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Discovering Design
By Jean Bond Rafferty

A stunning array of high-design boutiques, restaurants and museums is making Paris the likely candidate for the next "it" capital

After ignoring contemporary furnishings for most of the 20th century, the French are finally venturing beyond the Louis look. The result is a ravishing array of new and revamped interiors, from restaurants and boutiques to museums and private homes.

IN MATTERS OF STYLE, the eyes of the world have long focused on France. Since the 17th century, when the dazzling rays of the Sun King beamed grand Gallic goût to the far-flung corners of the globe, France has been virtually synonymous with decorative savoir-faire. Today, “FFF”—Fine French Furniture, starring the regal pieces made for Versailles—is still power decoration (commanding power prices). But the news is the rise of the 20th century.
    French Art Deco and the hot new collectible, ’40s furniture, are stealing the spotlight at antique fairs and setting auction records. The ’60s and ’70s are staging a comeback too—witness the wild and influential Pop Art exhibition at the Centre Pompidou and the shocking pinks and bright oranges that are lighting up fashion runways as well as furniture and houseware collections. Meanwhile, Paris trendsetters are already collecting the ’80s and—why not?—the ’90s as vintage moves out of the flea markets and into a host of new galleries.
    Most exhilarating is the fast forward rush into the new millennium as French designers, decorators and architects scoop up some of the most spectacular commissions—both residential and commercial—around the world. At home, a stunning new wave of high-design boutiques, restaurants, hotels and museums is making Paris the likely candidate for the next “it” capital.
    “Paris has a new energy that is unique,” declares Nasir Kassamali, whose Luminaire stores in Miami and Chicago are beacons of avant-garde design. “There has been a sea change during the past five years. The French—who were the last bastion of resistance—have finally opened up to modernism. Design has become a way of life for a young generation that expects it in restaurants, fashion and objects. It’s exciting.”
    Not to be missed on a new-look tour of the City of Light are such restaurants as Bon, flaunting Philippe Starck’s satin and silver decor, and Korova, featuring Christian Biecher’s Murano lighting, white leather seating and totem aquarium. Even the culinary elite is embracing 21st-century design: Multi-starred chef Alain Ducasse recently asked Patrick Jouin to add a modern metallic accent to the gilded Regency decor of his new restaurant at the Plaza Athénée hotel. And although Jacques Garcia’s extravagant reinterpretations of Second Empire decors couldn’t be more contrary to most definitions of contemporary design, such runaway successes as his irresistible Hôtel Costes, L’Avenue and L’Esplanade prove the importance of interior design when it comes to wowing customers.
    On the boutique front, Colette, the beyond-cool concept emporium, still sets the standard when it comes to cutting-edge chic. Among the hot new addresses are Christophe Pillet’s dramatically lighted luxury boutique for shoe designer Rodolphe Menudier, and Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s minimalist A-POC boutique for Issey Miyake. Even dignified department stores—Galeries Lafayette, La Samaritaine—will soon be getting haut-design makeovers. Museums too are sparkling with new design—the revamped Centre Pompidou and the Louvre’s sumptuous rooms devoted to primitive art by Jean-Michel Wilmotte have been widely applauded. “Everyone can see what a change a designer can make,” declares Chantal Hamaide, editor-in-chief of Intramuros magazine, the insider’s design bible. “In a competitive climate, design pays.”
    It also sells, if the burgeoning number of shops and galleries specializing in le design are any indication. A sure sign that Paris is indeed the city to watch: The Italians are here. Many of the big names in Italian design have branches in the French capital, and more are coming: Kartel and Maxalto have just inaugurated new showrooms, and this fall Cappellini plans to open an 8,600-square-foot store in the Marais.
    Amazingly enough, the French showed scant interest in design as recently as a decade ago. Furniture in France is linked to status, and that has meant Versailles. The Republic may have replaced royalty, but it still took uncommon confidence to recline on even a Le Corbusier chaise longue when establishment taste dictated that one should perch on the edge of a Louis XV fauteuil (or its period reproduction). Contemporary design, when present at all, was largely relegated to the kitchen, bath and office.
