Haute Mod

Courtesy of Demisch Danant

Voluptuous curves, bright colors, and crazy patterns—Pierre Paulin’s furniture turned the tables on midcentury design’s minimalism.

Pierre Paulin is known as the man who moved French design past the clean-lined, hard-edged industrial luxe of Perriand and Prouvé to a softer, curvier, more sensual version of sixties Pop. He made chairs that looked like slices of citrus, or like tulips, enfolding the sitter in their petals. He created sofas that might well have been extruded instead of built, in the form of undulating snake coils and rippling waves. He designed a mushroom-shaped seat that Alice’s hallucinatory caterpillar would have loved and, most famously, a chair resembling a tongue, giving its occupant a long, playful lick. Almost all his pieces were covered in either swimsuit nylon or bright stretch jersey, the new fabric being worn by Dior’s runway models and kids on Carnaby Street. It was Paulin who brought fun, fashion, and even sex to French design.

All of which may explain the current surge of interest in Paulin, who turned 80 last year. Balenciaga’s Nicolas Ghesquière, following in the footsteps of former Dior designer Marc Bohan, is outfitting his stores and offices worldwide with Paulin’s furniture. Fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa, a longtime collector, mounted a Paulin show at his Paris gallery in December. Rare pieces are bringing record prices: The Galerie de Casson in Paris sold one of the serpentine Amphys couches for $78,000 at the Design Miami/Basel fair in Miami last year, nearly triple the price of a similar piece purchased at auction only two years ago. In mid-March the French auction house Artcurial staged the first sale devoted entirely to Paulin. In celebration of the designer’s birthday, the “Jubilee Pierre Paulin 80/60/50” exhibition has, since last year, been making its way across Europe. Another show is scheduled for October, in Tokyo (Japan is where Paulin first showed the Amphys, in 1970). A much larger museum exhibit stayed at Paris’s Galerie des Gobelins for six months, and the first catalogue raisonné of the designer’s work—edited by the show’s curator, Catherine Geel—has just been published by Archibooks.

For devotees of Paulin, this renaissance goes beyond candy-bright colors and pleasing shapes. According to Geel, a design professor and culture critic, Paulin belongs to “the tradition of the Eameses or George Nelson. He sees himself moving the modernist tradition forward.” Like his heroes—the Eameses with their shaped plywood, Harry Bertoia with his welded frames—Paulin was working at the cutting edge of technology, pushing new methods and materials as far as they could go. The introduction of Pirelli foam and stretch fabric meant that for the first time it was possible to make furniture that mirrored organic shapes or wrapped around the body protectively. “It’s female, sexy, and soft, like a beautiful woman,” Geel says. “Paulin gets furious when people say he’s Pop. He is not making an ironic gesture at all.”

Paulin was born in Paris, in 1927, one of two children of a German-Swiss mother and a French father. On the maternal side of the family there were sculptors; on the paternal side his favorite uncle designed sports cars for Bentley and Peugeot. In the late forties, after studying ceramics and sculpture, Paulin severed a nerve in his hand. Unable to hold a chisel, he had to abandon his dream of becoming a sculptor. He enrolled at Ecole Camondo, a decorative-arts school in Paris, and spent three years drawing Louis XVI furniture (“It’s like learning Latin,” he has said), which gave him a foundation in classical design. In the early fifties he started working for the French branch of the Viennese company Thonet Frères, producing steel-and-wood furniture clearly inspired by his American and Scandinavian heroes. The desks, all clean lines and exposed structure, are still available at auctions, where they bring between $2,400 and $4,800.

It wasn’t until 1958, when the Dutch firm Artifort hired him, that Paulin really found his own voice. The Mushroom chair (1960) came first, followed by the equally iconic Ribbon (1966) and Tongue (1967) chairs. Low and inviting, they were built for sprawling, curling up, and easy living—in other words, the polar opposites of classical French furniture. These three have stayed in production since their introduction; this year, in honor of Paulin’s 80th birthday, Artifort is reissuing 13 more of the designer’s creations, including Le Chat and the ABCD couch.

