue, sold for $127,000 at Sotheby's New York in 2007. Pergay's new works marry whimsical sophistication with an eagerness to experiment with materials. Think of pure shapes with a touch of extravagance, such as a stainless cabinet with three ribbons inlaid with hand-cut mother-of-pearl across the front. Always produced in limited editions, her work is about a quest for beauty and rarity.
Luxuryculture.com spoke exclusively to Maria Pergay at Hôtel Lutetia (www.lutetia-paris.com) in Paris.
You opened your silverware and antique store on the Place des Vosges in 1960. What are your memories of that period?
There were only four lights on the corners of the square and it was covered in dog shit. My store was the first to put a glass window in the arcades. My husband was terrified for me and thought I should have picked a busy street with more passersby. But I loved it; it was full of silversmiths and I had direct contact with people. Now, I meet my clients through my galleries so I've lost that genuine feeling of people's enthusiasm.
How did people react towards you working in a masculine environment?
People said, "Women don't do that." I said, "Yes, they do!" My things were modern, not copies of Louis XV and Louis XVI. I first exhibited my work at a jewelry and silverware fair when I was 26. I had a blister on my hand from writing so many orders. But I have no pretensions. I don't make the most beautiful pieces, like Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne who, for me, were a marvelous example of dream and divinity.
What made you switch to working with steel in 1970?
Like a lot of people, I found silver too soft; you can't fight with it. But with steel, if you make a mistake, you get a slap. Working with steel has been a very hard school for me about learning how to master and play with something. I'm not strong enough to forge steel; without the craftsmen who help me, I'd be nothing.
You've said that Pierre Cardin allowed you to fantasize and go further than your other clients. What was working with him like?
Pierre Cardin is a fantastic genius. He has the talent to make people feel like creators and looks for what kind of dream they can bring. He was a kind of light. It was like crossing over to the other side of the river on a bridge. The first time, he bought a big, silver cockerel from me. The second time we met was at my exhibition at Galerie Maison et Jardin on May 13, 1968, the first day of the protests, and he bought two pieces. The third time, I made an ammonite-shaped low table and a tortoiseshell sofa for him. When we see each other, we hug each other tightly.
What was your experience of meeting Salvador Dali at Hôtel Meurice in Paris?
It was like a ceremony. There was a woman dressed in a fur coat, sitting on the arm of his chair, spraying perfume onto her body. The poor master had one end of his moustache turned upwards and the other downwards. He was wearing slippers and had rheumatism. I'd been asked to present something on a cushion and wear a white dress. It was a silver jewelry box in the shape of a giant sea urchin. And he said, "Oh, you dare!" When Mafalda Davis, the woman who put me in touch with him, came back, he gave me money to make other pieces [like the skeleton of a butterfly] in gold. He was a very special person and liked to make a show.
In the 1970s and 1980s you designed six villas for Saudi Arabia's royal family. How did you find the experience of working in such a male-dominated country?
It was like being in "One Thousand and One Arabian Nights" and gave me the opportunity to make dream decorations. A woman on her own was not supposed to work in Saudi Arabia. But I was protected and respected because I was working for Prince Abdullah, who is now the king. Unlike other interior designers who copied places like The Ritz and The Carlton, I used white marble, crystal and silver. I made white marble ceilings, mosaic tables for 40 people, and huge silk tents. They called me the "Iron Lady" because I was very severe. We were working in 50°Celsius, sand everywhere, with the white palaces looking yellow because of the desert dust.
In the 1990s you designed two private residences for a bank owner and a magazine editor in Moscow, in addition to a restaurant. What was it like working there just after the fall of the USSR?
It was tough: it was minus 50° Celsius and the beginning of perestroika. People were killing each other and there were fights everywhere. But I did nice projects with nice people whom I'm still friends with.
What are your thoughts on the resurge of interest in your earlier pieces?
I'm very happy when people don't sell them! Now that it's worth money, there are a lot of dealers who have created a market for my vintage work. The most beautiful compliment is when someone tells me that there are many people who have my things but don't want to part with them.
How do you create?
I don't work by seeking things on paper; I see the finished work in my head and copy it onto paper by doing a drawing. When I'm at the factory, I take a full-scale sheet of paper and draw the piece as I see it in my head. Everything is ready: the measurements, the thickness of the steel, the finishings... It's like seeing a cup and memorizing what it looks like.
Nothing replaces the hand. Personally, I don't find the idea of working on a computer interesting; those creations should have a different name, just as those bloody heads [by Marc Quinn] or cut-up cows [by Damien Hirst] should be called "Shock Art." It's like those cans of "Artist's Shit" [by Piero Manzoni] in the MoMA in New York. Creation is sacred and divine, and I have veneration for well-made things. I can't imagine asking money for shit. I'd prefer to go and beg in the street. Snobbery is the AIDS of art.
Your creations express elegance, sophistication and luxury. Did you dream about these things during your childhood after you and your mother moved to Paris as political refugees?
I dreamt of beauty but it's funny because I had no desire to own or possess things. I didn't want to take anything from the world; my desire was to give to the world. I thought we should make more luxurious things but not for me. I lived very simply.
What periods are you influenced by?
The Han Dynasty in China, the Renaissance, the 18th century in Europe, and the hyper contemporary, but not "Shock Art."
What inspires you to use mother-of-pearl and other semi-precious materials with steel?
Each time where we use a precious material, like mother-of-pearl, ivory or marble, with steel, it creates an incredible harmony if their strength is equal. Mother-of-pearl comes from nature and is divine, whereas steel is completely contemporary, like the new gold. Steel has changed and has become thinner, more beautiful and more polished. If we give steel something extra, it becomes noble.
What qualities do you want your objects to have?
I want them to have charm and mystery. Why do you love this guy and not that one, who also has blonde hair and blue eyes? Because he expresses something mysterious. So how could you live with an object for which you feel indifferent? There has to be that "Ah!" feeling.
What is your definition of luxury?
Luxury is like a diamond or a firework display. It's something that can last a second, like a firework, or a diamond that you always look at. It could be a piece of sugar formed in a certain way or an animal. It's like beauty; it's not something you buy. You could buy everything and still be vulgar.
A panther. There's nothing more luxurious than a black panther with emerald eyes.
Encountering a new fragrance. I wear Paloma Picasso but it's because I'm too lazy to look for another! But my first fragrance was Cabochard by Grès and I chose it because the illustration was very pretty.
I didn't know her character but by just seeing her walk past, it would be Ava Gardner in "The Barefoot Contessa."
Somewhere in the Mediterranean like Corfu in Greece where everything is so perfect – the sea, the colors, the odors, the fragrances, the silence, the sound of the crickets. There are also incredible places in China and Japan. What's extraordinary there is that luxury is something you go through and not stop in. Zen gardens are luxury for me.
Maria Pergay: Between Ideas and Design by Suzanne Demisch