French design icons: stories and anecdotes

Exceptional pieces of furniture for their time, seemingly banal objects that have become part of the collective imagination, revolutionary architecture for its time: we have decided to present to you the icons of French design, the emblematic creations of the greatest French designers that have passed into posterity.

Behind these creations is often a singular project, anecdotes that tell a story, often that of the encounter between a designer and a brand. Here is a selection of objects that have become cult items, along with their stories.

The architect Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886-1945) designed and built from 1929 to 1932 an extraordinary house, the Villa Cavrois, an innovative architectural manifesto for its time. Trained at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture, he claimed early on to have a modern architecture, far removed from the aesthetic canons of the decorative art of the early 20th century.

Commissioned by the textile industrialist Paul Cavrois, Mallet-Stevens had a sort of modern castle built in Croix in the North of France, a masterpiece of modernist architecture. The Villa combines luminosity, comfort and hygiene. He also chose a new material at the time, reinforced concrete, and did not hesitate to use luxurious materials like marble.

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Villa Cavrois, south façade. The building was classified as a historical monument in 1990 and acquired by the State in 2001. A gigantic restoration project began in 2003 and was completed in June 2015. The building is now the property of the Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN).

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The interior of the Villa can be visited today with the period furniture. Some rooms have been refurnished on the basis of archival documents, notably photographs dating from 1932. Mallet-Stevens designed almost all of the Villa’s furniture.

Raymond Loewy

(1893-1986) is rightly regarded as the pioneer of industrial design. He left for the United States to try his luck in 1919 and had an extraordinary career there. He became a key figure in American design, even being commissioned by President J.F. Kennedy to decorate Air Force One, the American presidential plane.
For the cigarette manufacturer Lucky Strike, Raymond Loewy designed the brand’s emblematic logo and invented product marketing by having the logo printed on both sides of the pack. A logo that is still used today! Above all, it was he who invented the cellophane film that is torn off to open the packet.

Another of Raymond Loewy’s legacies is the famous Shell logo, known throughout the world for its famous scallop shell. He then imagined the concept of service stations as we know them today. A pioneer and visionary!

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Period advertisement for the Lucky Strike cigarette pack, packaging designed by Raymond Loewy, 1940. A masterpiece of advertising with the brand’s logo on both sides of the pack.

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Raymond Loewy, drawing and study for the Shell logo. In his career, Loewy will have designed or arranged some of the most famous logos of the XXᵉ century (Lu biscuits, TWA airline, New Man ready-to-wear brand, Exxon oil company, etc.)

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Another stroke of genius by Raymond Loewy: the invention of the service station concept. It was he who advised the brand to install a large roof in the brand’s colours. A concept that has since become worldwide!

He is one of the best known French designers of the second half of the 20th century, along with Philippe Starck. At the height of the sixties, Pierre Paulin (1927-2009) made a name for himself by designing a series of brightly coloured chairs and sofas using the elastic properties of jersey. In 1984, François Mitterrand entrusted him with the design of his desk for the Elysée Palace. In 1984, Paulin designed a resolutely modernist desk for the office. A blue lacquered wood desk with pink aluminium fillets.

For the record, the famous desk became famous in 1985 when the journalist Yves Mourousi recorded his famous interview with François Mitterrand, then President of the Republic, sitting on the desk!

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François Mitterrand seated at the desk designed by Pierre Paulin. The blue leather top and its blue lacquered metal structure stand out against the pomp and circumstance of the Republic.

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View of the presidential office. In addition to the desk itself, Pierre Paulin designed a set of furniture in the same blue tone.

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One of the corners of the presidential office designed by Pierre Paulin for François Mitterrand.

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In the foreground, Pierre Paulin’s office, on the occasion of the interview of President François Mitterrand conducted by Yves Mourousi in 1985. A television moment that has remained a cult for the audacity of the journalist who sat on the famous presidential desk.

Another designer representing a modern and uncomplicated era, Olivier Mourgue (1939) may have signed the cult seat of French design in the 1960s: the armchair Djinn (1964). A piece of furniture that has become world famous since its appearance in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001,A Space Odyssey (1968). A piece of furniture chosen by the American filmmaker for its terribly futuristic side.

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Djinn armchair, design by Olivier Mourgue (1964) for the French publisher Airborne.

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The Djinn armchair as a sofa, designed by Olivier Mourgue for Airborne (1970)

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The Djinn armchair designed by Olivier Mourgue in one of the scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001, A Space Odyssey. Here the seat is the one chosen to furnish a reception room at the Hilton Hotel in 2001.

Roger Tallon (1929-2011) left his mark on post-war French industrial design. In 1963, he reinvented the television set by designing the P 111 portable television set, known as Téléavia. A revolution for its ovoid shape, it is transportable and symbolises freedom, unlike other sets which are large pieces of furniture to be placed against a wall!

An anecdote about Roger Tallon: in 1972 he designed the visual identity of the famous magazine Artpress. Improved since then, the graphic system imagined by the designer still serves as the basis for the magazine 47 years later!

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P 111 portable television, Téléavia. Design Roger Tallon (1963). The device was developed by the agency Technès where Tallon worked.

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In addition to its innovative shape for its time, the Téléavia is easy to carry!

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Frontcover of the magazine Artpress, N°43, December 1980.Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris / A.D.A.G.P. 2016/DR

Paris, 1984: Gilbert Costes and his brother Jean-Louis open the Café Costes in the Halles district. A then unknown designer, Philippe Starck, designs the decoration of the place. The atmosphere, style and comfort of the establishment made it one of the first “concept cafés”. What followed was a family success story that embodied Parisian chic and a designer who achieved international fame. For the famous café, Starck designed a comfortable and practical tripod armchair: the Costes Armchair.

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Costes armchair, imagined and designed for the Café Costes. Designed by Philippe Starck, designed in 1981, manufactured since 1984. Philippe Starck wanted his armchair to be practical to hold and, above all, to allow better circulation for the waiters with its three legs. The piece is edited by the Italian publisher Driade.

Finally, to conclude this overview of French design icons, let us return to the story of a glass designed by the designer Martin Szekely (1956). An object designed for the Perrier brand in 1995, which wanted to reinforce its image with a branding that was immediately recognisable on all café terraces. The gamble paid off: the Perrier glass became a star product in everyday life..

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Perrier glass, 1995, design by Martin Szekely. A master stroke for the brand to have called upon the talent of the French designer. With this glass, which has a thick base and a large opening at the top, the brand has established itself in the popular imagination of the French

François Boutard