Trois Decennies of French Design

Originally posted on August 26, 2010 on

A funny thing happened on my way to Magen XX Century, my friend’s chic, and primarily French, design gallery on 11th Street. I stopped at the Strand—just looking, Joan—and found, to my surprise, a 300 page exhibition catalog published by the Pompidou Center in 1988. As a rule of thumb, anything published by the Pompidou Center is worth having, and often hard-to-find. This one, which I had not seen before, was no exception. Even better, it was in the paper bin, priced at $3.50. The catalog, called “Design Francais, 1960-1990, Trois Decennies,” tracks French graphic, furniture, interior, and product design both alphabetically and chronologically through this creative and tumultuous period. In addition to a lot of captioned pictures of familiar and unfamiliar French designs, there are a series of essays in the beginning, with English translations. Can’t ask for much more for three and a half bucks.

A glimpse through the essays reveals a defensiveness or diffidence on the part of the authors, at least vis a vis Italian design. The lack of French counterparts to Archizoom and Superstudio in the 60’s, and Alchimia and Memphis in the 70’s, is lamented: “Why does God’s furniture always come from Milan and never from Paris? (Olivier Boiessiere).”

Most authors point to a lagging industrial aesthetic consciousness in France, from the public but also pointedly from industrialists. Still, what is lacking in structure is compensated for in eloquence. Paris may not have been a design hothouse like Milan, but it was the city of Derrida, Saussure, Barthes, Foucault, and their protégés, home to deconstructive and structuralist philosophy and criticism. And where Milan had Memphis, Paris had individual creative genius.

Thus, in a way, the catalog itself serves as an apologia-it states a case for French creative brilliance and relevance, in the critical texts and in the images presented. Catherine Millet makes the point that French artists, epitomized by Francois Arnal, who founded Atelier A in 1969, turned their hands to design after the events of 1968 in an effort to reach a broader public. That this failed was not surprising-“an object impregnated with a creator’s strong personality can only appeal to a few devotees”-but Millet points out that increasing media attention provided the circulation that the design itself did not. Advertisements and museum catalogs became the vehicles for disseminating avant-garde design ideas. An example in conjunction with the essay is the promotional image for the aluminum and rubber chair by Arman, produced by Atelier A, and shown here.

Of course, the French being the French, there was recognition that they might be protesting too much. So, in discussing the role of plastics in the 1960’s, Francois Kneebone noted that France was not far behind Archizoom in exploring this material, citing Marc Bethier, Marc Held, Olivier Mourgue, Pierre Paulin, and Christian Germanaz. Again, eloquence and individual éclat rather than structure. Shown here are two pieces from the acrylic “Kaleidoscope” series by Jacques Famery, produced by Steiner in 1967.

Of the many compelling images in the catalog, I selected four others to show here: Andree Putman’s project for the French Minister of the Interior (1985); a Pierre Paulin electric shaver for Calor, from the same year; the witty “looseleaf desk” of 1983, designed by Pierre Sala, who studied semiotics and stagecraft; and an image of paint cans designed in the late 1960’s by Jean-Phillipe Lenclose.