A Perfect Fit
Metropolis, May 2009
“We produce these slipcovers as we would garments.There are different types of fits, some looser, some tighter, but the basic idea is not unlike dressmaking.”
It’s quite a sight: a petite French woman wrestling with a large sofa in order to slide a bulky slipcover over its massive structure. You can’t help but admire the way she expertly yanks here and tugs there, using every muscle of her body to put enough pressure on the fabric to get a close fit.
At Ligne Roset (pronounced “Ling Rosey”), upholstering is not just a métier, it’s an athletic challenge. The men and women whose job is to dress the forms are highly trained individuals who have stamina, savoir-faire, and a perfectionist mentality. If, at the end of their maneuvers, the result does not meet their exacting standards, they have been known to peel the slipcover off and start all over again. Without their dedication, Roset’s overstuffed sofa beds, snug couches, curvaceous love seats, plump sectionals, and cushy armchairs might look like a collection of tired sleeping bags. As taught as the skin of a drum or the strings of a violin, the stretched slipcovers turn the seats into finely tuned instruments.
Now a Ligne Roset signature look, the form-fitting technique is in fact the brainchild of French designer Pierre Paulin who, in the late fifties and sixties, did away with traditional upholstery and turned out a series of skintight seats as polished as pebbles. Back then his chairs were produced by Artifort, the progressive Dutchfurniture manufacturer.
Today, half a century after he first began to develop the idea, Paulin, 82, is still discovering new ways to improve on it, and this thanks to Roset that has recently put at his disposal the latest technology, the most advanced cutting and sewing machines, and the formidable savoir-faire of its employees — and challenged the old master to show the world that he is still a creative force to be reckon with.
From bathing suits to chairs
“What drives my work are technological breakthroughs,” says Paulin. “I do not start with the idea of a form. I do not have a style. I try to solve problems with the most advanced methods available to me. The way my furniture look is the result of a process during which I uncover the shapes my design will take. Each new project is a chance to reinvent my aesthetic.”
Inspired by the work of the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Arne Jacobsen and Verner Patton, Paulin began his search for the perfect fit in the 50s by taking advantage of the latest microfibers, polyesters, and polyurethane foams newly available in the post-war period. The sleek upholstered shells he designed as a result were propped on steel legs or slung on molded plastic pedestals. Always in search of the next innovation, he sometimes would attend bathing suit fashion shows hoping to discover the right stretchy knit to upholster his seats.
By the end of the sixties, Paulin was known as the author of a number of novel-looking designs: chauffeuses (low armless lounge chairs), fauteuils (armchairs), banquettes (upholstered benches), and canapés (settees) with names like “Mushroom”, “Orange Slice”, “Tulip”, “Tongue”, and “Groovy”. His most famous was the 1966 “Ribbon Chair”, featured in numerous magazines in the United States and instantly adopted by Jack Lenor Larsen who upholstered it with one of his wavy patterns, Sundown, cleverly turning the Paulin’s iconic chair into a vehicle for is own brand.
Paulin looks back at his early successes with the caustic sense of humor of someone who has nothing left to prove. “The Americans loved what I did back then because they love what’s new. No other reason. Their favorite chair of mine [Ribbon] was not my favorite chair, far from it. It’s not a great chair, it’s just a novelty item, really.” Paulin’s plain-speaking is legendary. “Pierre is very honest,” says Michel Roset, creative director and co-owner of Ligne Roset. “Collaborating with him is exciting because there is no useless formality between us. We are direct with each other, which means that we are efficient”.
A close-knit, family-owned enterprise that employs 1,200 people, Roset is large enough to give Paulin’s designs the international distribution they deserve, yet small enough to accommodate his often unorthodox working methods.
Upon discussing broad concepts over lunch, Paulin is likely to produce a full-size model which he then insists should be turned into a working prototype, a costly proposition in this preliminary developmental stage. “But it’s fun to work with someone who has such a consummate sense of proportions”, says Roset. “His instincts are always right on.” At this late stage of Paulin’s career, his fortuitous association with the French furniture manufacturer is an unexpected event, so nearly ideal it’s almost fluky.
