Pierre Paulin: Design Icon

Pierre Paulin: Design Icon

Paris’s expansive Important Design auction, on November 22nd features a strong selection of classic and modern design. One of the designers represented in the sale is Pierre Paulin, a name synonymous with elegant styles from the 1970s, now acknowledged by private and institutional collectors as a key figure in French design.
To reflect on his resurgent popularity and offer insight into his creative process, Sotheby’s meets his son Benjamin, who alongside his wife Alice, has been at the forefront of the Paulin renaissance in recent years.
Paris’s expansive Important Design auction, on November 22nd features a strong selection of classic and modern design. One of the designers represented in the sale is Pierre Paulin, a name synonymous with elegant styles from the 1970s, now acknowledged by private and institutional collectors as a key figure in French design.
To reflect on his resurgent popularity and offer insight into his creative process, Sotheby’s meets his son Benjamin, who alongside his wife Alice, has been at the forefront of the Paulin renaissance in recent years.

W hen Pierre Paulin passed away in 2009, his son Benjamin had only just begun to see sustained reappraisal and interest in his father’s work, through the company he had founded with his mother Maïa and wife Alice, naturally named Paulin Paulin Paulin.

It was clear that Paulin’s profile had dipped during the 1990s. But style never really goes out of fashion and in due course, aficionados of Paulin’s 1970s heyday were gratified to see his classic works from that decade resume their rightful place at the heart of French design, helped by Paulin’s presence in some of the finest private and institutional collections. And today, 14 years after his passing, his family's careful and sensitive stewardship of his legacy means demand for this distinctive talent is robust. How did Paulin Paulin Paulin manage to do this? We sat down with Ben and Alice for a little chat to find out.

Benjamin, could you give us an overview of your father’s work?
Benjamin: There are four major periods. In the 1950s, it was woodwork, heavily inspired by Scandinavian furniture designed to suit the apartments of young families. In the 1960s, he revolutionised seat aesthetics by being the first to use a tubular structure upholstered with moulded foam and stretch textiles, such as for the Groovy, Ribbon and Mushroom armchairs. In the 1970s, he turned to the module which he extended to a complete habitat, like the one Georges Pompidou commissioned for the Elysée Palace. He drew inspiration from the plant world. In the 1980s, he dissimulated his work under the company name ADSA, which he founded with his mother, to equip offices, trains and aeroplanes. He designed irons, electric razors and plastic chairs. But the more he worked in mass production, the more he felt a need to get back to small-scale craftsmanship. Pierre Paulin created an organisation alongside ADSA, engrossed himself in the memories of his studies at Camondo, and went back to working with the Mobilier National and wood. Curves gave way to straight lines. That is how the famous desk for François Mitterrand came about.

Can you tell us how you worked to restore Pierre Paulin’s brand name for 2022?
Alice: To begin with, we founded a small organisation to develop projects with museums. An opportunity presented itself in 2010 with the exhibition Mobi Boom, l’explosion du design en France de 1945 à 1975 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Benjamin spotted the Déclive that he used to play on as a child. A few days later, we went to dinner at Azzedine Alaïa’s home. He was a very discerning design collector and had been acquainted with Pierre Paulin. Benjamin told him how moved he had been to see the piece, and Azzedine offered to design a Déclive for him. That led to us meeting manufacturers, and made it possible for us to begin releasing pieces - on a very modest scale.

Benjamin: We realised that we would be able to release pieces without the need for an industrial partner. When Pierre was alive, only the prototypes with high-volume sales potential were brought into production, but that didn’t mean that the other pieces weren’t good ones. We sorted through the boxes and found the projects that had never been released, and we began addressing a more restrained audience, a niche [market].

Is that what happened with Vuitton in Miami?
Alice: Absolutely. It was at Art Basel Miami in 2014. The Maison Vuitton had already showcased design the previous year, with an exhibition devoted to Charlotte Perriand. We proposed to collaborate on the production of a modular habitat that Pierre Paulin designed for Herman Miller in 1972, but had never executed. The enthusiasm of the audience, professionals and collectors surpassed all expectations. And the press coverage was considerable. That same year, we also published a monograph with Albin Michel, and Emmanuel Perrotin offered to hold an exhibition for us at his gallery.

Was Pierre Paulin’s comeback reinforced by the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou?
Benjamin: Yes, that was in May 2016. The museum has an extraordinary collection of pieces, including a great deal of prototypes and mock-ups. We worked diligently so that that retrospective would go forward.

There was also an event that you held at your home in Bordeaux...
Alice: Actually, it was at the house that Rem Koolhaas built for my parents in Floirac. We found a photo of the house’s inauguration in 1998, which shows Pierre Paulin with Rem Koolhaas. My mother knew Pierre, because she had worked for him in the 1970s. We thought it would be ideal for Rem Koolhaas to conceive the scenography for a Paulin exhibition at that house. However, it was not an exhibition strictly speaking, but rather an experience: a capsule aimed at appealing to emotion, as an extension of the modular furniture series known as Dune!

'We are not re-releasing pieces: we are releasing them for the first time. We are producing things that were not brought to the market in my father’s time'
- Benjamin Paulin

Was that when Florent Jeanniard (by Co-Worldwide Head of Design) offered to hold an exhibition at the auction house?
Benjamin: Yes, we presented our latest releases and a few vintage pieces there.

Exhibition 'Pierre Paulin, La pensée au présent' (Sotheby’s Paris, 2020)

Isn’t there a risk of confusion in combining new pieces with the older ones?
Benjamin: No, as long as we are very clear. We are not re-releasing pieces: we are releasing them for the first time. We are producing things that were not brought to the market in my father’s time, such as the Tapis-Siège or the Dune module. We are also following through on production runs that remained unfinished, such as that of the Cathédrale table or the console table, in a way that does not have an adverse effect on the price index.

Alice: Another aspect of our business is managing all the licenses. For example, we wanted to bring back the Groovy armchair, which had not had enough exposure. That was a re-release. However, we do not consider ourselves to be furniture producers, much less a start-up, seizing upon a market. The only thing driving us forward is the desire to raise awareness of Pierre Paulin’s work, bring it up to its potential, and make it desirable.

I imagine that that means better controlling his image?
Alice: Absolutely. A lot of different furniture manufacturers produce Pierre Paulin pieces, and one of our roles is to ensure that the exploitation of his image remains in keeping with the initial work.

Your company is Paulin Paulin Paulin. Where does that unusual name come from?
Benjamin: There are three of us in this adventure. Let’s not forget my mother, Maïa, who was Pierre’s associate. She is the one who had the idea, since it reminded her of big American corporations such as Johnson & Johnson. It was a bit of a joke to begin with, and it shouldn’t be considered as proprietary. What we like about it is the concept of resonance, carrying a legacy forward; and that humorous touch corresponds with us rather well, too.

Pierre Paulin Canapé Multimo, modéle F284/4 Estimate: 24,000 - 36,000 EUR

The next design auction at Sotheby’s will be held on November 22nd. Are there any Pierre Paulin pieces that you’re interested in?
Benjamin: Of course! I purchase a lot of antique pieces as provision for a museum collection. The very rare Multimo set is one model that I am very fond of: it is little-known to the general public, but it is very sought-after by collectors. It is an incredibly comfortable piece. The square version of the Mushroom sofa is also a difficult piece to find. I have two of the armchairs, but not the sofa...

French & Continental Furniture Interiors + Design

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