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Object Lesson - The story behind an iconic design

Architectural Digest - January 2018

Arch Direst Pierre Paulin

Palace Revolution
How Georges Pompidou’s attempt to reinvigorate the French furniture industry rendered one of today’s most coveted design trophies—Pierre Paulin’s avant-garde Alpha collection.

When Georges Pompidou and Jean Coural—head of the Mobilier National, an agency of the French Ministry of Culture—vowed to jump-start the nation’s suffering design industry in the late 1960s, they knew just what would get the world’s attention: a buzzy redo of the president’s Élysée Palace apartment by the young French talent Pierre Paulin.

Paulin delivered. Plopped in his out-of-this-world rooms were sculptural sofas and chairs molded from strips of wood wrapped in foam and upholstered in leather. In no time, visiting dignitaries were ogling the French furnishings of the future.

A testament to Paulin’s forward thinking, the series—known to most as Élysée—didn’t gain a cult following until the early 2000s, when it reemerged at New York gallery Demisch Danant. “People knew Paulin, but they didn’t know about the French production,” explains Suzanne Demisch. “They were hard to find, even then.” Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière snapped up some of the first pieces to resurface. “The sofa is a beautiful addition to my personal collection,” he says. The fashionable world soon followed suit.

While the rare originals—put into a brief production by French manufacturer Alpha that ended around 1973—didn’t immediately invigorate the nation’s furniture industry, the renewed interest in the series has spawned some of the desired effect: Paulin democratized the design in 2007, when he devised an easier-tomanufacture version of the chair called Pumpkin for French maker Ligne Roset (ligne-roset.com). And just last year the Paulin estate reissued the designs (now called Alpha and available at gallery Ralph Pucci), following the original specifications and made-in-France mandate. As for a contemporary collaboration with France’s new first in command? “We are in talks with [Emmanuel] Macron,” reveals Paulin’s son Benjamin. “I hope it will be a good ending.”

Article by Hannah Martin