The slipcovering technique Paulin has favored all his life was perfected by Roset in the 1970s. “We produce these slipcovers as we would garments”, explains Antoine Roset, executive vice president of Roset USA. “There are different types of fits, some looser, some tighter, but the basic idea is not unlike dressmaking.”
It takes a very special team of craftsmen to cut, tailor, and above all fit these complicated togs. This last operation is the most critical. “There is no way we could export our manufacturing to China”, he adds. “It’s not just a matter of working hard, it’s a matter of having employees with a specific talent – and with a specific pride regarding their professional know-how.”
A stop on the Silk Road
Since 1860, the Roset factories have been located in a bucolic setting in the Jura, a picturesque part of France near the Swiss border. Many of the employees are craftsmen whose artisanal roots go back to the Renaissance when nearby Lyon was an important stop on the Silk Road, and the region, rich in wood products, was known for its skilled cabinetmakers. Yet tradition is not the company’s main influence. In fact, the rejection of tradition is what made the brand what it is today.
In the late 60s, Antoine’s grandfather understood the importance of the youth movement and began to propose sofas and chairs for a new, laid-back generation. Often described as a bundle of Michelin tires, “Togo”, a slouchy-looking sofa designed by Michel Ducaroy in 1972, is still Roset’s top seller today. Close to the ground, the Roset chairs and couches of that period encouraged people to loll around, and as the technology evolved, and new varieties of foam were available on the market, the quality and comfort level of these droopy contraptions began to improve. At Ligne Roset, sluggishness became synonymous with looking smart and feeling good.
Sitting straight was no longer considered “modern”. So much so that, to convey the idea that he was a modern president, Georges Pompidou decided to redecorate his private apartments in the Elysées palace to conform with this goût du jour. He asked Pierre Paulin to handle the project. When describing what turned out to be one of the most prestigious episodes in his life, Paulin is typically matter-of-fact: “Pompidou was not personally interested in contemporary design,” he tells. “His only request to me was that I used neutral colors and that the damn thing be installed overnight without dust or noise. The project was in reality the idea of his wife, Madame Pompidou, who gave me all her support in spite of the fact that most people in her husband’s entourage considered that my approach was too radical.”
Turning the private apartments of the president into a showroom for contemporary design had been a politically motivated exercise. Its goal was to demonstrate that the new Pompidou administration was committed to supporting emerging industries and progressive technologies. A temporary installation, the stunning setting conceived by Paulin transformed the 18th century presidential living quarters into a futuristic environment complete with fabric-clad curved walls and sci-fi lighting fixtures.
Though there is no photograph of portly Pompidou actually sinking into one of the soft, plush, pumpkin-shaped lounge chairs Paulin had designed for the smoking room, the transformation was deemed a success. Paulin, though, got almost no publicity out of it. When Pompidou died in 1974, most of the décor was dismantled.
Then, a decade later, Paulin was commissioned yet again by a French president, François Mitterrand, who asked him to create a line of furniture for his Elysées office. This time Paulin worked with cabinet makers to design a sober and elegant collection of gothic-looking furnishings that flattered the more traditional taste of the current French leader. Once completed, Paulin’s work was praised but his name was hardly mentioned in connection with it. “The French press only ‘discovered’ me two years ago, when I began to design for Roset and was promoted by them”, he now says.
The Paulin/Roset collaboration is likely to correct an oversight that had made the French designer’s name a best-kept secret among cognoscenti for almost 50 years. When Michel Roset found out that a man whose work he had admired all his life was thinking of coming out of his semi-retirement, he contacted him at once. “Time was of the essence, because Paulin was already 80, no spring chicken, but I discovered that he was still passionate about design issues. Very quickly we got to work. Within a year ‘Pumpkin’ was ready.”
