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Visionaries: Ralph Pucci

Elements Of Living April 2006

Visionaries: Ralph PucciVisionaries: Ralph PucciVisionaries: Ralph PucciVisionaries: Ralph PucciVisionaries: Ralph Pucci

Both furniture impressario and gallerist, New York City's showroom magnate has assembled one of the strongest rosters of artisans under one roof anywhere in the world.

He has been credited with reinventing the mannequin world–nothing, incidentally, he set out to do. Following graduation with a degree in journalism from Northeastern University in 1976, Ralph Pucci opted to help out with the family business–briefly, he thought, before pursuing 'a real job'. His parents ran a tidy niche enterprise out of their basement in New Rochelle, New York, rehabilitating shop mannequins, which at the time were uniformly ladylike gals with indelible manicures and post-WWII smiles for the troops.

Somewhat to his surprise, Pucci 'started to see creative possibilities.' The Olympics were coming to Montreal that summer and he had the idea to make naturally posed mannequins with athletic bodies. A straight-shooting pragmatist with enviable confidence and unerring eye, Pucci hired a sculptor to realize his athletic squad's swan dives and handstands. They were a worldwide sensation, even a harbinger of Calvin Klein and Bruce Weber's muscled patheon. At once, Pucci's semi-annual mannequin unveilings began to take on character of art events, with ambitious downtown types nipping at the heels of attendees from the highest echelons of art, architecture, design and fashion.

His entree into furniture came in 1985, when Andree Putman, a self-described 'specialist in passion,' unexpectedly asked him to represent her hugely influential furniture collection, Ecart International. Soon after taking on those exquisite French Art Deco reproductions, Pucci International was representing dozens more artists and designers. 'I was impressed by how pleasant, curious, and interested Ralph was with people who are often perceived as intimidating, ' Putman said. 'I thought he should do what he was born to do: deal with artists.' On the first day her furniture appeared in his showroom. Putman and Pucci sold $200,000 of it to a buyer who'd come in for mannequins.

Ever since, Pucci has let his artisans' work speak for itself, displaying it in a spare gallery setting. A visitor to the showroom once asked when a certain exhibit of rugs would be 'up.' 'It is up,' Pucci replied.

The company's two floors in New York's Flatiron District are constantly in flux, with one section devoted to a relatively permanent selection, and three other areas dedicated to revolving exhibits. 'The merchandise changes around a collection that's new and center-stage, like the Robert Bristow collection is now,' Pucci says. 'We move things around about every three months.' What could be viewed as an art gallery is, in fact, a design showroom composed of up-market vignettes of art and furnishings.

Pucci is that rare businessman who is also an avid talent scout. 'You see a photograph you like in a magazine by someone you never, so you call him or her up and they come to see you in the showroom. While you're talking, they mention others they know. From a designer you meet an illustrator who leads to a photographer who knows a sculptor who admires a certain woodworker.

It's one world when you put it together, but traditionally business keeps them all apart.' Pucci trusts creativity and his own instincts, and the combination has assembled on of the world's greatest rosters of artisans.

Perhaps his unique sensibility stems from a brief period as a musician. 'Believe it or not, when I think of a furniture collection, I hear the soundtrack in my head long before the show is complete. Someone asked me recently what I was going to do with the new showroom in L.A. I said it'll look like a cross between Charlie Parker and Lou Reed.' True to genre-defying form, Ralph Pucci knows what a good sound looks like.

BY JANINE NICHOLS