    How could that be, one wonders, when the roster of 20th-century French talent reads like a Dream Team of design? French-born Raymond Loewy, the design legend who virtually invented the profession in the ’30s and ’40s with his streamlined trains and cars and eye-catching logos for Lucky Strike and Coca-Cola, made his mark in the United States during the Depression. Such historic godfathers (and godmothers) as Le Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Charlotte Perriand, Jean-Michel Frank, Pierre Chareau, Jacques-Emile Ruhlman and Eileen Gray paved the way for André Arbus, Jean Royère and Jean Prouvé in the ’40s and ’50s.
    The ’60s saw the emergence of yet other great talents such as Pierre Paulin, who echoed the mood of the times with his revolutionary furniture. Ironically, his work is experiencing a spirited renaissance in France today, making him more popular than he ever was back in the ’60s, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art gave him his first show. Then there’s Roger Tallon—the very definition of an industrial designer—who made his name in the 1950s with the P111 Téléavia portable television set. Half a century later, he continues to lend his inimitable style to the mini as well as the mammoth—sunglasses, ceramic picnic sets, the new double-decker Eurostar TGV, Paris’s sleek Météor metro....

TODAY'S SUPERSTARS OF INTERIOR DESIGN—Philippe Starck, Andrée Putman, Christian Liaigre, Jean-Michel Wilmotte and Garouste & Bonetti—are among the most celebrated in the world. In fact, many of them, like Loewy, first made their impact abroad.
    Starck is as famous as a rock star, but he seems to be produced everywhere except France. Most of his witty designs—including the Juicy Salif lemon squeezer and a host of clever chairs and tables—are manufactured in Italy. His flame-topped skyscraper lights up the Tokyo—not Paris—skyline. In the United States and Britain, he provides ongoing proof of the magnificent magnetism of Starckian style with the burgeoning number of ultra-hip hotels he has dreamed up for Ian Schrager. Just being seen in New York’s Hudson or London’s St. Martin’s Lane is like stepping behind the velvet rope into instant VIP cool. Starck’s current projects range from “YOO”—concept apartments to be built in England, Canada, Israel and Argentina—to “Mama Shelter,” a “chic tented resort” for the Club Med near Marrakesh.
    Andrée Putman, who in 1984 designed the very first boutique hotel, Morgans, in New York, has also done most of her interior design work abroad. Current projects include a private museum for a young couple in Dallas, large homes in Brussels and Tel Aviv (as well as Paris), and the recently completed Ritz-Carlton hotel on the site of the Volkswagen factory between Berlin and Hanover.
    As for Christian Liaigre, it was his hotel interiors—the Montalembert in Paris, the Mercer in New York—that launched him into international designer stardom. His elegant neoclassical upholstered furniture in exotic wenge and iroko woods spawned an East-West look that has changed the face of contemporary design and turned dark woods into a resounding success story—and a highly copied one. He has also landed some very high-profile commissions: a New York apartment for fashion mogul Calvin Klein, a triplex SoHo loft for media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and three houses on a private island near Bora Bora. “Liaigre defines contemporary design in the United States,” affirms Suzanne Slesin, American author of French Style, former design editor of House & Garden and now editor-in-chief of Homestyle. “Every modern interior has pieces by Liaigre. It’s totally amazing.”
    Liaigre gives much of the credit to his American distributor, Holly Hunt, as famous as he is with American buyers. Back home, however, the lack of French manufacturers and distributors of contemporary design—blamed on a lack of consumer interest—remains an unsolved problem.
    Yet there has been no lack of efforts to stimulate such interest. President Georges Pompidou attempted to set the tone when he had Pierre Paulin design interiors at the Elysée Palace; President François Mitterrand similarly called upon contemporary talents, commissioning Starck, Wilmotte and others to redecorate the Elysée’s private apartments.
    And in a country known for its lavish patronage of the arts, it’s perhaps not surprising that government and industry joined forces more than 20 years ago to launch VIA, whose mission is to promote French furniture and lighting and to foster relations between designers and manufacturers. Since then, more than 600 candidates—including Starck and Putman—have received VIA grants. Starck credits the organization with giving him “a 10-year head start on my career.” Thanks to VIA’s partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its designers have worked on diplomatic offices in Kyoto, Japan, Singapore and Los Angeles. VIA also puts out a variety of publications and regularly organizes design exhibitions in France and abroad, including this September’s show in Montreal, which may travel to Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
    Another powerful patron is the Ministry of Culture, which notably lends its support through the Délégation des Arts Plastiques. Founded in 1981, the Délégation awards research grants to designers and confers government commissions, usually for public spaces. Examples include a footbridge in Brittany designed by Garouste & Bonetti and garden furniture at the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau by François Bauchet.
