Pierre Paulin’s Multimo sofa is a feat of French 20th-century design, one in which the complexities of spatially dynamic functionalism have been embodied to striking effect. This series was conceived at a crucial period in the designer’s oeuvre, and expresses all of the key formal characteristics which secured his place in the canon of 20th century design. The sofa’s smooth curves, graphic color and sculptural plasticity contribute to an arresting sense of weightlessness and sensuality.
The Multimo sofa is a delight to encounter. Light and vibrant, it speaks to the bright linearity of the 1960s. The individually sculpted back-rests make for an unusual and eye-catching departure from a traditional sofa design, as each back-rest blossoms up from the main body of the sofa in a pleasingly effortless and elegant manner. Notably, the feet of the sofa are not visible and freestanding, but rather have been subsumed by the enveloping swathe of taut, creaseless stretch fabric: the overall impact this gives to the sofa is one of organic weightlessness.
Fabric was key to the realization of Paulin’s designs, and the decision to start upholstering his furniture with synthetic stretch material (previously known for its use as a swimwear fabric) in the 1960s had been nothing short of revolutionary. As one casts an eye over the Multimo sofa, we are able to appreciate the lightness effected by this elasticated material which, drawn tightly over the sofa’s framework, affords a certain economy of form, and implies smoothness and streamlining to such a degree that it seems to encourage movement.
Artifort showroom featuring Paulin designs including the Multimo. (Photograph © Artifort. Reproduced from Pierre Paulin, by Élisabeth Védrenne, 2004, Assouline Publishing)
In seeking to analyze any given work by Paulin, the title often serves as an interesting starting point, and in this case there is something valuable to be gleaned from a consideration of the series’ titular “multimo”. On one level, there is a certain superlative quality to the world “multimo”, as it seems to imply something of an Italianate richness and complexity. Further, although “multimo” does not actually exist in either the French or English lexicon, it is an effective choice in that to both the Francophone and Anglophone it is somehow perfectly understandable, for it triggers a consideration of the notion of multimodality. As such, the idea that this is more than a sofa, and that there is a kind of transcendent multimodality contained within which makes it so, is immediately instilled in the mind of one who encounters the sofa. At the beginning of his career, Paulin had hoped to become a sculptor, and he carried this sculptural eye over to his design work: in this case, smooth lines and dimensionality offer the sofa sculptural qualities insofar as it transforms and defines the space around it, rather than simply existing within space. Through the power of “multimo” suggestion, therefore, the viewer is compelled to appreciate the fact that this sofa exists within an interregnum of design, functionalism, sculpture, symbolism, furniture and art.
The fact that Multimo was conceived in 1969 is important. At this time, Paulin was working for Dutch designers Artifort and two years prior had entered into collaboration with France’s Mobilier National (the national organization responsible for the production of state furniture). His international status as one of the foremost modern designers was by this point well-established, as was the force of his creative voice on the world stage. In 1969, he won the Chicago design award, and his furniture designs were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Even more significantly, in 1969 Paulin was commissioned to undertake the redecoration of the Denon wing of the Louvre, and to redecorate the apartments of the Elysée Palace; an affirmation from the very highest echelons of French culture (a culture, it should be noted, which had been reluctant in its embrace of modernism).
Part of the brilliance of Paulin’s design lies in his destabilization of the linear relationship between object and detached viewer: particularly in the case of the Multimo sofa, there is an intimacy to the relationship Paulin facilitates between the sofa and human form, one which generates a personal dialogue and necessitates uniqueness. Added to an awareness of the undercurrent of intuition which contributed to Paulin’s innate understanding of form — in his own words, the ability to “think up a shape and make it spin in my head like a sculptor or an architect would,” this sofa is certainly an exceptional example of the designer’s work
My work is at the junction of technique and a bit of poetry.