LUXURYCULTURE.COM - Poetry of Design, Pierre Paulin, 1927-2009


There are few designers whose work captured the spirit of the pop era like the late Pierre Paulin, who passed away on June 13 this year. In September 2005, the iconic French designer spoke to We pay homage to his creativity.

Like tie-dye and bell-bottoms, Paul Paulin’s curvy, colorful “biomorphic” designs from the 60s and 70s have become irreverent icons of that era. Anticipating society’s emerging flower power, they created mini-explosions within the industry with names and shapes inspired by nature such as “mushroom”, “tulip” and “butterfly”. Born in Paris in 1927, Paulin studied stone-carving and clay modeling before he began designing for Thonet in 1954 and Artifort in 1958. First enchanted by the functional simplicity of Scandinavian design, he soon shifted to more experimental designs that beautifully exploited new technologies and materials such as steel tubing, foam and jersey. His success was sealed in the late 60s with the prestigious commission to design Pomipidou’s private apartment at the Elysée Palace in Paris, after which the Louvre enlisted him to refurbish the museum interiors. When news of the designer’s death reached the presidential residence, Nicolas Sarkozy paid a fitting tribute to Paulin as “He who made design an art.”

For almost a decade, the idolized figure of French design worked discreetly from his home in the mountains in Cevennes, quietly eyeing the fluctuations in contemporary design. At this year’s Paris design show Maison et Objet the designer presented a new collection for French manufacturer Ligne Roset, while classics for Artifort, such as the Ribbon chair, designed in 1966 and his 1963 Butterfly, remain in production as part of the company’s collection of celebrated re-editions.

For me it’s space and calm.

If luxury were an object what would it be?
A Stradivarius, because it’s unique.

If luxury were a person, who would it be?
Gould, Peraïa, Michelangelo, Benedetti because they bring me serenity.

If luxury were a moment when would it be?
Certain sunrises and sunsets from the terrace of my house such as the glorious spectacles during summer and fall, to the more dramatized skies in the winter months that remind me of Victor Hugo’s Chinese inks.

If luxury were a place where would it be?
In space, I suppose.

In September 2005, Pierre Paulin spoke with us about his poetic observations and future projects.

Why have you decided to return to design after having retreated from the business?
Out of necessity, as usual.

What do you want to express most through your new collection?
An evolution, perhaps a reawakening of sorts.

How has your time living in the mountains influenced you creatively?
If granted the same time for reflection in a privileged space, I would be able to do the same thing anywhere.

Can you tell us a bit about your future collection: who or what inspired it, what materials you used, new techniques, etc?
The small space for reinvention that I sensed around me pushed me to exploit the little imagination that I have left. I wanted to see for myself what a little self-provocation would do.

Which of your past designs mean the most to you personally? Why?
There’s nothing in particular really. The first really interesting design that I made was the “mushroom”, but as always, what fascinates me most is always the model to come…

Scandinavian design and the work of Alvar Aaalto greatly shaped the organic nature of your work. What attracts you most to the natural world?
I was first influenced by Scandinavian design and then by Knoll and Herman Miller. The first designs to greatly shape my sensibilities were those by Nordiska Kompaniet. At the time, I was dedicated to the same philosophy of good quality design at good prices. After the war, new technologies introduced onto the market evidently, and perhaps unfortunately, altered my vision. From simple mass-market products, I passed into the competitive field with designs using the latest technologies. But to try to clearly respond to the question, organic forms, human beings included, have clearly influenced me greatly. I think that it happened in such a “natural” way that I never asked myself why.

What do you consider to be nature’s most perfect design? Why?
Nature itself—from the snowflakes to the volcanoes and hurricanes, from the rivers to the mountains—everything in nature is fantastic. Just think about the wonderful vitality of the trees once spring arrives. To live in the way that I do, isolated in the middle of nature, can be hard at times but marvelous nonetheless.

Who are your greatest design icons and how have they influenced your work?
I could easily mention many names from the beginning of the 19th century until the mid 1970s, but two stand out: the couple, Charles and Ray Eames, for their total refusal to design or to conceive under the influence of sentimentalism, unlike myself and the majority of designers; and Renzo Piano, for his sensitivity, which is rare for an architect, and for his ability to satisfy any demand regardless of its origin or complexity, such as with his Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris and his realizations in New Caledonia.

Who are your favorite contemporary designers?
From my generation, Verner Panton, and today, Jasper Morrison for keeping his cool during this deliriously mercantile era.

Which buildings in the world do you consider to have the best architectural design? Why?
Katsura in Japan, certain buildings in Finland, a Swedish church made of wood, a provincial monastery, the architecture in Grenada, Spain, Yemenite houses, and the Le Corbusier church in Ronchamp.

What does your design style reveal about yourself?
I’m certainly not the most eloquent when it comes to my work. I’ve never known how to speak about it, those words or not part of my universe. What irritates me about my style, however, is its slight feminine tendency that I’ve never been able to shake.

What iconic object do you wish you had designed yourself? Why?
The Norwegien Sneka (a Viking war boot), the Porsche 24h du Mans, 16th century French cutlery, utilitarian Scandinavian objects from the Middle Ages, as well as every day Japanese designs. Why? Because they’re all stupidly functional.

We spoke to Elisabeth Vedrenne, author of Pierre Paulin, published by Assouline.

Renowned art critic and design historian Elisabeth Vedrenne, was not only a long-time friend to Pierre Paulin but also one of the foremost authorities on his work. She is a regular contributor to Connaissance des Arts, Intramuros, Maison Française and has written a number of books for Assouline’s “Memoire du Style” collection.

When did you first encounter the work of Pierre Paulin and what was your reaction to his work?
I feel like I’ve always known Pierre Paulin’s work. I was a young woman in 1968 and he was part of my universe. Plus my parents had friends that I admired a lot (I found them very “modern”) who owned several of his chairs. Like sculptures, I was struck by the simplicity of his forms, and his colors intrigued me in the same way that I loved little dresses by Cardin and Corrèges or mobiles by Calder.

What draws you most to his designs?
Their fluidity, as much as in their lines as in the flexibility of the jersey fabrics that dress them.

How has he most influenced contemporary design?
Paulin has only influenced unimaginative contemporary designers who adhere to industry trends. After pillaging the 40s, we passed to the 50s. Now it’s the 60s and 70s and not just in design! Regardless of the era, the mark of a good designer is one that always reinvents and adds something original.

In your text you explain that the 60s culture of relaxation lead to the creation of round and comfortable organic forms. Do you think that the current obsession with well-being will further increase interest in organic forms and the work of Paulin?
The appearance of organic forms in the 60s was not only born from a culture of well-being. One must not forget that the style appeared after the war and after many years of privation and was followed by a modernism that was as austere as it was beautiful. It was the younger generation that sought out the bright colors and shapely forms. Following the reign of minimalism and rigidity, organic designs are once again in style. But what we’re experiencing now is a search for simplicity in response to life’s increasing complexities. All of the styles thus coexist; there is something for every taste and every occasion.

What do you believe has been his greatest contribution to design?
It is hard to say because he is still alive. History will determine his place.

What do you look forward to most in his future projects?
I hope to see new and appropriate lines with suitable materials; and, above all, that he doesn’t try to redo Paulin circa the 60s-70s. I don’t think that there is any danger of that, however, it’s more the manufacturers that wish he’d continue to create the same in the same style.

What was it like working with him on this book?
We saw each other a lot and spoke a lot, but not always about design! I had to cajole him a bit.

Pierre Paulin by Elisabeth Vedrenne

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Interview with Elisabeth Vedrenne