In the pages of a recent monograph on Pierre Paulin, the French designer admitted, ‘I designed a number of objects that were too complex and met no response whatsoever from the public – whether it was too early or they scratched where it didn’t itch. I do not really know.’
A new exhibition at Galerie Perrotin, which anticipates a comprehensive retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in May, promises to elicit the opposite reaction. This owes in part to a dynamic arrangement of Paulin pieces, surrounded by works from other contemporary artists including Xavier Veilhan, KAWS, Elmgreen & Dragset and Jesús Rafael Soto. But for longtime Paulin connoisseurs, the main attraction will be his Déclive, an S-curved chaise longue that had only existed in prototype until now.
Hours before the opening, the designer’s family – his widow Maïa Wodzislawska Paulin, son Benjamin and his wife Alice Lemoine – guided Wallpaper* through the four principal spaces. They pointed out how an old black-and-white photo of the Déclive from the family apartment featured Pierre’s toes in the immediate foreground; and they singled out the maquettes detailing Paulin’s proposal for the Palais Royal. This would be won by Daniel Buren, but the designs were not in vain; Paulin repurposed the geometric patterning for the carpets that grounded his Jardin à la française within Auguste Perret’s Palais d'Iena in 1987.
That same mise-en-scène has been recreated in the gallery; here, however, it is surrounded by the hyperrealist paintings by Mike Bouchet (the processed cheese triangles melting from a hamburger oddly echo Paulin’s Tapis Siège) and punctuated with a Veilhan mobile.
In some cases, the homage to Paulin is deliberate and direct: a readymade by Bertrand Lavier in which he has mounted a violet Tongue chair atop a filing cabinet; or Candida Höfer’s deep perspective photograph of the Louvre’s Grand Galerie from 2005, where Paulin’s circular banquettes serve as de facto distance markers.
For the family, which has established 'Paulin Paulin Paulin' as a means of revisiting the first edition of the pieces in very limited editions, the show breathes new life into the repertoire while emphasising the collectible aspect of his rarer works. ‘We wanted to give a chance for these pieces to exist,’ says Benjamin, adding that his father championed limited editions 30 years ago, when designed furniture still favoured industrial production. ‘I went with the collection to galleries in the States and they said it would never work,’ recalls Maïa.
In a gallery setting, the size of both the Déclive and the Ensemble Dune, which debuted last year at the Louis Vuitton-supported solo exhibition in Miami offers some indication of Paulin’s vision of seating as a larger statement. The former, a technical feat of craft and engineering, emerged from his idea to have floorboards resemble a magic carpet. As a child, Benjamin treated it as his personal indoor playground; a privilege not afforded to visitors of the show. But the notion of seeing people interact with the pieces accounts for the provocative placement of John De Andrea’s bronze nudes throughout the show—reclining forlorn on a rug or posing confidently within the 'Dune'. At first, Maïa believed one of them to be real, and conceded that the furniture is most alive when experienced first-hand. ‘It’s not a work of art in the sense that you just walk around it,’ she says. ‘In a way, it’s a shame when you can’t enjoy the comfort and the pleasure of the form; a piece like the 'Dune' is here to receive people – it’s welcoming and friendly.’
Incidentally, she revealed that as much as her husband held artists such as César, Soulages, Miró and Bacon in high regard, he did not possess the mentality of a collector – even when it came to his own pieces. ‘He was always thinking to the future,’ says Maïa. ‘Sometimes people would ask him, “Which has been your favorite?” And he would always answer, “The one to come”.’