In 1970, When French First Lady Claude Pompidou chose to decorate the Élysée Palace’s 18th-century living quarters with the groovy furniture of Pierre Paulin, it was as audacious a design statement as I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre a decade or so later.
Michael Burke, chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton, used that analogy to emphasize the enduring modernity and purity of Paulin’s furnishings, still prized by cognoscenti and now the subject of a satellite exhibition scheduled to open today during the Design Miami and Art Basel Miami Beach fairs.
This story first appeared in the December 2, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Vuitton is to display a modular living concept Paulin had envisioned with Herman Miller, the American furniture manufacturer, in 1972, but never realized.
“It just seems right,” Burke shrugs when asked to account for the recent resurgence of all things early Seventies, including chez Vuitton, where artistic director of women’s collections Nicolas Ghesquière has referenced the period in his fashions, store concepts and even the seating at runway shows, employing Paulin’s sinuous Osaka sofas for his resort show in Monaco earlier this year.
Burke enthuses that the project “combines everything we like: craftsmanship, design, modernity and audacity.” Indeed, functional and surprising design are part of the French company’s legacy, with Burke noting that Gaston Vuitton dreamed up foldable cots and chairs, contributing to a fecund period of design that would later be hailed as mid-century modern.
The Paulin/Miller residential concept — a multistory living arrangement whose furnishings can be modified to suit changing needs — should be received well in Miami, a hotbed of architectural innovation, Burke notes.
“It was all about open spaces, for one simple reason: There was no air-conditioning at that time,” he says. “It required a different set of furniture.”
It was the 1973 oil crisis and its economic aftermath that kept La Maquette on the drawing boards. To bring it to life, Burke says Vuitton tapped its extensive supplier network in Italy to realize 18 first-edition armchairs, sofas, bookshelves, tatami mats and tables from Paulin’s reproduced, much grander design schemes.
Bulbous curves, soft padding and convenient details — for instance, on a round cocktail table or a Space-Age picnic table in white lacquered fiberglass — invite people to touch, sit and stay. Curved, firm seating upholstered in candy apple red and aubergine wool jump out among neutrals and muted blues.
“I would love to have an Ensemble Fauteuil B or the big Sofa, but my Parisian apartment is not actually big enough,” Paulin’s son Benjamin says. “My father wanted to create a space where you can feel protected.”
“Making furniture is a very long process,” explains Burke. “It’s midway between making a dress and a car; that’s what furniture is. It’s very technical; it has a function that is more technical than a garment.”
Vuitton produces some limited-edition design objects — hammocks, stools, hanging cabinets — as part of its Objets Nomades series. Burke notes that such collaborations with top industrial designers, including the Campana Brothers and Atelier Oï, can yield unforeseen results and new ideas.
“It’s a creative process, a meeting of minds, and that’s very good for both participants,” he says. “We do get inspired by other métiers, and this is a fundamental part of being a luxury house — continually challenging yourself and innovating.
“It’s about doing something relevant with who we are, and like-minded people, be they designers, architects or musicians,” he adds.
Burke noted that the prototypes on display in Miami will be sold as one-off, while noting that Paulin’s widow, Maïa, the keeper of his legacy, may choose to reedit some of the designs.
“We think these are great French designs,” Burke says. “There’s a niche of people that really collect Paulin. He’s not yet a household name, but he deserves to be known.”
A retrospective exhibition at the Pompidou, scheduled for next year, should also help popularize his oeuvre, including his Ribbon, Orange Slice and Tongue chairs, many freed of their traditional legs. Born in 1927, Paulin retired to the South of France in 1994 and died in 2009, yet his mantra resonates still: “One expects from a designer a practical object with, if possible, a touch of poetry and elegance.”
This is the second year Vuitton has mounted an exhibition during Basel to exalt France’s pioneering figures in architecture and design. Last December, it unveiled Charlotte Perriand’s “La maison au bord de l’eau,” or “The house by the shore,” a U-shaped beach house conceived in 1934 yet never realized until then. That showcase welcomed an estimated 10,000 visitors.
“Playing With Shapes: Pierre Paulin, 1972” will inaugurate a new third-floor exhibition space at The Palm Court in Miami’s Design District and runs through Dec. 7.