"It never leaves the white sheet."

Pierre Charpin’s obsession with form

This is a designer who still draws by hand, valuing the method of designing as highly as the forms he creates. Pierre Charpin’s passion runs deep – he does not chase design houses for commissions, as he would much rather push the limits of his work without concern for the restrictions imposed by the commercial world. And that has made all the difference. From his charming studio in Ivry–sur–Seine, Charpin spoke with DAMN° about this, that, and the other.

Oscar Duboÿ September 2015
Since the early 1990s, Pierre Charpin has devoted himself to designing furniture and objects. He loves to draw, and indeed each project begins with a blank piece of paper. His career started when he researched the possibility of ‘anthropomorphic’ furniture, presenting this in Paris alongside a series of silver tableware pieces. A few years later, he developed the distinctive Stackable Chair, and his output has flowed at a steady pace ever since. The form of an object is of utmost importance in Charpin’s eyes, if even it also serves a function. DAMN° had an in-depth chat with the designer about his working practice.

Pierre Charpin is a discreet designer, one who is always at work, constantly searching, each of his objects potentially being the starting point for the generation of another. For him: “A chair is a chair when you sit in it, but it’s primarily a form.” Charpin continues to refine forms with an obses-sion to take them still further. His recent exhibition at Design Parade has demonstrated this and the current Marbles & Clowns presentation at Galerie kreo only confirms it. It is in his studio outside Paris that Pierre Charpin meets with DAMN°, in Ivry-sur-Seine, a cult 1970s architectural complex with Jean Renaudie and Renée Gailhoustet’s signature. You immediately wonder whether these plastic geometries in which the designer grew up have influenced him, since forms are so central in his work. When we ask him this, he swears he has never dreamt of being an architect. Still, the pieces brought together for his Villégiature (Vacationing) exhibition this summer in the poolroom and squash courts at Villa Noailles, retrace the origins of a grouping that’s been going on for over 20 years, injecting a dash of colour against the white backgrounds so dear to Robert Mallet-Stevens. This is an opportunity to discover some valuable items that were snatched-up all too quickly by collectors from his faithful Galerie kreo, but also one for remembering his mass-produced furniture. Because there’s no snobbishness about Pierre Charpin, just a consistency with certain principles of balance, and an unwavering loyalty to drawing.
DAMN°: How did this exhibition at Villa Noailles come about?
Pierre Charpin: Jean-Pierre Blanc called me in late March, asking me to visit the empty villa, which gave me the idea of a scenography where you could view the objects as well as the space. We had to come up with a mixture of choices, especially those pieces that were available fairly quickly. Otherwise, the situation was rather vague, even though I knew that I wanted to include the drawings in order to pursue the principle of my recent exhibition at the ELAC gallery in Renens, La part du dessin (The role of drawing).

DAMN°: You opted for a more scenic rather than chronological approach. Why?
PC: For me, it was obvious. My first big exhibition in Hornu, Pierre Charpin at the Grand-Hornu, 20 years of work in 2011, served me well here. It was too early for a retrospective and it is not my idea to have one. Simply put, I have some works, and start-ing from there I let them speak together in a freely associative way, whereas the chronological approach would have been too analytical, too cold, too didac-tic. Villa Noailles is a place people come to on holi-day, not necessarily to find information about Pierre Charpin. The notion is rather ambiguous, as if the objects were standing about, at rest in an exhibition.


DAMN°: Despite the number of years between them, one obtains a sense that all the works come from the same group. Except perhaps the Stackable Chair, which does stand out...
PC: Yes, I have very few drawings of that. I like to put it in exhibitions, as it is quite heavy-handed; whereas usually it is the type of exercise that the designer will try to make super stylish. In 1993, working on the idea of elegance didn’t interest me; it represents a stage at which I renounced decora-tion in order look into the structure. I’d deconstruct the object to make each element legible and auton-omous. This chair is a strange object. At the same time, the Rocking Chair, which I made three years later, still retains a continuity, although it marked the introduction of another stage, one where colour is used to unify all materials.

