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Easy Pieces

Los Angeles Times July 2003

Easy Pieces

New York City had long known about Ralph Pucci, the mannequin maker turned furniture impresario whose designer showcases are lik eworks of art. Now the West coast is getting a look at Pucci's artisans.

By Barbara Thornburg

Furniture impresario Ralph Pucci may have begun his career in the mannequin business, but he’s no dummy when it comes to talent. A little more than a decade after Pucci’s entrée into furniture, his Ralph Pucci International is one of the most influential artisanal studios in the country. At a panoramic showroom in New York City’s Chelsea district, Pucci has made a splash displaying the avant-garde sensibilities of Andrée Putman, Chris Lehrecke, John Wigmore, David Weeks, Jérôme Abel Seguin and others, showcasing their designs like works of art in a sparse, gallery-like setting.

Now through May 10, Pucci is on display on the West Coast for the first time, with a show at Christopher Farr’s contemporary rug gallery in Los Angeles. Nearby, at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, furnishings and mannequins by Pucci designers Ruben Toledó beckon from the windows to passers-by on Wilshire Boulevard.

Pucci made a name for himself in the mannequin world in the late 1970s by creating a line of hip figures in active poses – diving, swimming, jogging, doing handstands – that helped revolutionize the stodgy dummy. Then he received a commission to design a series of mannequins for Barneys New York in 1986 with French interior designer Putman, who had made her mark reproducing early 20th century furniture classics. They collaborated on a powerful, square-shouldered women they dubbed 'The Olympian Goddess.' 'It was exactly the opposite of the anorexic-type models in vogue at the time,' Pucci says. They followed up with the husband and later, his mistress. In the process, he and Putman became friends.

When Putman wasn’t pleased with how her furnishings were being marketed in the United States, she turned to Pucci for help. He began displaying her classic pieces in his 50,000-square-foot mannequin factory and penthouse showroom in New York City. 'I had these beautiful; mannequins surrounded by beautiful French furnishings –Jean Michel Frank sofa and Eileen Gray rugs, Jacques Henri Lartigue tables and Mariano Fortuny lamps,' Pucci says. ' I ended up becoming Andrée’s agent. All of a sudden, I was in the furniture business.'

Today Pucci represents 13 artists/designers in furniture, lighting, sculpture, photography and painting. The furniture ranges from classic reissues of Vladimir Kagan’s 1959 biomorphic-shaped Skulptur collection to the Brancusi-like, hand-hewn wood pieces of Lehrecke, who won the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Young Designer Award in 1996.

Pucci’s studio also features Seguin’s organic, one-of-a-kind sculptures and seats of recycled wood; Vicente Wolf’s ethereal photographs; Weeks’ artful lighting, evoking Alexander Calder mobiles; and the classic 6 Easy Pieces collection by Putman, who did the interior of Bastide restaurant in West Hollywood and is known for pioneering the cheap chic boutique hotels in 1984, starting with Morgan’s in New York City.

The common thread Pucci looks for is timeless sculptural design. His furniture is 'avant-garde and modern, yet classic,' says Donna Warner, editor of Metropolitan Home magazine. 'I would never use the word ‘trendy’ in describing his collection. His pieces are very thoughtful and exquisitely crafted. You see the art in them.'

Pucci’s line of contemporary house products is often played off against his new-generation of mannequins-by artist Kenny Scharf, architect Patrick Naggar and model Christy Turlington-in tony department stores across the country. The same pairings are a feature of the shows in his turn-of-the-century penthouse. 'Several hundred people show up-the downtown art bunch as well as fashion people and the window display crowd,' says designer Weeks, who had his first lighting show last spring.

The minimalist settings are often the stars of the shows. For one he laid down nice of Christopher Farr’s graphic rugs in the 5,000-square-foot penthouse and stationed a Seguin teak bench in the middle of the floor; Philip Glass music played in the background. A visitor asked Pucci when the show would be up. 'It is up.' He responded. ' I want people to be able to walk all around a piece as if they were viewing a sculpture. I want them to see the craftsmanship.'

For Pucci’s West Hollywood show, a 1940s building and exterior courtyard festooned with wisteria provide an Old Hollywood ambience. 'I’m keeping it very simple-just a few pieces, one or two mannequins and a little jazz,' he says of the installation. A music enthusiast, Pucci selected Miles Davies’ classic 1959 album, 'Kind of Blue,' to set the mood. 'It’s as spectacular now as it was then,' Pucci says, 'it’s timeless, really.'

By Barbara Thornburg for the Los Angeles Times.