France's Design Revolution

Roland Halbe

With bold graphics, sleek curves, and vivid colors, a new generation of designers has reestablished France as a creative powerhouse.

For most of the last century France was a hothouse of haute design, from Le Corbusier’s pioneering modernism and Rateau’s Deco icons to the midcentury masterworks of Prouvé, Perriand, and Paulin to the creations of contemporary superstar Philippe Starck. In the nineties eyes may have turned elsewhere for the dernier cri of style, but the French are getting their groove back.

Just look at Monsieur Sarkozy. After pulling the country out of the malaise of the Chirac years and endowing it with renewed charisma, he is now—thanks to the Italian-born model-chanteuse First Lady—remaking himself as a kind of bel esprit, reading smart books, trading up his cultural tastes. In the Sarko-Bruni era, an energetic, relevant, can-do France still indulges its inner bon vivant. Even the country’s leftist public intellectual laureate, Bernard-Henri Lévy, has a weakness for fine white shirts (always unbuttoned just so).

That uniquely Gallic mix of elegance and intelligence is reflected in the creations of a new generation of designers working in France who are putting luxe and joie de vivre into everything from furniture to graphics to chic hotels. Whether playing on tradition or breaking the mold completely, French design hasn’t lost its decadent side, even if it tends to be more about simple pleasures than grand gestures.

Of course, defining French design is tricky in a globalized world. Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec create pieces for Italian furniture companies, while Arik Levy and Matali Crasset design products for manufacturers in Turkey and Germany, and Pritzker prize winner Jean Nouvel puts up buildings in cities from Manhattan to Rio. The most anticipated new work of architecture in France is by Shigeru Ban of Japan. His soon-to-open outpost of the Centre Pompidou in Metz was inspired by, of all things, a traditional Chinese hat. It’s a telling addition to a skyline that, like France itself, revels in a newfound diversity and dynamisme.