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Christmas Can Be A Rough Season

New York Times December 2002

Christmas Can Be A Rough Season

CHRISTMAS can be a rough season, and Chris Lehrecke a 44-year-old furniture designer, sledded into blackness six years ago at Troy, an expensive home furnishings store in New York. Mr. Lehrecke, a compact, surf-haired man with a reputation at the time as the next big thing in artisanal contemporary furniture design, had a table for sale at the chic SoHo shop.

'The table was covered with snowflakes for the holiday, and the snowflakes were making more money,' he said recently, of the unmerry sight.
A sharply pointed Pole Star appeared above Mr. Lehrecke's career, and he put into play an invitation from Ralph Pucci. Mr. Pucci, 47, is a mannequin manufacturer on West l8th Street. He has strong fashion connections and a solid retail success, based on a series of best-selling, new-generation mannequins that include models designed by Kenny Scharf, the artist (Mr. Scharf's mannequin characters are having their premiere as a Cartoon Network series in September).

He also represents select furniture designers, including Andree Putman, the Parisian designer who created the template for boutique hotels in 1984 at Morgan's in New York.

The word, put out by Mr. Pucci, was that he was looking for talent - breaking talent that would survive the rocket ride into stardom. above, include models by artists like Kenny Scharf (on the center shelf. Ralph Pucci gathers the forces of furniture design.

In the last five years, Target, the discount chain, has made its name by making new design accessible to many people, and Ralph Pucci, Mr. Pucci's company, has made its name by making new design accessible to the very few.

Mr. Pucci, a loose-limbed man who played basketball in high school and whose collaboration last year with Christy Turlington, the model, on a mannequin in yoga poses put Ms. Turlington on the cover of Time magazine and Mr. Pucci on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, wants a furniture design team that is unbeatable. And, at prices that only top agencies can ask.

For independents like Mr. Lehrecke, Ralph Pucci is the most powerful 'studio' in the studio system - a $20 million business that sells its art-house product with a slickness that the Weinstein brothers would appreciate.

Originally a hedge against the vagaries of the retail industry and its effect on mannequin sales, Ralph Pucci's furniture accounts for nearly 50 percent of its revenue. And in design - Mr. Pucci's taste is modern, risk-averse and palatable to a fault - the high end of the market sets the tone for the low end, where generic versions rule the sales floors and catalogs.

'He has a great design sensibility,' said Lisa Versacio, senior vice president of West Elm, a new, inexpensive furniture division of Williams-Sonoma, which owns Pottery Barn. 'Clean, urban, current. But he also has business sense - you have to understand the balance between the aesthetic and the acceptance of your audience, so that they're not afraid of it.'

Mr. Lehrecke and Mr. Pucci met through a mutual friend, Ruben Toledo, the fashion illustrator, who with his wife, Isabel, a fashion designer, designs mannequins for Ralph Pucci. They talked; they signed.'It's like a Dia museum space,' Mr. Lehrecke said of Mr. Pucci's 15,000-square-foot, pyramid-skylighted, penthouse showroom, where Mr. Pucci guaranteed Mr. Lehrecke a major exhibition each year during a two-year contract.

There would be an opening night party (with invitations for 3,000 fashion-industry and artworld people and an A-list of architects and interior designers). Each new collection would be bolstered by full-page, full-color advertisements in high-gloss design magazines like Elle Decor. Mr. Pucci's advertising budget is $400,000 a year. He gives two parties a month.

'That was an easy one for me,' said Mr. Lehrecke, who tripled production within three years to 700 pieces a year, to meet orders at Ralph Pucci. Suggested retail prices start at $1,875 for stool-like pedestals and go up, into the tens of thousands of dollars.

'I market you, I advertise you, I get press for you,' Mr. Pucci said several weeks ago, seated in his showroom office on a reproduction of a Jean-Michel Frank settee, beneath a reproduction of an Eileen Gray mirror, both Pucci products. 'I have a thousand percent confidence in what we're able to create here.'

Mr. Pucci's deal is a standard 50 percent cut, like an art gallery owner, with designers like Mr. Lehrecke who manufacture their own work and who are under contract to be represented exclusively by Ralph Pucci. Designers like Christopher Farr, a rug designer with his own showroom in London, receive a more advantageous share. Designers like Paul Mathieu, who designs but does not produce his furniture, receive 7 percent.

