Perfect French Accent

Hugues Chevalier has been making some of Paris' finest furniture for two decades. Now the full line is available here for the first time

Luxe, calme et volupté may be a cliché, but the Baudelairean refrain is an almost absurdly exact description of the large, sun-filled showrooms of Hugues Chevalier, the Paris-based furniture company.

"This is a typical Haussmann-style residential building from about 1885," says Alain Caradeuc, the company's design director, as we walk through the white-walled, high-ceilinged enfilade. "The scale and proportions of the rooms work well with our furniture, especially the bigger pieces," he says, drawing my attention to grand sofas in brilliantly colored leather, inviting daybeds upholstered in crisp silk, and tall bibliothèques in honeyed sycamore displayed around the suite.

The handsome collection was launched 23 years ago by Hugues Chevalier, a former art and antiques dealer, who was then working with designers like Philippe Starck, Christian Liaigre, and Jean-Michel Wilmotte as an editeur—that is, the manufacturer and distributor of their design products. But in the 1970s he became intrigued by prewar French furniture, particularly the work of designers like Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, Maurice Dufrène, and Jean-Michel Frank, whose rediscovery was spearheaded by Andrée Putmann, just then establishing her influential design firm Ecart. Excited by the resurrected aesthetics of the 1930s, Chevalier decided to create his own range of furniture based on the clean lines, pleasing proportions, and satisfying solidity of pieces from the period, but brought up-to-date by the elimination of unnecessary details, the streamlining of awkward silhouettes, and the simplification of ungainly complications.

Although a new name as a furniture designer, the handsome, charming, and convivial Chevalier was already well established in Paris social circles. He opened a small shop on the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré, where he was always in attendance, and rapidly attracted a chic clientele—movie actors and directors, architects, designers, restaurateurs—many of whom he knew personally. The business expanded over the years, eventually comprising six stores in France, Switzerland, and Belgium, but Chevalier, who liked to keep things as personal as possible, refused to sell his collection through any other distributors—indeed all his customers were private individuals and most of them were French. As a result the firm maintained a sophisticated, thoroughly Parisian aura, and came to resemble an exclusive fan club whose members doted on the eponymous designer and enthusiastically collected his superb 1930s-revival-with-a-modern-twist furniture.

Chevalier must have recognized that with the 1990s the market was about to change radically, and that if the company was to prosper there was a need for a more professional approach to management, marketing, production, and finance. Rather than instigate the necessary reforms himself—and perhaps end up with a business he would no longer find totally congenial—Chevalier decided to sell the firm to Bernard and Hervé Ogliastro, two of the great-grandsons of Louis Vuitton.

Like Chevalier, Caradeuc doesn't have a background in furniture design. The softspoken 47-year-old spent two decades in the world of fashion, first at its avant-garde end as Thierry Mugler's business manager, and then in sportswear as Esprit's director for southern Europe. But he didn't neglect fashion's creative side—for four years he designed an all-silk clothing line, which he had produced in the Far East under his own name.

Caradeuc knew the Chevalier collection, which he admired very much, particularly for its masterful evocation of the '30s. ("I remember when I first discovered Ruhlmann for myself in the seventies," he says. "It was a really beautiful desk that belonged to the lawyer of Didier Grumbach, the director of Yves Saint Laurent in the United States at the time.") So when in 1994 he was asked to take over as both business and creative head of the company, he didn't hesitate.

While he was charged with overhauling every aspect of the company, Caradeuc's most immediate concern was with the design and production of the collection, which numbered about 40 different models when he arrived. "I cut the line by about forty percent," he tells me matter-of-factly as we drive to the company's factory in the small Vosges town of Liffol-le-Grand, about 200 miles east of Paris. "The idea of finding inspiration in the 1930s is great, but I also wanted the collection to be very contemporary with no sense of nostalgia, no hint of reproduction as opposed to reinterpretation." Having removed the sofas, armchairs, and other pieces he felt too closely resembled their Frank and Ruhlmann forebears, Caradeuc set about reworking all those that remained. This wasn't so much a matter of changing designs as of refining details: adjusting the density of the cushioning materials, so they offer just the right degree of resilience; ensuring the absolute uniformity and precision of the stitching on the upholstery seams; upgrading structural components, so that all load-bearing elements are made of solid timber and none of composite wood.

As we pull into Liffol-le-Grand, Caradeuc points out a factory to me. "That's where Ruhlmann's furniture was made," he says. "It still turns out reproductions of his designs today. This area is the traditional furniture-making center of France, because of all the timber that's available locally." (Chevalier also has some production done in Italy.)

Hugues Chevalier's designs had always been marked by strong and masculine angularity. When in 1995 Caradeuc began to add new pieces to the collection, he felt intuitively that they should be a few degrees softer than their predecessors, that the line's characteristically robust profiles should be tempered slightly with gentler, more yielding curves and fuller, more sensuous contours. In working out these ideas, Caradeuc was assisted by Chafik Gasmi, a young architect with whom he collaborated for 14 months. Together they developed the Ying and Yang ranges of sofas and chairs: pieces that display flowing lines without relinquishing authoritative solidity. They have become bestsellers.

In 1996 Caradeuc took over all design responsibilities; pieces he's added recently include the Madison sofa, the Ying pouf, the Betsy chair, and the Princeton desk. "The way I put these things together is quite simple," he says, bringing the car to a halt in the Chevalier factory parking lot. "After I establish the need for a particular product I begin to sketch roughly, letting the inspiration come. This can arrive from anywhere: a baby's face, a Ming vase, anything. You bathe in an environment of influences, which your mind absorbs like a sponge, and you trust your sensibility to do its work and digest what will be helpful to you."

