Sitting pretty: a show of Pierre Paulin’s chairs goes on display at Centre Pompidou

Sitting pretty: a show of Pierre Paulin’s chairs goes on display at Centre Pompidou

Museum shows don’t usually begin by encouraging people to take a seat. But when the exhibition is dedicated to Pierre Paulin, whose ’Mushroom’, ’Orange Slice’, ’Tongue’ and ’Ribbon’ chairs have become part of the contemporary furniture canon, there’s something to be said for acquainting yourself with his sinuous ’Amphis’ banquette (conceived for Expo Osaka in 1970). Just don’t settle in for too long; there’s plenty to see.     

The Centre Pompidou’s first retrospective of the late French designer (who died in 2009) presents more than 100 Paulin pieces, including a collection of playful sketches donated by his family last year, maquettes of an unrealised residential concept for Herman Miller and singular models such as the ’Déclive’ that were never put into large-scale production.  

The show flows easily and without pretension, chronologically displaying his contributions for Thonet, Disderot and Artifort, before arriving at a biographical video projected on a double-sided screen and surrounded by re-editions of the Artifort seating by Ligne Roset. It was here that curator Cloé Pitiot spoke with Wallpaper* about the designer’s talent for combining the dynamism of form and colour with the essential quality of comfort.

‘You get the sense he’s a rigid man but, in fact, there’s so much poetry and suppleness in his pieces,’ she explains. ‘And there was a lot of humour to his approach too.’ Underlying his work, however, was ‘logic’, she adds. Indeed, the frame of ’F560’, better known as the ’Mushroom’ chair, reveals how beneath the biomorphic padded shape and stretchy fabric is a skeleton consisting of little more than three well-positioned metal rings.

Pitiot, who curated the Centre Pompidou’s exhibition on Eileen Gray in 2013, notes how she wanted this endeavour to feel inspired yet accessible. Hence Laurence Fontaine’s nod-to-Mod scenography, which features curvy curtains created by Petra Blaisse that both block and filter in light. Banners collaged with vintage advertising evoke the swish, Mad Men-esque lifestyle reinforced by the furniture.

This freshness and modernity likely encouraged the collaboration between Paulin and the Mobilier National, the government agency overseeing the French national furniture collection, and its design division ARC (Atelier de Recherche et de Création) on the refurbishment of the Louvre’s Grande Galerie in 1969, which in turn prompted President Georges Pompidou and his wife, Claude, to enlist his services in remodeling the private apartment of the Élysée Palace. Here, an archival video details no shortage of Paulin’s design considerations. Among them, he opted to line the soundproof walls with polyester, believing they wouldn’t retain food odours as strongly as natural fabric.

While visitors may not be able to test the five-legged, rattan swivel chair Paulin conceived for François Mitterrand, they will observe how he constantly challenged himself to reinterpret his own self-contained architectures without over-intellectualising the concepts. The ’Tongue’ seat, for instance, cleverly gave way to the ’Face-à-Face’ and ’Dos-à-Dos’. As Pitiot sums up, ’The designs don’t age. I think he succeeded because he created seating that makes you feel good. You want to stay in them a while. Everyone who comes finds a comfortable space here.’

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