Taking new designs and young designers upmarket can take them out of context, though, killing idealistic ambitions with adult realities and removing them from the wider audience that might stand to profit from the value of their solutions. Mr. Pucci risks criticism that he could be creaming the crop.

'I've always wanted to be a populist designer, but it's not possible,' said David Weeks, Mr. Pucci's newest exclusive. 'I was making $5 on a lamp when I was on my own.'


Mr. Weeks's orders have doubled during the four months at Ralph Pucci, at prices that shot up on signing from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
'They've been taken off the sidewalk, but what is the sidewalk?' Mr. Pucci said. 'A couple of pieces in a gift shop, that nobody knows who that's by.' He added, 'I treat them as artists, as Leo Castelli would.'

As Mr. Castelli might have, Mr. Pucci also expects the periodic dog and pony show, such as Mr. Lehrecke's private preview several weeks ago of his new collection, due in October, for Elizabeth Sverbeyeff Byron, a consulting editor at Elle Decor.

Ms. Byron, a blonde wearing a simple blue dress, circled Mr. Pucci and Mr. Lehrecke with a pocket camera as they unwrapped the plastic sheeting from a table and chairs in the dusty warehouse space two floors below the showroom. Mr. Pucci has 50,000 square feet in the building, which includes the mannequin factory.

I actually traced off a Ming chair,' said Mr. Lehrecke, whose new pieces were Chinese-inspired. Ms. Byron asked specific questions about size,
material and schedule, looking at the group strictly, then stopped the show. 'Let's face it,' she said. 'If it's going to be something big, we need more pieces. I'm trying to give you a half-page.'

Mr. Pucci said to Ms. Byron, as though he were changing the subject. 'And the chair is a totally new direction.' He sat down on it, in a natural gesture that encouraged Ms. Byron to sit down too, inadvertently testing the chair.

'It's comfortable,' she said, relaxing. 'A beautiful chair.'

The next day, Mr. Pucci prepared to meet the Toledos with his sculptor Michael Everett for a second stab at designing three new mannequins for December, which when it happened, involved a four-sided 30minute discussion of the expression on a wet clay face. Mr. Toledo, a tight, alert man with a salt-and pepper brush cut and a mustache and wearing white carpenter pants, a denim cowboy shirt and black brogue shoes, was a hornet's nest of adjectives.

'Innocent, wicked, knowing, sphinxlike,' he said, leaping at the piked head and smudging it with his thumb. 'Wise, ephemeral.' Ms. Toledo, her black hair pulled into two knots; said: 'Go for a bigger head. Let's go for the lightbulb.' Mr. Pucci also met with Vladimir Kagan, a wiry haired man dressed in a red glen plaid sport shirt with a red collar and zippered silver-mesh athletic moccasins.

Mr. Pucci, in the background, paced like a basketball coach; then stood, hands on hips, slumped onto his left leg, waiting. A half-page of editorial coverage is over $50,000 of free advertising, at Elle Decor's rates. Mr. Lehrecke bristled.
'More pieces don't make it more of a story,' he said.

'It's an elegant, elegant table,'

Mr. Kagan's Skulptur furniture collection, designed in the 1950's, was reissued by Ralph Pucci based on interest in Mr. Kagan from Tom Ford, the designer at Gucci, and Michael Gabellini, an architect who designs stores for Armani, who each have used Mr. Kagan's designs. The party was that night.
'I have bunions,' Mr. Kagan said, back from Los Angeles that day, when asked about his technological looking shoes. He looked down and took one off, exhibiting his foot.

Mr. Pucci listened and facilitated - his own talent and a large part of the job. He led Mr. Kagan to Mr. Kagan's sofa, where Mr. Kagan showed sketches of a martini glass design for Bombay Sapphire, the gin label, making its debut at the party. Mr. Kagan slipped in sketches of new furniture designs, which Mr. Pucci did not commit to, meaning he does not think they will sell.

'It's not where Pucci is at right now,' he said later, with a diplomat's tact. Mr. Pucci described his tact differently that morning.

'I'm a pretty regular guy,' he said. Mr. Pucci's parents 'started the company in their basement in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1954, when he was 7- Mr. Pucci's self-assessment seemed on the mark, a kind of no-nonsense kept secret by the prima-donna-driven design industry. Though he calls his designers his 'guys,' stars sell.

'Andree Putman, she has that accent and the way she dresses,' Mr. Pucci said of the doyenne of French contemporary design. 'But if you sit down and have lunch with her, she's so regular, it's unbelievable.'

By William L. Hamilton, The New York Times.