    The Délégation also purchases pieces from designers for the FNAC (Fonds National d’Art Contemporain). With an annual budget of FF 1.5 million (about $200,000) devoted to contemporary design, the FNAC collection now boasts 3,500 pieces including such rarities as Starck prototypes for the Trois Suisses mail-order house (which never went into production) and his Dream Products prototypes for Thomson. The FNAC offers its collection for exhibitions at museums in France and abroad and puts together its own shows that travel all over the world (this year Taiwan, South Korea and possibly Los Angeles).
    These and other efforts are clearly paying off. Last year, Maison & Objet, the biannual home furnishings show, added a section called Now! featuring the work of 250 young designers. French shelter magazines, once devoted exclusively to decoration, now also cover design, and new publications specializing in the topic are showing up in French kiosks. Leading the pack is Intramuros, whose annual Design Paris guide is selling “like hot cakes.” Perhaps most important, a recent poll indicated that 75 percent of furniture purchased by Parisians aged 30 to 49 were modern or contemporary pieces.
    French furniture makers, however, remain curiously unmoved by these trends. There are sterling exceptions—Ligne Roset, Roche Bobois, Artelano, X.O., Fermob—but relatively few have embraced contemporary talents. To the south, though, it’s quite a different story. As their own renowned designers have aged, the Italians have begun looking abroad for new blood and have discovered that some of the brightest new boys and girls on the block are French. Indeed, a growing number of young French designers such as Matali Crasset, Jean-Marie Massaud, Adrien Gardère and Radi Designers—VIA protégés all—are now manufactured in Italy.
    This situation has made young French designers keenly aware that self-promotion is as vital to their careers as talent. Today, communication is part of the curriculum at France’s top three schools of design: ENSAD (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs), known for its furniture design department; Les Ateliers/ENSCI (Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle), which is especially strong in industrial design; and Ecole Camondo, a breeding ground for interior architects. Stressing the importance of media and public relations, an ENSCI faculty member emphasizes, “There’s no savoir-faire without faire-savoir.” It’s a lesson Starck, a master of that particular art, has been demonstrating for years. When he was named Designer of the Year at the 1990 French furniture show, he didn’t exhibit new designs but instead focused on elaborating an exciting concept for displaying his earlier creations. “The French must learn that presentation is an important part of design,” he declared.

ACCORDING TO SAMUEL CORIAT, president of Artelano, Paris’s current restaurant and boutique design boom began about 10 years ago. One of France’s outstanding contemporary design producers, Artelano has put together avant-garde collections—by such talents as Pascal Mourgue, Didier Gomez, Christophe Pillet, Piero Lissoni and EOOS—that now account for 60 percent of the company’s business. Much of this consists of contract work—Artelano makes Pascal Mourgue’s “Rio” chair, for example, which furnishes the rooms at the Carrousel du Louvre, and Olivier Gagnère’s sleek velvet chairs and wooden tables, which grace the Café Marly.
    Coriat has noticed that a growing number of clients now want these pieces for their homes as well. “The French, especially the young, are evolving,” he asserts. “When they read about designers, they want to own some of their work. And they want to know who is behind a particular piece of furniture, just like they want to know who’s behind a Chanel bag or a Gaultier jacket.”
    French design’s leading champion, Pierre Staudenmeyer, whose Galerie Neotu has produced the creations of a star-studded list including Garouste & Bonetti, Olivier Gagnère and Martin Szekely for nearly two decades, says that the French public’s awareness of contemporary design has emerged only recently. “We had to wait until the end of the century—the century of design—for it to materialize in people’s minds,” he explains. “But now, when people buy a product, be it cookware or a car, they demand good design. It’s a phenomenon that extends from restaurants to toothbrushes.”
