Pierre Paulin had his Eureka moment while discussing the inspiration for the Martingale Chair with one of Italy’s most celebrated designers, Marco Zanuso.
“I liked Marco Zanuso’s Martingale but I studied the defects,” he said afterwards. “The fabric was not elastic and the folds behind not elegant.”
So he set about finding a material that would introduce even more sculpture to his chairs than his heroes Zanuso and Eero Saarinen had been able to achieve.
He started experimenting with stretching jersey swimsuit fabrics over tubular steel sculptures upholstered with Pirelli latex foam rubber for the French branch of the Austrian bentwood company Thonet.
Then he happened on a form that would catch the eye of Kho Liang Le, a Dutch-trained designer born in Indonesia to Chinese parents, who had been hired as “aesthetic consultant” for Dutch company Artifort.
Hoping to make his boss equally aware of Paulin’s talent, Kho Liang Le invited the French designer to exhibit at a small furniture show at the company’s new Maastricht showroom in 1958. It was here that Paulin met Theo Ruth, another of the designers showing, who would go on to help him realize his fantastical pieces for Artifort.
The Mushroom came into being two years later. Cold-cured foam was sculpted on a steel skeleton consisting of three hoops in varying sizes for the back seat and base, with vertical supports to hold the hoops in their different positions, giving Paulin a strong frame over which he could stretch the fabric.
Paulin was not so lucky with his Tongue Chair, according to an article in one British newspaper. When he showed Artifort boss Harry Wagemans his prototype for this zigzag shaped chaise, the Dutchman needed a second opinion.
“I had tried to appeal to the lifestyle of young people. They were into low-level living,” Paulin told the Independent, “Then, in 1968, Harry’s son had a party with friends from all over Europe and they loved the chairs.”
Even though the Mushroom came first, the Tongue was too late to eclipse Olivier Mourgue’s Djinn collection which used super-flexible fabrics over foam in a similar low-level style to Paulin.
To add insult to injury, people started lumping Paulin in with the Pop movement, a label the designer vehemently rejected.
Thankfully, Mourgue’s overnight success did not deter people from seeing Paulin as a supreme artist and innovator, and while a commission inspired by Japanese tatami mats for Herman Miller was terminated after two years of research during the 1973 oil crisis, he lived to see a renaissance of his work at the turn of the twenty-first century with fashion designers Tom Ford, Azzedine Alaïa and Nicolas Ghesquière battling it out to secure vintage Ribbons, Orange Slices and modular sofa sequences.
Since he passed away in 2009, Paulin’s wife Maia and son Benjamin have been busy working with Louis Vuitton to relaunch the tatami-inspired Playing with Shapes collection, and the Centre Pompidou showed a major retrospective of his work in the summer of 2016.