PARIS — Pierre Paulin, at 80, is one of the great old men of design, having influenced his trade with creations such as his Ribbon and Mushroom chairs. French presidents Georges Pompidou and François Mitterrand both enlisted him to decorate the Elysées Palace. As an exhibit of his furniture opens today and runs through Dec. 16 at Azzedine Alaïa’s gallery here, Paulin sat down with WWD to discuss the vagaries of design and pore over his storied career. He also revealed he’s starting to work again. “I started sketching again a few years ago,” he said. “I’m going to work with a new manufacturer soon. But it’s still top secret.”
This story first appeared in the November 16, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: What drew you to design?
Pierre Paulin: I had two uncles I admired. One was a sculptor and the other an engineer. I started out wanting to be like the first one and I ended up being more like the second. I sculpted for three years and was forced to quit when I had an accident. In any case, I didn’t feel like an artist. I was too concerned with practical problems.
WWD: Did starting out by sculpting influence your approach to design?
P.P.: Not at all. Art and design are completely different. Art is a calling from God. But design is a career. You have contracts and engagements. You must respect your relationship to industry. It involves daily life.
WWD: How did you get started?
P.P.: France was in a state of destruction after the war. I was part of a group of people who were developing “reconstruction” products. Products that were more sober, somewhat in the manner of the Scandinavian look.
WWD: Were you successful right away?
P.P.: Not at all! My first concern was survival. No one in France was interested in the type of thing I was doing. There was a very small elite interested in similar things. France seemed so dusty and antique next to the Scandinavian countries, which were living in a totally new manner. It took France 30 years to get design.
WWD: What was your first big break?
P.P.: A Dutch firm, Artifort, contacted me. That was 1958. Hans Knoll had arrived in France. I was crazy for Knoll. It was the first time I’d seen a type of modernity that resonated with me. There was Herman Miller and Charles and Ray Eames, for whom I had the greatest admiration because they were freer; Knoll was somewhat bourgeois. Ray and Charles Eames are the greatest designers of the 20th century in my estimation.
WWD: People called your style Pop. Was it a reflection of what was going on in the plastic arts?
P.P.: It wasn’t derived from Pop Art. That arrived in France much later. I was Pop before Pop! My aesthetic was determined by technical choices. It was a consequence. I did a chair that was covered with a swimsuit material. It was somewhat inspired by existing forms. But it led to me finding forms that were more personal. It wasn’t easy. For a long time, I was ashamed of the Ribbon chair because it was so provocative. You have to understand, I’m part Swiss and German as well as Northern Italian and French. It took me a while to shake off my Puritanical core and learn to please the public.
WWD: How did your collaboration with Georges Pompidou come about?
P.P.: Pompidou wanted something modern that would inspire the French to embrace the future. He thought the country was hemmed in by its traditions. His team looked in the foreign magazines and decided on me because my name came up a lot. And Madame Pompidou loved my style.
WWD: You decorated the presidential palace like a spaceship. Was that your idea of the future?
P.P.: [The decoration] was the solution to the parameters imposed on me. The restrictions dictated my choices. They told me I couldn’t touch the walls and they told me I couldn’t make any noise. So everything was created in a factory before it was installed.
WWD: Did Pompidou like it?
P.P.: I think the president was a traditionalist, someone who loved modernity without really knowing what it was. Madame Pompidou told me the Queen of England and the ruler of Saudi Arabia loved it. As for the rest, I have no idea.
WWD: The furniture you created for Mitterrand was completely different, not at all Space Age.
P.P.: Mitterrand was even more traditional than Pompidou. He wanted traditional things. When you are in the service of power, you try to express the needs of the leader.
WWD: Do you find that design has changed a lot today?
P.P.: Not in industries like cars and aircraft. But in furniture it’s changed entirely. Before it was industrial, today it’s more artisanal. And designers take themselves for artists. That amuses me. An artist who develops furniture that is totally uncomfortable and unusable — it’s astonishing. A designer isn’t an artist. We are in the service of the public. We are not meant to serve ourselves.
WWD: What about the incredible prices being paid for design today?
P.P.: I don’t understand why you’d collect things like that. It’s a self-contained market that I don’t understand. But maybe it’s something that will detach itself from the real métier in the future.
WWD: Are there any contemporary designers you admire?
P.P.: There’s a young German with a Yugoslavian name?
WWD: Konstantin Grcic?
P.P.: Yes, that’s right. He’s emblematic of the hope for a new generation. And there’s an Englishman.
WWD: Jasper Morrison?
P.P.: Exactly. He won’t transform the world. He’s classical, and he doesn’t try to astonish, which I often tried to do. But he searches, like I tried to do, to serve a public. That’s our function as designers.