Ralph Pucci is curating striking statement pieces by JEANINE BARONE
RALPH PUCCI, THE VISIONARY behind the eponymously named contemporary interior design and art showroom, has galleries in New York, Miami and Los Angeles that exhibit the cornerstones of his aesthetic: quality, creativity, timelessness and uniqueness. Guided by these principles, Pucci curates pieces that stretch the practicality of furniture so far, they border on art. That philosophy is on full display in Manhattan, where he has sourced several hundred objects that run the spectrum from classic to unconventional, including pieces by modernists like Andrée Putman juxtaposed with avant-garde works by Elizabeth Garouste. There simply is no other place to look when on the hunt for a one-of-a-kind statement piece.
What is your approach to curating?
We don’t curate in a traditional way, meaning we don’t do room settings with sofas, coffee tables, consoles, chairs and rugs. We curate sculpturally or graphically so that you can walk around the pieces and appreciate the quality and the craftsmanship and be surprised. We hope to bring about an emotional experience. In the New York showroom, it wouldn’t be atypical to walk into the 3,000-square-foot entrance and only see three pieces: a mirror, a console and a side table from Hervé Van der Straeten. It’s always changing. I want people to walk off the elevator and not know what they’ll see at Pucci.
What makes for “good” design?
Creativity has always been an important part of my design life. I met Andrée Putman when I was around 30 or 33 years old and Eileen Grey before she was popular. That brings you to timelessness. Their work is timeless. Grey did a lamp that was done in 1906; it looks like—to use one of Andrée’s phrases—it looks like it was designed tomorrow. We stay away from fads. It’s almost a negative at Pucci.
What is your process for evaluating a piece—do you think first about its design and the way it’s rendered, or how people will interact with it?
I’m a businessman and with everything I do, the goal is to sell it. We would not design for high design’s sake. There has to be a reason for each piece. I wouldn’t want to do it if a person couldn’t interact with it or respond to it. Though I like to do things that are ahead of the curve that may need three, six or nine months to catch on—and maybe need a little time to educate—the client has to emotionally connect to it and be fascinated by it. It doesn’t have to be so obvious that you get it right away. It could be a process. But ultimately the client has to respond.
How do you know when a piece has passed from “high design” to “design for design’s sake?”
Andrée Putman taught me about the poison pill, the one extra ingredient that’s not necessary for a design, for a piece of furniture or for a presentation. That’s what I look for. That extra little note can ruin a piece and turn it from beautiful to pretentious. I’m thinking of the work of the great Jens Risom—the lines are clean and the details are simple. But someone else would exaggerate the detailing in the wood or they’ll add another detail in the frame that’s just not necessary. Strip it down. Keep it as simple as possible.
Are there times when a non-functional piece should be placed in a home “just because?” Does that then make it a sculpture or is it still a functional furnishing?
I have mixed feelings on furniture as art. But I like to stretch the practicality of the furniture to the very high level that it borders on art but it’s also very functional. I like wow pieces. I like unique pieces. I like my design to stretch as far as it will go. Therefore a functional piece can become a borderline art piece. My pieces aren’t necessarily just art pieces. But they are the most comfortable pieces: the sofas, the club chairs that are produced under licenses, I can guarantee they are the most comfortable pieces of any in the world today. They are made old world style by craftsmen doing techniques that have been long forgotten. We only make two or three pieces a week, some shops make hundreds a week. It’s old world craftsmanship but elegant, sexy shapes. Even the pieces by Patrick Naggar, when he fools around with different materials, they are borderline art. But they can be used to store your liquor or as a cabinet that’s very functional.
What are you looking for when you bring in a new designer to the showroom?
I’m always looking for newness and freshness. And someone who is working in materials that I’m not already representing or who is using them in a unique way. For instance, two designers who are soon coming on board are the architect Richard Meier, who is doing a lighting collection that will be exclusively shown through Pucci, and the legendary Pierre Paulin, who had shows in the Pompidou in Paris. His works have a 60s feel and I was lacking in that area: mod, early Beatles, early Rolling Stones, stretch material.
How do you find your designers?
One great designer turns me on to a designer friend. It’s people who come to my openings and maybe I see them hanging out with someone who I admire who may not be in the field of furniture or art. And I just sense that if he’s hanging out with this musician and understands what he’s all about, then it’s worth looking at his work. People send me their work but, in all honesty, I’ve very rarely taken a collection from anyone who just “solicited Pucci.” However, there are really no rules. Our eyes and ears are always open.