    This new attitude has helped the Conran Shop, which opened in ’92 on the Left Bank with French as well as British contemporary design, to establish a Parisian clientele. Sales have been so strong that the company opened a second shop near the Opéra in ’99. Another major success story is Ligne Roset, which has triumphed with intelligent collections of furniture, home accessories and even textiles (from ready-to-hang curtains to bed linens) by a team of 50 European designers. The products, which are complementary and displayed as an ensemble, are distributed through their network of some 900 stores worldwide. A new 6,000-square-foot emporium opened this past May on New York’s Park Avenue. President Michel Roset agrees that efforts to awaken the French to design are finally working. “Consumers are behaving differently; they want pieces not for status but for personal satisfaction,” he confirms. “Still, it takes time to pass from the idea to the act of buying.”
    For the conservative French, abandoning the Louis look is like venturing across a minefield. “People cannot stand to make a mistake when they buy furniture,” explains VIA director Gérard Laizé. “You feel reassured that you made the right choice when you see the piece in a museum; it is what I call ‘la validation de l’histoire.’” That has never been easier. At the Pompidou, for example, you can see Paulin’s “Artifort” chairs in the permanent collection and buy them at the museum boutique, in galleries or at auction. Colombe Pringle, the new editor-in-chief of Maison Française, which has long supported the contemporary cause, points to another factor: Furniture by Prouvé and other 20th-century designers is setting records at auction. “Now that these pieces are worth something, people are taking them seriously.”
    The new French interior will be a mix, opines Coriat, whose own decors combine African and contemporary art with Le Corbusier prototypes and Artelano designs. The Vietnam-born, U.S.-educated, Berlin-trained, French-based designer Christian Duc concurs. “It’s like fashion; we’re no longer limited to just one style but can mix different sensibilities, old and new.” Duc’s own apartment is an amusing mélange, with a 17th-century Spanish commode complementing avant-garde designs. “The real Parisian look is that blend,” he says.
    The new necessity? Comfort. Perching à la Louis is out, the stylish sprawl is in. According to VIA, surveys show that (even French) bottoms are bigger. Scientists claim the ideal angle of repose is the 120-degree slouch beloved of couch potatoes worldwide. “There must be something about a product that meets a need,” affirms Pascal Mourgue, whose best-selling “Calin” pillow chair and “Smala” sofa for Ligne Roset are nothing if not comfortable. Indeed, furniture designers are now offering rounded, generous shapes made of such new materials as silicon or compact foam and are using three-dimensional weaving techniques to produce seamless upholstery. Paulin realized how much comfort levels in lighting had changed when Mme Chirac came to check on his restoration of the Elysée Palace dining room he designed for Georges Pompidou. “But it’s so dark and gloomy in here!” Mme Chirac protested. “She was right,” Paulin admits. “The lighting was ridiculously low. Lighting power in rooms has inceased by 30 to 40 percent during the past 20 years. So we upped the wattage. It was a good lesson.”
    Christian Liaigre, whose furniture style is often compared with Deco, agrees there’s a similarity but says he’s added modern comfort. Sometimes, as he tells it, cutting-edge design can be a cut too far. When he asked Calvin Klein why he had chosen him to work on his apartment instead of British minimalist architect John Pawson, who had done Klein’s fashion boutiques, the designer replied, “Because I’m tired of sitting on a plank.”

JUST WHAT SETS FRENCH DESIGN APART FROM ITS RIVALS? “History, history, history,” affirms Staudenmeyer, “and especially the 18th century. Until recently, we in France have had the best of each period, from Regency, Louis XVI and Empire through Napoleon III, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and a little ’50s. All our design comes from that history.” Designers working today, he believes, still work under its influence. “Starck and Garouste & Bonetti are very different but are two sides of the same coin,” he says. “Look at Starck’s Sanderson hotel—it’s terribly baroque. And Garouste & Bonetti (known for their baroque style) do highly conceptual work. One is geared toward mass production and consumption, the other toward craftsmanship and limited edition. But they have the same characteristics and references in their work, the same idea of reinterpretation.”
    So what is one to think when the high priest of French design declares himself an apatride (a man without a country)? Not to worry. “Starck’s Gallic humor, his concern with the social dimension, are very French,” Hamaide insists. Slesin agrees, saying that Starck has propelled French style into the international arena with a wit and elegance he wouldn’t have if he weren’t French. For Marie-Laure Jousset, curator of the Pompidou’s contemporary design collection, Starck is, very simply, the standard-bearer for French design. “His influence is enormous,” she says. “He’s shown that France is modern and that design should bring emotion and pleasure. How something looks and feels should be as important as its function—in fact, that should be a given in our post-industrial society.” Of course, every young designer dreams of being Starck. “There are about 50 designers between 30 and 40 years old working here today; in the ’60s there were fewer than 10. Starck is one of the driving forces behind this growth,” she maintains.