We begin our tour of the workshops in the upholstery-cutting room, where three or four women are inspecting enormous, rich-hued cowhides for flaws (in addition to custom-dyeing, the company offers 45 standard colors of leather). "We use Austrian and German tanneries because they have the best product," says Caradeuc. "And we buy only first-grade hides." He is an enthusiastic cicerone, anxious that I understand the rigorous standards that govern the construction of the furniture, the intense quality control involved in each step, and the high degree of customization available in any piece. For instance, Caradeuc explains that it takes up to four hides to make one leather sofa, but only those from the very same dye batch can be used together. Later he points out that solid beech is a superior structural material, so it's used for the frames and in fine-boned pieces like the Betsy side chair. But where there is exposed woodwork—on the arms of the Ying sofa, for example, or on the Princeton desk—Caradeuc insists on sycamore, even though it's 25 percent more expensive than beech. It's not only the wood's great natural beauty and affinity for different dyes and stains that make it perfect for Caradeuc's pieces, but also the fact that it was a favorite material of the '30s French designers he so admires.

Though the factory is not the one Chevalier used, it was established in the 1920s and has produced Chevalier furniture exclusively for the last five years. It's essentially an artisanal enterprise, drawing on the craft expertise still to be found in the area, and its atmosphere of concentration and the deliberate pace of production remind me of luxury goods ateliers I've visited.

"Coming as they do from Louis Vuitton, the Ogliastros have inherited a strong interest in first-rate craftsmanship, attention to minute details, and absolute integrity of production methods," says Caradeuc. "We were determined to go for a top-quality product—as near perfection as possible."

This isn't to say Caradeuc avoids modern technology when the results are superior to those achieved with older methods. The arms of the Ying chair, for instance, are each made from a solid piece of carved sycamore. For the first year of production, this very complicated task was done by hand, with all sorts of attendant standardization and other problems. Now the arms are manufactured on a computer-controlled machine with superb—and absolutely consistent—results, though all finishing, polishing, and varnishing is still done manually.

Hugues Chevalier furniture is not inexpensive—it's in the same price bracket as the best Italian brands, like Cassina, B&B, and Capellini—and on the way back to Paris I ask Caradeuc to sum up what he'd like his customers to get from a given piece.

His answer reminds me of the Baudelairean sensation I felt so strongly in the showroom this morning: "I hope they find it a genuine creation—a genuine product. I think this happens when craftsmanship, technology, culture, and nature are blended in the right proportions. Take the Ying chair again, which requires expert hand-stitching in the leatherwork and advanced computer-assisted production in carving the arms, so there you have loving craftsmanship and fantastic technology. Then you have the chair's shape, which is completely contemporary yet harks back not just to the 1930s but also to something much more ancient—it rings a bell somewhere in us—so you have the cultural component. And of course it's made from the most beautiful wood and supple leather, products of nature. Craftsmanship, technology, culture, nature. It's Utopian, but this mixture, I think, constitutes true luxury."


Inner Strengths

The internal structure of a typical piece of Hugues Chevalier furniture, like the Valentino sofa, is neither exotic nor complex: Simple, classic construction techniques are used. What justifies the considerable price tag of a Chevalier piece ($11,110 for the sofa upholstered in leather) is the superb quality of the materials utilized, the artisanal care taken in preparing and putting them together, and the wide degree of customization available.

1. The frame is made entirely of solid beechwood, unlike less-expensive sofas, which employ composite wood.

2. The seat padding sits on closely spaced elastic strap webbing that has been stretched and stapled directly to the frame by hand.

3. All the structural padding is of high-resilience polyurethane foam, which is cut on-site and then glued to the frame. (Steel springs are not deemed suitable for achieving the type of support and level of comfort desired in Hugues Chevalier furniture.) A slightly lower-resilience foam is used in the seat cushions. In the case of some sofas, like the Madison, where a very soft, sinking effect is sought, a mixture of 85 percent down and 15 percent polyurethane flakes is used for stuffing the cushions. (Firmness is gauged by the weight of the down.)

4. Before the leather cover is put in place, a Dacron mesh easer is fitted over the padding material so that the two surfaces don't bind and the leather is free to move.

5. The sofa is then covered in full-grained, hand-stitched leather (cushion stitchings are trimmed with piping). Only first-choice hides are used, and each one is examined meticulously by hand and eye for defects and imperfections. The Valentino sofa takes up to four hides, which must come from the same dye batch to insure absolute color-consistency. Forty-five standard colors are offered, and custom colors are available too.

6. All visible wood surfaces—such as the Valentino sofa's feet or the Madison sofa's arms—are made of sycamore, for three reasons: first, because of its elegant grain; second, because historically it was used in much 1930s and '40s French furniture; and third, because it's very pale and takes any dyes or finishes well. There's a standard selection of eight hand-applied wood finishes, but others can be custom-ordered.

Hugues Chevalier furniture is available at the following stores:

Hugues Chevalier, 17 Rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris, 75006; 33-1-45-89-69-55; fax 33-1-40-49-02-90; and 228 Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré, Paris, 75008; 33-1-45-63-86-39; fax 33-1-42-25-91-16. Stvdivm V, 150 East 58th Street, Seventh Floor, New York; 212-486-1811; fax 212-486-0898. NeoStudio, 3841 Northeast Second Avenue, Suite 202, Miami; 305-438-9500; fax 305-438-9505.