What do you find appealing about the lighting objects from Ted Abramczyk, John Wigmore and Michael Anastassiades?
The thread connecting these three designers is that their work is simple with sculptural elements. John Wigmore is like the Donald Judd of lighting. He makes clean, simple light boxes. Michael Anastassiades’ chandeliers are minimal, floating sculptures. And Ted Abramczyk’s pieces are a takeoff on beautiful clouds. None of their works are overdesigned. It’s very much in the Bauhaus aesthetic, one I’ve always found fascinating: less is more.
You show Jim Zivic’s hammock and his cotton bale bench. Can you discuss his work?
His work is authentic. He works in real, totally unexpected materials: tables made of coal—it’s like a Brancusi sculpture; a leather hammock with a shearling cushion; his cotton bale bench is made of leather-wrapped cotton. Who would think to work in those materials? He’s so creative and uses humble materials.
Have there ever been pieces that, like an artwork, are completely misunderstood at first and then become a hallmark of style or a décor idiom?
Sometimes my designers are ahead of the curve. Two designers come to mind: India Mahdavi and Kevin Walz. When they first did collections with me, it took time. India was working in color. Her whole vision is to create a happy world that makes you smile through color and fantasy. I think 10 years ago, the industry wasn’t ready for that. It was still into black, white, gray, subdued and natural. Over time, people started to say, “Now it’s time for something new. Let’s bring in some color and fun from India Mahdavi.” Now her work is very successful. People are begging for newness and India’s bright colors have created that. Kevin Walz was always working in new materials, like carbon fiber that’s very lightweight. He was ahead of what people wanted—people were not accustomed to the materials Kevin was using. It took time to catch on. I think it’s important to be ahead of the curve.
Tell us about the mannequins.
My career started in the mannequin business and I didn’t have any experience in that. And I never really paid attention to trends. It was doing whatever I felt right for the moment. The moment I started my mannequin career, everyone was doing very fashionable lady mannequins, very proper and very elegant, very sophisticated. And I came in, we did action, sport mannequins, bright reds, very sculptural. I paid no attention to what was going on at that moment. It was just what I felt was right. Sports were becoming more and more popular in America, everyone started to workout. I just felt it.
How did that translate to furniture design?
The same thing [happened] when I got involved in furniture. I don’t follow any trends. I don’t even look at Trend Report. If someone says the color of the year is purple, I couldn’t really care less. In fact, I would go the opposite way. One of my points of view is that if someone did something before me, good for them. It’s a good move. But I didn’t do it, I’ll stay away from that. I’m never going to jump into something that’s already been happening. I think you become a commodity that way. In order to be fresh you have got to have your eyes and ears open.
What are you doing with mannequins these days?
Last season I worked on a collection of mannequins called “Imperfectly Perfect” by Rebecca Moses, the fashion designer and artist. She came up with a collection of mannequins that was an assortment of unique individuals, reflecting the world that we live in today. It’s the word of the day: inclusiveness. It covered different nationalities. The face was not the perfect face. Some had eyes that were too close or a nose that was too long. These were girls who embraced their uniqueness and their beauty.
Where do we go from here? I’m taking the same approach of inclusiveness but with body size. This new mannequin collection will go back to my roots with more abstract imagery, a faceless type of mannequin, but the body poses will be more architectural, more rhythmic. The mannequins will be size two, which is the typical mannequin size, but then we’re also doing a size eight, size twelve and size sixteen/eighteen. Typically, mannequins that are size twelve and sixteen/eighteen were always put into a corner of a store. We’re going to present these mannequins all grouped together. We will be embracing that everyone is beautiful. It doesn’t matter what size or shape you are.
The collection is being done in collaboration with Macy’s. They encouraged me to go in this direction. The days of having size two mannequins sprayed white has to be over because it’s not working, the clothing isn’t selling. Something is wrong, something has to change. Maybe in two or three years, you’re going to walk into a store and you’ll see an assortment of mannequins dressed in all different clothing—not just size two, but [all sizes] together. The size eighteens won’t be thrown into the corner, they’ll be front and center. And maybe that will shake things up.
What are some of the new, exciting things we can expect for 2017?
Aside from Meier and Paulin, we’re going to work with Xavier Lust, a designer from Belgium who has been shown in museums throughout Europe. It will be very limited edition furniture with unique materials, but very simple. These will be collector’s items that you can cherish.