May 1, 2009
A Perfect Fit
The collaboration between Pierre Paulin and Ligne Roset appears as tight as the famously taut slipcovers of its stylish seats.
It’s quite a sight: a petite French woman wrestling with a large sofa in order to slide a bulky slipcover over its massive frame. You can’t help but admire the way she expertly yanks here and tugs there, using every muscle in her body to put enough pressure on the fabric to get a close fit. At Ligne Roset, upholstering is not just a métier; it’s an athletic challenge. The men and women whose job it is to dress the furniture are highly trained perfectionists exhibiting charming degrees of stamina and savoir faire. If at the end of their wrestle the result does not meet their exacting standards, they have been known to peel the slipcover off and start all over again. Without their dedication, Roset’s overstuffed sofa beds, snug couches, curvaceous love seats, plump sectionals, and cushy armchairs might look like a collection of tired sleeping bags. As taut as the skin of a drum or the strings of a violin, the stretched slipcovers turn the seats into finely tuned instruments.
Now a signature Ligne Roset look, the form-fitting technique is the brainchild of the French designer Pierre Paulin, who in the late 1950s and ’60s did away with traditional upholstery and turned out a series of skintight seats as polished as pebbles. Back then his chairs were produced by Artifort, the progressive Dutch furniture manufacturer. Today, half a century after he first developed the idea, Paulin, 81, is still discovering new ways to improve on it. Ligne Roset has put at his disposal the latest technology, the most advanced cutting and sewing machines, and the formidable spirit of its employees—and challenged the old master to show the world that he is still a creative force to be reckoned with.
“What drives my work are technological breakthroughs,” Paulin says. “I do not start with the idea of a form. I try to solve problems with the most advanced methods available to me. The way my furniture looks is the result of a process during which I uncover the shapes my design will take. Each new project is a chance to reinvent my aesthetic.” Inspired by the work of Charles and Ray Eames, Arne Jacobsen, and Verner Panton, Paulin began his search for the perfect fit in the ’50s by taking advantage of the microfibers and polyurethane foams newly available in the postwar period. The sleek upholstered shells he designed were propped on steel legs or slung on molded-plastic pedestals. Paulin was always looking for the next innovation and would sometimes attend bathing-suit fashion shows in the hopes of discovering the right stretchy knit to upholster his seats.
By the end of the ’60s, Paulin was known as the author of a number of novel designs: chauffeuses (low, armless lounge chairs), fauteuils (armchairs), banquettes, and canapés (settees) with names like Mushroom, Orange Slice, Tulip, Tongue, and Groovy. His most famous was the Ribbon chair, from 1966, featured in numerous magazines in the United States and instantly adopted by Jack Lenor Larsen, who upholstered it with one of his wavy patterns, Sundown, cleverly turning Paulin’s iconic chair into a vehicle for his own brand.
Paulin looks back at his early successes with the caustic humor of someone who has nothing left to prove. “The Americans loved what I did back then because they love what’s new. No other reason. Their favorite chair of mine”—Ribbon—“was not my favorite chair, far from it. It’s not a great chair. It’s just a novelty item, really.” Paulin’s frankness is legendary. “Pierre is very honest,” says Michel Roset, creative director and co-owner of Ligne Roset. “Collaborating with him is exciting because there is no useless formality between us. We are direct with each other, which means that we are efficient.”
A close-knit, family-owned enterprise that employs 1,200 people, Ligne Roset is large enough to give Paulin’s designs the international distribution they deserve yet small enough to accommodate his often unorthodox working methods. After discussing concepts over lunch, Paulin is likely to produce a full-size model, which he then insists on turning into a working prototype, a costly proposition so early in development. “But it’s fun to work with someone who has such a consummate sense of proportions,” Roset says. “His instincts are always right-on.” At this late stage of Paulin’s career, his fortuitous association with the French furniture manufacturer is an unexpected event, so nearly ideal it’s fluky.
The slipcover technique Paulin has favored all his life was perfected in the 1970s by Ligne Roset. “We produce these slipcovers as we would garments,” explains Antoine Roset, executive vice president of Ligne Roset USA. “There are different types of fits, some looser, some tighter, but the basic idea is not unlike dress making.” It takes a special team of craftsmen to cut, tailor, and, above all, fit these complicated slipcovers. This last operation is the most critical. “There is no way we could export our manufacturing to China,” he adds. “It’s not just a matter of working hard. It’s a matter of having employees with a specific talent and with a specific pride regarding their professional know-how.”
