Something happened to mid-century modernism in the past couple of years: It got boring. Once, the furniture of the Eameses, Eero Saarinen or a clutch of Danes still stood for design innovation; now you can order a tulip chair with one click from Design Within Reach, or head to Overstock.com for a knock-off. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing a revived interest in flashier design from the 1960s and especially the 1970s – the geometric patterns, the shag carpeting, the brass and Lucite.
Pierre Paulin (1927-2009) was the standout designer of Les Trente Glorieuses, as the French call their country’s vigorous 30-year postwar era, and his sinuous, hedonistic furniture, notably his stretched-fabric chairs, was esteemed enough to decorate the apartments of the presidential palace.And shifting taste is making it possible to reassess the creativity and innovation of designers too long overshadowed.
Now, after years in the shadows, mod is back. In 2014, the fashion designer Nicolas Ghesquière, in one of his first runway shows for Louis Vuitton, plunked viewers on elongated Paulin sectionals. Last year, the New York design gallery Demisch Danant presented a survey of Paulin’s work, including several pieces initially designed for the Élysée Palace.
The Pompidou Centre in Paris has mounted a spectacular full-scale retrospective of Paulin’s designs – and in New York Galerie Perrotin is presenting a smaller but still juicy exhibition of his furniture, along with a few glancingly associated video works.
Paulin apprenticed to a stonecutter in Burgundy after World War II, with a view to becoming a sculptor, but that dream died when he got into a fight that left him with a paralysed hand. He took design courses and travelled to Scandinavia, where he was especially impressed by the tactile, flowing designs of Alvar Aalto.
In 1956, he began to experiment with stretchy, extensible fabrics that could be drawn across a chair’s armature – first of metal, and later of plastic. They were upholstered in hot, solid colours that made them as much sculptures as design objects.The technique permitted flamboyant, organic new shapes for seating, as attested by the chairs’ nicknames: Oyster, Orange Slice, Ribbon, Flower. Relatively cheap to produce, the chairs were sold widely in the swinging ’60s, especially in the United States and the Netherlands.
The Tongues, like so many of his designs, called for reclining over sitting upright. Each is a single swoop of fabric, curving like a soundwave, and so the seat is depressed almost to the ground. At both Perrotin and the Pompidou Centre, four of Paulin’s 1967 Tongue chairs, in white, sit on hand-tufted rugs whose geometric patterning recalls Navajo decorative arts.Similarly, his mischievous Tapis-Siège, a hybrid of carpet and sofa from 1970, takes the form of a cushioned base with dog-eared corners, suitable for meditation or other, more lascivious uses.
In 1969, Georges Pompidou, the new French president, selected Paulin to decorate three rooms of the private apartments of the Élysée. The project was both a promotional effort for the French design industry and a personal undertaking for that design-loving president, who gave Paulin one request for the finished work: “It must be absolutely quiet – not a sound.”
The designer also wasn’t allowed to touch the walls, so Paulin rethought the apartments as a sequence of igloo-like chambers, constructed of beige polyester stretched on steel frames. The rooms included a paintings gallery, a smoking lounge (Pompidou was an inveterate smoker) and a dining room, the last of which was outfitted with nearly a thousand plexiglass rods suspended from the ceiling.
Today, when government design focuses more on bombs than on buildings, the Élysée project seems unfathomably glamorous. But such a radical makeover of France’s presidential residence did not go down well and under a later leader, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, all but the dining room was destroyed.
At the playful, colourful Paulin retrospective at the Pompidou Centre – which ends this month – the public can sit on one of his serpentine sofas or on several of his chairs, including his Mushroom, which looks like a windswept tub chair. In New York, you can sit on just one of his creations, but it’s a humdinger.
Paulin’s La Déclive, designed in 1966, is a recliner made with about two dozen wooden boards covered in foam and upholstered in Oscar-night red; the planks are fastened to two undulating parallel spines, creating an organic chaise longue.
Like the Tongue chairs, the Déclive sits directly on the floor – a reminder that both date from a decade when bourgeois respectability was being supplanted by the art of hanging around. The furniture marks a new way of living as much as new methods of fabrication.