IT WAS THE last place you'd have expected to find a den of luxury. For six weeks this spring, Louis Vuitton hosted clients and VIPs inside L'Appartement, a showroom and event space tucked behind a fire exit in the drab, unassuming basement of the Bank of America Tower in Hong Kong. Passing through an unmarked entrance, visitors emerged into the world's most stylish bunker: a long room with a curved ceiling, sedate lighting and a remarkable collection of curvaceous chairs, sofas and tables by the avant-garde French designer Pierre Paulin.
Paulin, who died in 2009, never lived to see the collection. Dubbed La Maquette – ”the model” – it was conceived as a modular system that could be arranged to create an almost endless number of living spaces, from bedrooms to closets to dining areas. It was originally produced for office-furniture pioneers Herman Miller, but the 1973 oil crisis derailed the company's plans to move into the residential market. Until now, the collection existed only in the form of a scale model housed in the Centre Pompidou's archives in Paris.
“For Pierre, one thing would bring another one, and a detail would inspire another programme,” said his widow, Maïa Wodzislawska Paulin. “This was part of his bold thinking. You could find little bits [of his previous work] in everything he would do. Like you see this library here – it was also part of the library in the Élysée Palace for President Pompidou.”
It was the weekend of Art Basel in Hong Kong, and Maïa was sitting in L'Appartement with her son, Benjamin, and his wife Alice Lemoine, a fashion stylist. “It's like somebody working on an alphabet,” continued Maïa. “Or like a musical variation,” added Benjamin, no doubt speaking from experience – in addition to working for his family's design firm, Paulin Paulin Paulin, he's a singer who recently recorded his fourth album.
His work for the family business is more personal than professional. Paulin junior recalls growing up surrounded by his father's work, but what marked him most was his steadfast dedication to his craft. Now that Benjamin is married with a baby, he also appreciates the fruits of his father's labour: his apartment in Paris is stocked with a number of Paulin designs.
“I like almost everything about it,” he said. “It has an elegance, a sense of modernity.”
“And it's comfortable,” added his mother.
Pierre Paulin employed a sinuous, colourful aesthetic often described as “pop”, but he was always quick to reject that label. “I'm not pop, I'm pre-pop,” the designer said in 2005. “I don't belong to any stylistic school or political party.” It's a point that Paulin's family is eager to emphasise. What made him great, they argue, was not just the sensuousness of his furniture, but its functional innovations.
Born in Paris in 1927, Pierre Paulin trained first as a ceramist and then as a stone-carver, but his plans of becoming a sculptor were dashed when he injured his right arm in a fight. “He had nerve damage,” said Maïa. “He had to invent a new way to hold a pencil.” Paulin instead studied at the École Camondo design school in Paris and was taken by the minimalist yet approachable furniture being produced by modernist designers such as Ray and Charles Eames.
Paulin's work was innovative from the beginning. He started experimenting with stretch fabric in the 1950s, when he attached bathing-suit material to chair frames. When he was hired by Dutch furniture manufacturer Artifort in 1959, he embraced the latest and most technologically advanced materials – lightweight metal frames, foam, rubber and stretch fabric – to create the Mushroom Chair, a seductive fauteuil that proved an instant classic.
“It represented the first full expression of my abilities. I considered the manufacture of chairs to be rather primitive and I was trying to think up new processes,” said Paulin in 2008. “I have always considered design to be a mix of invention and industrial innovation.”
Many of Paulin's designs remain in production today, but it was his catalogue of unrealised work that sparked the collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Early last year, the luxury brand's creative director, Nicolas Ghesquière, approached Benjamin and Maïa about featuring Paulin's demi-arc Osaka sofa in the label's cruise 2015 fashion show. That's when they suggested he delve into Paulin's archives. “It was like a puzzle – all the pieces came together and just matched,” said Maïa.
The result, unveiled at Design Miami in December, was Playing With Shapes, which brought to life 15 pieces from La Maquette. Many of those pieces were brought to Hong Kong for L'Appartement, whose space was inspired by the private apartments that Paulin designed for French President Georges Pompidou in the Élysée Palace in the early 1970s. “Obviously, here we don't have 14-metre ceilings [as in the palace], so it's about getting the atmosphere right – it should be friendly,” said Maïa.
Pieces from La Maquette weren't the only works that were revived. Louis Vuitton also produced a dining table designed in the 1980s that was used for dinner parties in the subterranean hideaway. Because the table is narrow and oval-shaped, it created a more intimate atmosphere than a traditional European-style rectangular table. “Everybody could speak to their neighbours – it was not isolating,” said Maïa. “It was a really great atmosphere. Everybody was talking.”
Maïa pointed out that the table was made partly of wood, an unusual material for the 1980s, when it was considered dowdy and outré. “Pierre was always avantgarde,” she said. “He always thought wood would come back. That's why he's still seen as relevant.” One of his standout wood pieces from the early 1980s was the tulip-shaped Siège Curule, a folding chair made of leather and sycamore.
Much of his relevance comes from the changing attitudes towards design, which is increasingly seen as a crucial part of everyday life. “You'd be amazed at all the pieces Pierre designed in the 1950s that were just thrown away,” said Maïa. “Design was a service back then,” added Lemoine. “These things were not meant to be kept.” It's exactly the opposite of today, when even Ikea works with renowned designers to create limited-edition collections.
Paulin might have grown weary of such attention; he was never a fan of the celebrity designer. “Objects should remain anonymous,” he once said. “It's extremely dangerous to give too much importance and status to people who are only doing their job. Working for the enjoyment of the greatest number is very gratifying, much more so than any official honour.”
But each designer has a legacy to explore, which is exactly what Maïa and Benjamin Paulin and Lemoine have been trying to do with projects such as L'Appartement. The trio is planning more exhibitions and special projects, as well as some limited-edition reissues of Paulin's designs. “We don't want to flood the market,” said Maïa, “but there are a few more pieces we want to bring back.”