How a mannequin repair shop became the city's top furniture showroom. You don't suddenly start selling $9,000 side tables and $100,000 bronze commodes out of 15,000-square-foot floors on W. 18th St. to the world's top architects, designers, movies stars, athletes and media moguls.
This New York story starts with mannequins. In the early 1950s, Ralph Pucci's mother and father ran a mannequin repair shop out of their Mount Vernon basement. In the daytime, his father picked up the broken figures at local fashion stores. By night, his mother made them wigs. His grandfather owned a plaster shop in the Bronx where he made religious statues. That's how his mother learned the trade. Soon, Pucci Manikin Repairs grew into a top local repair facility. The shop moved to 20th St. in Manhattan.
When their son Ralph joined the business in 1976, things changed. Until then, the company hadn't made its own mannequins. Ralph, the product of the 1970s New York music and art scene, saw a different appeal for the human-scale dolls, and he saw s business opening.
'These are life-sized pieces of art,' says Pucci, sitting in his showroom loft, surrounded by some of the most expensive and perfectly crafted pieces of furniture available today. 'They have movement, motion and sexiness. No one was really doing anything interesting with the form.' Pucci hired a sculptor to create new mannequin forms. he tied them to music, naming a series with a pompadour 'Avalon' after Bryan Ferry's Roxy Music album. Another series is spray painted red, yellow and blue with white wigs after the New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders. Macy's and Marshall Field's bought mannequins inspired by Roman and Greek statues.
Still not satisfied, Pucci began to ask up-and-coming fashion designers to dress the mannequins for exhibitions that become art and fashion shows unveiling the company's creations. ' I wanted to use all the best young talent to dress these things,' says Pucci. 'The idea was to fuse art and fashion with these mannequins.
I never even considered furniture. I wanted these young designers to give these mannequins a new lease of life, to really explore the form.'
Historians and writers have always said you need a little luck to make it in New York. Pucci found his in 1985, when pop art sensation Andy Warhol took an interest in mannequins. At a Pucci opening introducing forms created by celebrated French interior designer Andree Putman for Barneys New York, Warhol brought Keith Haring and the rest of his factory to the party held in a SoHo loft, Pucci's showroom at the time. The group signed human body parts, causing an explosion for Pucci, Barneys, fashion designer Isabel Toledo (who dressed the mannequins that night and would dress First Lady Michelle Obama for her husband's swearing-in ceremony) and Putman. Not only did it put Pucci on the 'cool' map, it impressed Putman, at the time one of the worlds leading furniture designers. She asked Pucci if he would be her furniture rep in New York, making him the sole salesperson of furnishings in the city.
'That started it all, ' says Pucci, who since then has gone on to represent legend in the furniture world and create one-of-a-kind handmade objects. 'With Andree's work, we started attracting big-name architects. The showroom took on a gallery feel where buyers wanted to come see what we were selling. That's when the atmosphere came together. We would play cool music, like Miles Davis or Lou Reed, have a mannequin installation, an art exhibit, and show the furniture as center pieces.'
Walking the three floors of his global enterprise, where Pucci still runs his mannequin factory, the objects in the giant lofts compose a modern furniture museum. Works by Jens Risom, a 93-year-old furniture maker credited as a founder of the mid century modern furniture movement, are next to Havana daybeds by Paul Mathieu. Fiberglass floor stools under concaved mirrors by Herve van der Straeten are near mixed-shaped leg wooden tables designed by India Mahdavi. When I met Pucci, I had no idea who some of these people were. I had seen there objects in magazines or museums, or the homes of the wealthiest New Yorkers I had ever met, but I had no frame of reference for their origin or extent of their makers' skills.
Most of all, the prices were shocking. A gold-leafed bronze table cost over $100,000. A 1950s rolling bar console cost around $15,000. A black lacquered stool shaped like a chess piece runs around $2,100. Pucci, always patient and passionate, explained in detail how each piece was more than a work of art. They were investments. Owned by some of the wealthiest people in the world, these pieces of furniture are purchased by designers and architects for clients who often want their name kept out of it. In some cases, Pucci doesn't even know into whose homes the objects are going. He works primarily with designers, who come to the showroom themselves to select the pieces, each of which is handcrafted, all of the objects available only through Pucci International. In some cases, there is only one of that object ever produced.
'It takes a certain mind-set to buy these pieces,' says Pucci. 'They are unique, one-of-a-kind pieces that can be kept in the family forever or auctioned off at the top auction houses within a few years of purchase. I have some pieces that have increased in value by 20% in just two years. These are pieces that make people say 'Wow!' when they walk into a room. Over time, they can become part of a person's or a room's soul.' To sell the furniture and mannequins, Pucci ensures that his company leads the way when it comes to visual presentation and product unveiling. Each mannequin or furniture line gets its own opening, some of which draw 1,000 personalities from the world of fashion, art and design.
Pucci still matches designers with mannequins, and in the fall, he'll manufacture his first fiberglass piece of furniture, matching the materials used for mannequins with high-end furniture. New Yorker Vladimir Kagan, a longtime Pucci partner now in his 80s who has pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, designed the fiberglass chair for his new collection.
'The pieces are timeless with a fresh level of sophistication, beautiful quality and craftsmanship that make them modern heirlooms,' says New Yorker designer Amy Lau, who works closely with Risom and kagan. Pucci, who has several fall shows planned, keeps setting the bar high. 'We're pushing the culture envelope here,' says Pucci. 'That's why it's important that the art, furniture and mannequins all work together. I have never been in the play-it-safe business. If we don't give people a wow, they will not come back to buy.'
For designer Vicente Wolf, who designs pieces for the Pucci collection and buys from the show room, it's about atmosphere and personality. 'There is no other place like this,' says wolf. 'Ralph is so unpretentious. When you buy some thing here, it's a showstopper. You're not buying these because they're expensive. You're buying them for the bang.'
By Jason Sheftell