Inspired by the chairs Paulin had designed for Pompidou, the new Paulin line, launched for the 2007-2008 season, featured crater-shaped lounge chairs and settees that were a vast improvement over their 1971 counterparts in terms of coziness, buoyancy, durability, and resilience. Progress in the texture of foams, in bonding techniques, and in the tensile qualities of fibers, have allowed Paulin to obtain the kind of comfort level he had never been able to achieve before.
“In some of our seats, we have up to 10 different densities of foam”, explains Michel Roset. “It’s costly but it pays up over time. Our seats last 15 years without any loss of comfort.” An instant Roset classic, the Pumpkin line is showing signs of becoming the next “Togo” – a timeless line that has had a consistent following among Roset customers for 38 years and is prominently displayed, like a company logo, in all the 230 exclusive Roset stores worldwide.
Studying timeless designs is how Paulin was trained. A graduate of the Ecole Camondo in Paris, he is not only conversant with historical styles, he also has a scholarly interest for more arcane subjects like Roman military architecture, Chinese tables, or Moorish decorative arts. All through his career, he has received commissions from the Mobilier National (MN), a centuries-old French entity that recruits designers to create original furniture for embassies, official residences, and government agencies. His assignments for the Elysées came as a result of his collaboration with this highly-respected institution. But while Paulin had been given a one-man show at MoMA as early as 1967, only after Ligne Roset launched his first collection did the MN decide to sponsor a retrospective of his work in the Gobelins gallery in Paris.
The curator of the exhibition, Catherine Geel, author of a book on Paulin, compares the attitude of Pierre Paulin with that of Philippe Starck to explain why the former was lionized while the latter was unsung. Unlike Starck, who has mastered the art of occupying the front of the media scene, she contends that Paulin doesn’t known how to create a buzz, neither does he care about investing his work with a theoretical discourse. For Paulin, she says “there is nothing ironic in the practice of design. He is first and foremost elegant, and so are his designs. His work is not postmodernist. In fact, postmodernism is antithetic to his métier.”
The unexpected success of the “Pumpkin” line has prompted Ligne Roset to reproduce some of Paulin’s lesser-known vintage designs. “Reproducing classic models and referencing the past is not our business, neither is it our expertise in terms of marketing,” says Michel Roset, “but with Pierre, it came naturally. We had fun taking prototypes he had developed in the 50s and 60s and improve their comfort level without changing their appearance.”
A couple of mid-century pieces, originally manufactured by Thonet, are now some of the most exciting new introductions in the current Roset collection: the minimalist “TV” side chairs (1954), the sober “Archi” wing chairs (circa 1955), and the diminutive “Tanis” and “Ursuline” writing desks (circa 1958). A later reproduction from an 1980 original, the intriguing “Curule” folding wood throne seems earmarked to become a Roset icon. More conventional, a handsome new upholstered series called “Anda”, includes two sizes of armchairs and offers a swivel option.
With the sales figures of these new introductions surprisingly strong, it looks like Pierre Paulin and Ligne Roset have gold at their fingertips. “It’s an expression used in the furniture manufacturing jargon to describe great upholsterers”, explains Antoine Roset pointing at a row of spiffy and immaculate slip-covered lounge chairs ready for final inspection. “These pieces will look factory-fresh for the next 15 years”, he adds, “but will the appeal of their design endure as long as their form?”
That’s the ultimate challenge, isn’t it? However, Pierre Paulin is standing by, the living proof that, in the end, good design does prevail — and that sooner or later it is an idea whose time has come.
1/6 - In its bucolic setting, the Ligne Roset factory uses cutting-edge technology
2/6 - Pierre Paulin's designs reflect his experience designing seats for the automotive industry
3/6 - Better-known for its uphostered models, Ligne Roset also manufactures wood furniture
4/6 - Foam treatment: contrary to popular belief, a block of foam is not homogenous
5/6 - Uphosterers are trained in-house, each Ligne Roset model requiring specific skills
6/6 - Paulin had a close relationship with Artifort. Most iconic is his Ribbon Chair, 1966