Ralph Pucci turned a mannequin business into a platform for artistic collaborations, and after more than 20 years, his showrooms continue to inspire designers with a coterie of new and established talent.
By Linda O'Keeffe Portrait By Antoine Bootz
For Ralph Pucci, the marriage between art and design has always been pro forma, which is why his bicoastal furniture showrooms buck the trend and resemble avant-garde sculpture galleries. He represents a coterie of designers and artists, and every inch of his two gritty Manhattan lofts and their yin, all white, West Hollywood sister space shows signs of his firm, curatorial hand. Standard showroom merchandising aspires to inspire buyers with propped, "real-life" room settings, but Pucci's creative direction takes a spare, more cerebral approach. Playing off of architectural sight lines, he lets a single chair flirt with a stool or lamp while a sofa converses with an armoire or bench. Each piece is a beautifully crafted star that's meant to be approached, circumnavigated, visually stroked and coveted.
Display is also second nature to Pucci. In 1976, at the age of 22, he inherited his family's mannequin business, and within a decade he'd replaced a factory full of ladylike fiberglass poseurs with animated and abstract figures. He commissioned the likes of Aldo Cibic, Maira Kalman, Karl lagerfeld, Kenny Scharf, Ruben Toledo and Andrée Putman to invent novel male and female clothing forms and even immortalized model Christy Turlington sitting cross-legged in Padmasana pose.
His collaboration with Putman led him to showcase the iconic furniture of Jean-Michel Frank, Pierre Chareau and Eileen Grey and simultaneously honed his eye and editing skills. From the start, Pucci and Putman were like-minded, and he loved her wit, pithy proclamations and unpretentious flair. "She taught me about the 'poison pill,' that one extra detail or unnecessary decoration that turns a timeless object into something common and mundane," he remembers fondly. "We're both no-non-sense; we shoot from the hip, and we're both allergic to anything trendy or tricky. I mean, who cares about the latest hot color?"
In 1990, Pucci branched out into furniture-making after Toledo introduced him to Chris Lehrecke's Brancusi-like carved wooden stools. More than 20 years later his relationship with Toledo still thrives, while Lehrecke is currently collaborating with his wife, jeweler Gabriella Kiss, on a new collection. Over the years, the showrooms' offerings expanded to include rugs, graphics, murals, quilts, photography, sculpture, lighting, ceramics and glass vessels, though furniture is still at their core. There's a mythological subtext to Patrick Naggar's caricaturized klismos chairs. The sinuous legs and curve of Paul Mathieu's solid bronze Aria chaise take their inspiration from a deer in motion. These days, Jim Zivic, who formerly fashioned side tables out of giant lumps of coal, is preoccupied with cold-roll steel and linked leather.
Hervé Van Der Straeten's lacquered consoles lusciously evidence his engineering prowess and jeweler skills. Kevin Walz's Pull Up chairs are odes to his love of boat building and dance.
And then there are Dana Barnes' oversized braided textiles, which defy categorization. "They're functional art floor coverings, hangings, sculpture and seating and even though decorators are wowed by them, they can't figure out how or where to install them," Pucci says, illustrating one pitfall of being ahead of the curve. "Given time, they'll figure it out. A lot of interior designers have a signature style where they resort to using the same things over and over and it gets stale, so they come here to be creatively challenged." When they are exhibited together, works that stem from so many disparate aesthetics could create visual chaos, but Pucci's graceful orchestration leaves the impression that kindred spirits and co-conspirators created it all, which is why wallpaper magazine refers to him as an "editeur." Such diverse energy particularly pays off at Pucci openings, where a high-octane, international crowd of design celebs, dignitaries and drag queens typically turn every elevator ride into a VIP room.
Over the years, Pucci has bet the bank on unknown, young designers, brought others out of semi-retirement and given the stage to obscure sculptors and muralists but, as far as he's concerned, they all share common traits. "They're all original thinkers who stay true to their vision," he says. "They're all oblivious to what's popular, and many of them seriously don't care about making money. That's my job. It's also my job to manifest their ideas without compromising their intent."
Rome-based artist and designer Walz feels that most of his proposals require Pucci to take a leap of faith. "Each time I ask him to imagine something we haven't seen before, and he risks it if suspects it will take the Pucci brand some place it should be going," he says. "Besides that, he is a warm and trusted friend." Such rare mentorship in an industry that increasingly has its manufacturing eye on China has tremendous sway, and needless to say, the directory of designers who would like to be inducted into the Pucci family is a mile long.
It generally takes about two to three years before the pieces Pucci represents or manufactures with local artisans trickle down to the mass market. "if I were them," he says, referring to the knock-off merchants, "I would be quicker" A London showroom is at the top of his future wish list, along with a permanent installation of his collection at MoMA. "That", he says emphatically, "is where my people and the work i show truly belong."