Since 1860, the main Ligne Roset factory has been located in Ain, a bucolic French region located near the Swiss border. Many of the employees are craftsmen whose artisanal roots go back to the Renaissance, when nearby Lyon was an important stop on the Silk Road and the area, rich in wood products, was known for its skilled cabinetmakers. Yet tradition is not the company’s main influence. In fact, the rejection of tradition is what made the brand what it is today. In the late 1960s, Antoine’s grandfather understood the importance of the youth movement and began to propose sofas and chairs for a new, laid-back generation. Often described as a bundle of Michelin tires, Togo, a slouchy-looking sofa designed in 1972 by Michel Ducaroy, is still Ligne Roset’s top seller today. The company’s low-slung chairs and couches of that period encouraged people to loll around, and as the technology evolved and new varieties of foam became available, the quality and comfort level of these droopy contraptions began to improve. At Ligne Roset, sluggishness became synonymous with looking smart and feeling good.
Sitting straight was no longer considered modern—so much so that, to convey the idea that he was an au-courant president, Georges Pompidou decided to redecorate his private apartments in the Élysée palace to conform with this goût du jour. He asked Paulin to handle the project. When describing what turned out to be one of the most prestigious episodes in his life, Paulin is typically matter-of-fact: “Pompidou was not personally interested in contemporary design,” he says. “His only request was that I use neutral colors and that the damn thing be installed overnight without dust or noise. The project was the idea of Madame Pompidou, who gave me all her support in spite of the fact that most people in her husband’s entourage considered my approach too radical.”
Turning the private apartments of the president into a showroom for contemporary design was a politically motivated exercise. Its goal was to demonstrate that the new administration was committed to supporting emerging industries and progressive technologies. A temporary installation, the stunning setting conceived by Paulin transformed the 18th-century living quarters into a futuristic environment complete with curved, fabric-clad walls and sci-fi lighting fixtures. Though there is no known photograph of the portly president actually sinking into one of the soft, plush, pumpkin-shaped lounge chairs Paulin designed for the smoking room, the transformation was deemed a success. Paulin, though, got almost no publicity out of it. When Pompidou died in 1974, most of the decor was dismantled. Then, a decade later, Paulin was commissioned by yet another French president, François Mitterrand, who asked him to create a line of furniture for his Élysée office. This time Paulin worked with cabinetmakers to design a sober and elegant collection of gothic-looking furnishings that flattered the more traditional tastes of the French leader. Once completed, Paulin’s work was praised, but his name was hardly mentioned in connection with it. “The French press only ‘discovered’ me two years ago, when I began to create work for Roset and was promoted by them,” the designer says.
The new collaboration is likely to correct an oversight that made the designer’s name a well-kept secret among the cognoscenti for almost 50 years. When Michel Roset found out that a man whose work he had admired all his life was thinking of coming out of his semiretirement, he contacted him at once. “Time was of the essence because Paulin was already eighty, no spring chicken, but I discovered that he was still passionate about design issues. Very quickly we got to work. Within a year, Pumpkin was ready.” Inspired by the chairs Paulin designed for Pompidou, the new line, launched for the 2007/2008 season, featured crater-shaped lounge chairs and settees that were a vast improvement over their 1971 counterparts in terms of coziness, buoyancy, durability, and resilience. Progress in the texture of foams, bonding techniques, and the tensile qualities of fibers have allowed Paulin to obtain the kind of comfort level he had never before been able to achieve. “In some of our seats, we have up to ten different densities of foam,” Michel Roset says. “It’s costly, but it pays up over time. Our seats last fifteen years without any loss of comfort.” An instant Ligne Roset classic, the Pumpkin line is showing signs of becoming the next Togo, a timeless line that has had a consistent following for 36 years and is prominently displayed, like a company logo, in its 230 exclusive stores worldwide and 35 North American showrooms.
The unexpected success of the Pumpkin line has prompted Ligne Roset to reproduce some of Paulin’s lesser-known vintage designs. “Reproducing classic models and referencing the past is not our business,” says Michel Roset. “Neither is it our expertise in terms of marketing. But with Pierre, it came naturally. We had fun taking prototypes he had developed in the fifties and sixties, improving their comfort level without changing their appearance.” A couple of midcentury pieces, originally manufactured by Thonet, are now some of the most exciting introductions in the current Ligne Roset collection: the minimalist TV side chairs (1953), the sober Archi wing chairs (circa 1955), and the diminutive Tanis (1953) and Ursuline writing desks (circa 1959). A later reproduction from a 1982 original, the intriguing Curule folding-wood throne seems in line to become an icon. More conventional, a handsome new upholstered series called Anda includes two sizes of armchairs and offers a swivel option.
With the sales figures of these new introductions surprisingly strong, it looks like Paulin and Ligne Roset “have gold at their fingertips,” an expression that Antoine Roset uses to describe the work of great upholsterers. He points to a row of spiffy, immaculate lounge chairs fitted in slipcovers and ready for final inspection. “These pieces will look factory-fresh for the next fifteen years,” he adds, “but will the appeal of their design endure as long as their form?” That’s the ultimate challenge, isn’t it? But Paulin is standing by, living proof that, in the end, good design does prevail.