Looking at his work, it’s clear that Pierre Paulin saw objects differently than most popular designers. He dedicated his life to creating chairs, couches, stools and sculptures that oozed softness and comfort while retaining a sleek aesthetic.
Paulin's furniture is visible across the digiscape. You may have seen Frank Ocean photographed on Paulin's modular “Dune Sofa,” or images from his archive distributed by Paulin, Paulin, Paulin, a family enterprise created to honour his legacy by circulating, developing, and perserving his furniture.
Paulin was born on July 9, 1927 in Paris, France. From an early age he was surrounded by influential role models that would have a direct impact on his future design practice. His uncle Georges Paulin was a renowned automobile designer with an eye for aerodynamics; both function and form mattered to Georges. Pierre took note. His great uncle Freddy Stoll was a sculptor, a profession in which form generally takes priority over function. Freddy led by example, showing Pierre how to execute an idea without losing sight of basic design principles.
After training to be a ceramist in Vallauris, Pierre studied sculpting in Burgundy. There, he severed a tendon in his right arm, leaving him unable to engage in such physically demanding crafts and in need of a new creative outlet. This injury was to be a blessing. He started studying at a design school in Paris and promptly joined a furniture workshop, a practical application for his sculpting skills where function and form could come together. It was at this juncture that Paulin’s extensive teachings found a concrete outlet. The theory and the doing united.
Pierre’s vision and adept craft skills allowed him to contribute something completely new to furniture design. In an interview with MoebelKulturKanal released in 2010, Paulin describes how his use of flowing shapes and stretchy “bathing suit” fabrics wrapped around foam-covered metal tubes and wooden frameworks creates an intentional softness of design and shape. He makes the interesting comparison of the “softness” of his creations to mufflers on cars. It’s meant to be easy on the senses, comfortable to be around.
After a furniture show put together by Kho Liang le, an influential designer working in the Netherlands at the time, Paulin’s talent was quickly recognized, and in the late 1950’s he was recruited to become a freelance designer for international furniture company Artifort. Kho Liang le had joined Artifort in 1958 as an aesthetic consultant and designer, where his forward-thinking, exciting personality pivoted the brand towards the international market and thrilled a global audience with fresh pieces.
When Paulin arrived at Artifort, he quickly realized that he no longer had to cater his designs to a conservative French market. The world was his playground. In his time with Artifort, Paulin was given access to machines, materials, and resources that allowed him to conduct various experiments on fit, shape, feel, and elasticity of materials over frames, ultimately forming the concrete foundation for the design ethos that he would become best known for. During this time, Paulin also began to develop his conception of interior design as a means of connecting the dots between all his works in a cohesive space.
In 1967 Paulin made contact with the administrator of Mobilier National, Jean Coural, who thought so highly of the designer that he suggested he design the furnishings of the Louvre museum in Paris. Through Coural, Paulin was introduced to Georges Pompidou and his wife, who contracted him to help design their homes in the Elysees Palace.
Interestingly, as Paulin got older and took up more projects, he started to tie all his design practises together. Be it an interior redesign, a specific commission, or a personal creation, Paulin began to develope an aesthetic, design language, and conceptual framework that ran through his portfolio, contrasting his desperate focus as a young designer.
What I love about Paulin is that he was not scared to venture outside of his box, or explore more of it. Each piece Paulin conceived took a jab at the classical depiction of that item. For example his “Tongue” chair could be styled separately, or stacked on top of one another to create a colour-blocked pillar of functionality. He was always trying to perceive space in new ways.
Paulin was a bridge builder in many senses, connecting industries many would not have thought to. His work as a designer in the furniture industry opened doors for him to be involved in seriously big projects. His work was featured in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger,” and when asked if he wanted to be involved in the design development of the Airbus Aircraft he said yes. But Paulin had no particular interest in fame, though fame was inevitable and much to his dislike. He never designed to please anyone but himself.
Possibly his most rewarding venture began in 1975 when he opened his design agency ADSA with his wife. ADSA aimed to recruit new and exciting designers and predict future trends in the industry. Giving space and autonomy similar to what he had at Artifort to young creatives excited Paulin. Opening ADSA was perhaps his attempt to close the loop, creating the experience for young designers that Artifort afforded him.
During his last years alive he articulated that he wanted to produce works that had never gone into production before. One wonders if he realized he already had. Paulin, Paulin, Paulin confirms it, and has successfully carried on his legacy since his extraordinary life concluded on June 13, 2009, in a hospital in Montpellier, France.
Pierre had a way of affecting something fresh and vibrant. There’s a feeling of empowerment emerging from his works, an encouragement to let creativity flow. His work reminds us that inspiration can be drawn from all facets of design, and that when it comes to taste, the most important opinion is your own.