But for serious Paulin collectors the real prizes are the rarities. “It’s a paradoxical situation,” says Stéphane Danant, of the gallery Demisch Danant in New York, which held a show of Paulin’s works in fall 2006. A new Ribbon chair from Artifort sells for $6,325, but “the vintage Artifort pieces you might still find for a few hundred dollars,” says Danant. Then, he adds, “there are the designs that are almost unique, and they’re an entirely different market.”

Every dealer covets a few of these dream pieces. Danant admires the Cathédrale table, which has a glass top that reveals an aluminum base vaulted like the ceilings at Paris’s Ste. Chapelle. Only three were made, and one of them, belonging to Paulin’s daughter, sold for $132,600 at the Artcurial auction. For Paris dealer and gallerist Guillaume de Casson, it’s the Déclive Basse (Flying Carpet), a chaise longue with foam-covered slats that can be moved into almost any position the sitter desires. Created in 1968, it can transform from a bench to a love seat to a recliner. De Casson has one, and he’s not parting with it easily: His current asking price is just over $550,000.

“This is the ultimate Paulin piece,” De Casson says. “It’s sexy, halfway between sculpture and furniture. You can move it so it looks like a cobra or a love seat. And, of course, it’s incredibly rare.” Of the three that were produced, one disappeared and the other two stayed in Paulin’s own apartment until a few years ago. Apparently he agreed with De Casson.

Interior Dialogues

In 1967 Paulin received a commission from Marc Bohan, creative director at Dior, to redo the company’s offices. It was Paulin’s first—but far from last—project for the fashion world. His all-white, stretch-jersey interior signaled the transformation of the couture house for modern times. In 1969 he did the same thing for the even more staid French government, designing three rooms at the Elysée Palace for President and Mme. Pompidou. Paulin filled the spaces with his own furniture—chairs built into the walls and glass-topped tables lit from underneath by lightbulbs that formed flower patterns. Now the Elysée furniture is some of the rarest and most sought-after of Paulin’s designs: A bookshelf prototype recently brought $175,400 at auction. This year, though, Paulin’s original plans will be fulfilled, at least partially: The Paris-based Perimeter Editions is offering numbered, limited-edition versions of two sofas—Face à Face and Dos à Dos—as well as the Cathédrale table (prices upon request; perimeter-editions.com). And Ligne Roset has released the Pumpkin series of armchairs, love seats, and sofas, along with an updated version of the CM 141 desk ($925–$3,900; ligne-roset-usa.com).

Spicing Things Op

Paulin’s collaboration with fabric designer Jack Lenor Larsen began at the behest of Dutch furniture company Artifort. Larsen had long produced Op Art–style patterns on stretch jersey, but he found the material ill-suited for use on the angular furni-ture of the fifties. Then, in 1967, Artifort chose Paulin’s undulating designs as the perfect match for Larsen’s abstract, almost psychedelic patterns. The outcome was an aesthetic success but a practical disaster. Though the sinuous chairs and sculpted chaises were widely praised, the fabric was too fragile for everyday use. As a result, few were made and pieces from the collection are among Paulin’s rarest. A Ribbon chair covered in original Larsen upholstery fetched $19,000 at the recent Artcurial auction. Now, in celebration of Paulin’s 80th birthday, his entire line is being rereleased in Larsen’s signature Momentum fabric. $2,500–$4,900; artifort.com

Where to Buy

Demisch Danant Specialists in French design from the sixties to the eighties, Suzanne Demisch and Stéphane Danant have handled some of the most important vintage Paulin pieces in this country, including an Amphys chaise. 542 W. 22nd St., New York; 212-989-5750; demischdanant.com

Galerie de Casson Another expert on modern French design, Guillaume de Casson is the person to know for hard-to-find works, such as Ribbon chairs with original Larsen fabric and the Déclive Basse. 45 Blvd. Vincent Auriol, Paris; 33-1/45-86-94-76; galeriedecasson.com