DAMN°: In 1980 you didn’t choose to attend a tra-ditional design school but instead registered at the Beaux-Arts school in Bourges. Did that allow you more freedom?
PC: Visual training has a positive side and a negative side. I don’t need to wait for an assignment in order to work, whereas other designers often work accord-ing to specifications defined by a design house. For a long time, nobody sought me out, which didn’t stop me from generating my own projects. Thus, it was understood that I was a designer at a time when I my-self wasn’t really sure of it. Then again, I had to learn about production systems and their impact on design on my own. It took me some time... Today, students leave school already knowing the business. But have I really learned it? I’m not sure I know anything.

DAMN°: When did you feel that you were a designer?
PC: At the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, I was already proposing things that were more akin to furniture, that were designed for domestic spaces and connected with everyday life, which is not the case with art. My work was very attached to form. That was in 1980, at the end of conceptual minimal-ism and the beginning of free representation, with a return to painting. But painting wasn’t my thing. Furniture was more in tune with my sensitivity to-wards architecture, which was steeped in my family environment. And then there was this heavy debate about post-modernism!DAMN°: People tend to associate you more with Galerie kreo than with design agencies. Is there a desire on your part to focus on galleries?PC: The projects come about through meeting peo-ple, which is very important to me. With Didier Krzentowski at kreo, it was mutual right from the start. The gallery context allows me to do some things I cannot do with a design house, especially in terms of pushing certain limits. My Stands pieces at the Design Gallery in Milan are practically domestic sculptures, highly abstract, almost theoretical. The expo never sold anything, but it impressed people and, for me, it was important to make these, because it opened the door to a lot of other things. I was also still in contact with design houses, but when that didn’t come to anything, I preferred to think it was the design houses that weren’t any good, rather than me. (Laughs) All joking aside, it’s because they became terribly cold. It’s not snobbery on my part – I had as much fun working on the pieces for Alessi as I did on those for kreo. Concerning this point, I’ve inherited a bit from the Italian way of working, where everything is very integrated, without hierar-chy. During my stint with George Sowden in 1993, I could work on a computer keyboard and on two duplicates of a ceramic vase on the same day. DAMN°: As for your drawings, it almost seems as though some objects take shape directly from the paper they are drawn on, ready to be looked at head-on... PC: I’d agree. The point about frontality is quite apt. I often draw in a very frontal way: in a kind of out-line, where I define an external form before filling it in with detail, colour... Then my two assistants translate my drawings into 3D because I don’t know how to do that – intentionally. I prefer to keep a dis-tance vis-à-vis the manufacturing, to better observe the object and find out what’s wrong with it, though obviously 3D drawing is useful for checking a lot of parameters, like the proportions. Quite simply put, it should never lead to complicating things.

DAMN°: Do you wish to retain this two-dimensionality?
PC: The CIRVA vases, for example, were placed one in front of the other on purpose. That’s how I chose to make them visible in the exhibition. The fact that there is a direction induces a particular relationship between the person and the object, so the way you place it in space becomes a conscious choice: How do I want to look at this?

DAMN°: Your pieces are always highly aesthetic and, at the same time, they’re pretty raw, free of any pretentious fuss. What is your relationship to ornament? Is it achieved through colour?
PC: It’s somewhat paradoxical: everything stems from drawing, but I always like to stick to elementary forms from the language of geometry – ultimately fairly common ones – without trying to transform or invent them. Then I introduce tiny changes... I often draw with repetition and then something assumes a final shape, usually through a process of removal. I am tremendously wary of drawing because it easily leads to over-refinement. I avoid anything that has to do with the expression of virtuosity, displayed ostentatiously. Sometimes the simple act of assign-ing a colour to an object is enough for it to have a decorative role; it gives it another quality, as in the CIRVA glass vases.

DAMN°: In the end, you rarely depart from the material...
PC: Yes and no. It happens... For Marbles & Clowns, in addition to the clowns, kreo asked me to design pieces in marble, which I wanted to do as a block rather than in pre-prepared slabs. It was this block idea that inspired me to proceed with the process of removing material. In this case, the shape of the object came about through a reflection on the mate-rial, as it did before with the occasional table Stump for Ligne Roset.
This article appeared in DAM52. Order your personal copy.

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Oscar Duboÿ

Born in Paris, raised in Venice and then back to Paris to study cinema. I eventually choose design and architecture, learning on the job at Condé Nast. That’s how I became a journalist, mainly collaborating now with AD France and Mixt(e).

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