Portrait: Pierre Paulin 2/2

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 public in French 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.

Discover the first part of this article on the early career of Pierre Paulin: 1950 – 1970: the emergence of an exceptional designer

After 1970: a new dimension to Pierre Paulin’s work

In the context of his time – the 1970s – Pierre Paulin was seen as very avant-garde and visionary. The French still had little regard for contemporary design, preferring rustic style and stylish furniture. So it was another visionary for his time, a lover of the art of his time, who came to Paulin to give him an unprecedented commission. In 1971, Georges Pompidou and his wife commissioned Pierre Paulin to decorate part of the Elysée Palace!
In confidence with the President of the Republic, whom he knew to be passionate about contemporary furniture, Pierre Paulin refurbished three rooms in the private flats of the Elysée Palace: the smoking room, the Salon aux tableaux and, the essential room, the dining room. In terms of innovation, Paulin did not disappoint the expectations of the presidential couple. In the three rooms arranged in a row, the designer, now a space planner, will create a hushed, more intimate and less institutional atmosphere. Inspired by tents or yurts, Paulin took the liberty of designing another “envelope” in the rooms, since he could not break or distort the very old walls.
Thus, the designer covers the existing Napoleon III-style decoration with drapes in grey fabric. For the dining room, the only room left untouched today, Paulin imagined a futuristic “cave” in which his creations populate the space. For the occasion, Paulin created two round tables with matt plastic-coated aluminium legs and laminated glass tops. Finally, twenty-four seats made of moulded aluminium and upholstered in skin or fabric are arranged in the dining room. The ceiling of the large room is unusual; a gigantic chandelier made of 8,973 crystal rods illuminates the room. They look like stalactites, suspended from the ceiling. In the Salon aux tableaux, Paulin created the famous Pumpkin armchairs and sofas for the occasion.

Décoration de la salle à manger de l'Elysée, réalisation Pierre Paulin

Decoration of the Elysée dining room, by Pierre Paulin

Salle à manger du Palais de L'Elysée en 1971 © Pierre Berdoy - Mobilier National - Les Archives Paulin

Dining room of the Elysée Palace in 1971 © Pierre Berdoy – Mobilier National – Les Archives Paulin

Le Salon aux tableaux, Palais de l'Elysée, fauteuils et canapés Pumpkin créés pour l'occasion. © Pierre Berdoy - Mobilier National - Les Archives Paulin

The Salon aux tableaux, Palais de l’Elysée, Pumpkin armchairs and sofas created for the occasion. Pierre Berdoy – Mobilier National – Les Archives Paulin

With the “Elysée” project, Pierre Paulin proved that he was capable of designing a global environment. In 1984, François Mitterrand commissioned the designer to design his work desk. Interestingly, Paulin abandoned his avant-garde style of the Pompidou years for the occasion and returned to a much more classical but refined style, in symbiosis with the presidential image. Paulin then produced a set of furniture for the office, most of them in blue, which contrasts happily with the pomp of the room. In total, he produced 21 pieces of blue furniture with red aluminium edging – a flat desk and technical console, a coffee table, a lounge with six armchairs and a sofa, a work chair, etc.

Palais de l'Elysée, mobilier de bureau conçu par Pierre Paulin, 1984-1989

Palais de l’Elysée, office furniture designed by Pierre Paulin, 1984-1989

Pierre Paulin carried out other institutional commissions for the State. In particular, he was regularly called upon by Jean Coural, general administrator of the Mobilier national and the national factories of Gobelins, Beauvais and La Savonnerie from 1963 to 1991, who founded the Atelier de recherche et de création (ARC) in 1964. His aim: to promote French know-how, between craftsmanship and creation.
With the national furniture and the ARC, Pierre Paulin will continue to produce and surprise. He participated with the designers Joseph-André Motte and André Monpoix in the fitting out of certain rooms in the Louvre. Under his name La Borne, Paulin designed a large circular bench for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre Museum (1968). It is a success. Comfortable and convivial, it invites you to contemplate the masterpieces. La Borne is still in use in the Grande Galerie, almost half a century after its creation!

La Banquette circulaire Borne de Pierre Paulin, dans la grande galerie du Louvre, 1968

Pierre Paulin’s Borne circular bench in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, 1968

Other state commissions marked Pierre Paulin’s career: the French pavilion at the Osaka Universal Exhibition in 1970, the tapestry room at the Paris City Hall (1985), and the armchairs and carpets created for the hypostyle room of the Economic and Social Council (Palais d’Iéna, Paris, 1985-1991).

Pierre Paulin, fauteuil Iena et tapis Jardin à la française. Vuie d'installation, Palais d'Iena, salle hypostyle, 1987. © CESE-Benoît Fougeirol - Palais d’Iéna, architecte Auguste Perret, UFSE, SAIF. Collection du Mobilier National / Courtesy Galerie Perrotin

Pierre Paulin, Iena armchair and Jardin à la française carpet. Installation view, Iena Palace, Hypostyle Hall, 1987. EESC-Benoît Fougeirol – Palais d’Iéna, architect Auguste Perret, UFSE, SAIF. Collection du Mobilier National / Courtesy Galerie Perrotin

Omnipresent in the French State’s furniture heritage in the second half of the 20th century, Pierre Paulin received belated recognition from his native country after the year 2000. Paradoxical when one considers his formidable contribution in the 1960s, with a design that was at once pure, organic, colourful and elegant. Pierre Paulin’s famous chairs, designed in particular with Artifort, are all part of the greatest international museum collections (MoMA, Centre Pompidou) and somewhere in the subconscious of design lovers. So we had to wait until last year, 2016, to see the Centre Georges Pompidou (it could only be him!) devote its first major retrospective to him, a tribute to an exceptional designer, at last!

Written by François Boutard