    In a bold attempt to define the new French style, Jean-Claude Maugirard, founder and former director of VIA, has lassoed more than a hundred 20th-century designers into a French School, which he defines as having two currents: “Art Deco (one-off handcrafted pieces) and the Modern Movement (pieces designed for mass production). The latter, introduced by Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prouvé, ushered in what is considered contemporary in France today.” Yet, he adds, the prices of original Le Corbusier designs rival the high sums that collectors are now willing to pay for unique pieces by Art Deco designers like Frank. “Le Corbusier designs were conceived to be mass-produced, but because there were no clients, they weren’t. So in terms of value to collectors, his limited editions are worth as much as Frank’s,” he explains.
    The same two currents continue today: There are those who carry on the French tradition of hand-craftsmanship, producing unique pieces for a rarefied clientele; and there are the heirs of the Modern Movement, whose designs are often mass-produced in Italy. The result is a wonderfully diverse field of French designers. “No other country has such variety,” notes VIA’s Laizé, “from the most pared-down minimalist to the most exuberant ornamentalist.” Sometimes a single designer embodies both currents. Martin Szekely, for example, has created limited edition furniture for Galerie Kréo, designed best-selling gold necklaces for Hermès and dreamed up the Perrier glass, which has sold 15 million to date.
    Another hallmark of French design is an enthusiastic embrace of new technologies and materials, resulting in some tours-de-force. Jean-Marie Massaud’s “Think Horizontal” chaise longue, for example, is made of technopolymer with a self-healing skin that automatically repairs faults and snags within two weeks. Then there’s François Azambourg’s beguiling “Pack” chair. Sold as a sort of plastic brick, it magically unfolds into a solid seat at the turn of a dial. And Lexon, whose team of designers turns out award-winning objects ranging from calculators to bicycles, has done extremely well using such new materials as translucent plastics—a trend Apple later picked up on with its iMac.
    Of course, technology has also brought computers and software that have radically transformed working methods. “When we made plastic furniture and objects in the past, we drew plans, made molds and prototypes, then went to the factory to check out the pre-production pieces. It took a lot of time,” says Marc Berthier, whose chartreuse rubber radio for Lexon made the cover of TIME Magazine last year. “Today, designs are done on computers and sent over the Net. You no longer have a personal relationship with the material, but you can produce a lot very quickly. Starck, for example, can produce as much in a year as Eames did during his entire career.”
    Another aspect of contemporary life, globalization, is sending ripples through the design world. “As globalization increasingly brings uniformity, the more sophisticated consumer will be on the prowl for the unexpected, the whimsical product that has a personal resonance,” asserts Jean-Claude Maugirard. “It’s even happening with cars. Chrysler has a little model that makes you think of the ’40s, Greta Garbo and Rita Hayworth. We all want to identify with something in a product. Otherwise it’s just a tool and that’s boring.” Pascal Mourgue relies on personal observation for his market research. “People want the same kind of freedom in the way they live that they have in the way they dress,” he submits. “My pillow chair corresponds to a cool lifestyle. People don’t want status, they want pleasure. They are looking for unconventional, droll products.”
    Who better to meet that challenge than the imaginative French? In the wake of Philippe Starck, a new generation is producing such clever designs as “When Jim Comes to Town,” Matali Crasset’s guest bed that rolls up and fits into a neat column hung with a little night- light and alarm clock. And for wacky and whimsical, it’s hard to top Radi Designers’ “Sleeping Cat,” a round red heated rug—complete with faux fireplace and snoozing kitty.
    “In America, the market is always driven by cost,” remarks Washington Post design critic Linda Hales. “What’s so interesting about attending the French furniture shows is discovering the work of young cutting-edge designers who are thinking of the world of the possible.” That out-of-the-box thinking, enlivened by Gallic wit, should keep the French on top of the design game for years to come.s

Photos: Korova; Artelano; Dolorès Marat


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