Portrait: Pierre Paulin 1/2
Pierre Paulin (1927-2009) is one of the greatest French designers of the post-war period. He is, without question, the equal of Jean Prouvé and is probably the best known French designer today, along with Philippe Starck. Little known to the general French-speaking public during his lifetime, like Roger Tallon, the father of French industrial design, he was, on the contrary, celebrated abroad from the 1960s, recognised by his American and Scandinavian peers. Like many of the great designers of his time, he was a jack-of-all-trades: from handmade furniture to total design and interior design. To dive into the world of Pierre Paulin is to revisit 50 years of creation marked by chairs that have become icons of modern and contemporary design. It is also to revisit the history of places of power in France.
Pierre Paulin grew up in a privileged family environment. Above all, he admired the work of his uncle Georges Paulin, an engineer and designer for Peugeot, Rolls-Royce and Bentley. A pupil who was not suited to the school system, he finally entered the Centre d’art et de techniques in 1947, a school that became the Camondo School in Paris in 1967. From the early 1950s onwards, he began looking for publishers capable of bringing his projects to life.
1950 – 1970: the emergence of an exceptional designer
And it was the famous publishing house Thonet that gave him his first real chance. Following the example of American publishers such as Knoll and Herman Miller, who marketed interior furniture ranges, Paulin developed a range of office chairs and collective furniture for Thonet. Among the pieces already noticed at the time are the CM137 armchair, known as the Coquille (1953), and the CM170 armchair, known as the Tripode cage (1955). Paulin was already expressing a pronounced taste for rounded and curved shapes that were part of a certain search for comfort.
But it was the Maastricht (Netherlands) based furniture publisher, Artifort, that allowed Pierre Paulin to quickly achieve international fame by creating chairs that have since become icons of contemporary furniture. From 1960 to 1970, Pierre Paulin, after having learned from his contemporaries at Thonet – he had an unfailing admiration for the Eames couple – was ready to develop more personal models that would become his signature, based on his own research at the time.
In 1960, he designed the Mushroom Armchair No. 560 for Artifort, because of its shape. Of all the chairs he created, it was Pierre Paulin’s favourite, which he said was the best he had made “economically, mechanically and financially”. Elegant, rounded, with the idea of a cocoon for the person sitting in it, the Mushroom Armchair has become a timeless piece of contemporary design.
The Mushroom represents a technical achievement for Pierre Paulin. Indeed, from his first collaborations with Thonet, he was conducting research to cover his creations with a stretch textile cover. The idea behind the project was to cover the metal structure of the seat with foam and then slip a seamless cover over it, rather like a swimming costume. This is a new manufacturing process that revolutionises seat design. No more nails to fix the fabric, the seat ‘slips on’ a new skin. Harry Wagemans, the CEO of Artifort, went to Norway to find the right fabric for the covers, which were made from jersey.
In the middle of the Pop Art period, Paulin was able to play with the colours that were in vogue at the time. The jersey covers are easy to remove, washable and can be changed at will… Above all, he succeeded in making a piece of furniture that required an economy of means. For the structure, three steel rounds are enough, linked together by four rods. It was a success for the man who wanted to democratise design and make it affordable.
Subsequently, Paulin continued to design his chairs on the basis of a one-piece shape that made the structure lighter. In 1966, Artifort introduced the Ribbon Chair, a seat in the shape of a folded ribbon. Once again, over the polyurethane foam, the stretch jersey fabric moulds the seat perfectly into a unique and sensual piece. A year later, Paulin, a lover of shapes, created the Tongue Chairalso known as model no. 577. In the middle of the sixties, the piece is emblematic of these years which claim a new hedonistic way of life. A supple, fluid and colourful line, in tune with the times. Finally, what about the Orange Slice, designed in 1960? A timeless shape and a piece that changes shape depending on the point of view adopted!
Read the second part of this article: After 1970: a new dimension to his work
Written by François Boutard