L’Atelier de Recherche et Création brings French design to the world

Vive l’Arc

By Suzanne Demisch & Stephane Danant

France’s enduring reputation for extraordinary decorative arts did not arise entirely by chance. Since the 17th century, the French government has played an active role in the creation, maintenance, and distribution of nationally produced furnishings and objets d’art, which were (and continue to be) valued and promoted as vehicles of the country’s proud cultural identity. Of course, these efforts focused first on purely artisanal work—tapestries, cabinetry, porcelain, etc.—but eventually this national obsession with quality expanded to encompass industrial design.

In 1663, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finance under Louis XIV, established the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne as a quality-control agency responsible for regulating state inventories, conserving and caring for royal furnishings, and preserving traditional techniques and workshops. This mission has been defended though the centuries under various agency names, surviving today in the Mobilier National.

In the years following World War II, France began to reexamine its traditional approach to furniture making, recognizing much later than other European countries the need to modernize and adapt to mass manufacturing. While handcraft remained highly prized, the state recongnized the growing demand for furnishings in the modern style. Moreover, the French government needed to develop foreign markets and believed industrial design to be a potentially profitable export commodity.

In 1964, the Minister of Culture André Malraux created a new branch to the Mobilier National, called L’Atelier de Recherche et Creation (l’ARC), dedicated to the development of industrial prototypes using contemporary materials, techniques, and forms. Almost from its inception, the ARC began collaborating with era-defining designers whose work secured France’s position in the history of modernism.

For instance, in 1969, Mobilier National invited Pierre Paulin to furnish the private apartments of President George Pompidou at the Palais de L’Elysee, by special request from the president himself. Paulin conceived the decoration of the space, designed the furniture, and oversaw the execution of the prototypes in the ARC workshops. Pompidou desired a modern environment in which to exhibit his contemporary art collection but one that also protected the original 18th-century walls of the palace. So Paulin created a grand structure in jersey, a material that would become his trademark. He made tables, lights, sofas, and chairs—a number of which were later edited in small series by Alpha International, Mobilier National’s partner for distribution and mass production.

As part of its mission to disseminate French design globally, Mobilier National asked Olivier Mourgue to design the seats and tables for the French pavilion at Expo 1967 in Montreal. In 1970, the agency again worked with Pierre Paulin, this time on an installation for the Exposition Universal in Osaka, for which he created the now famous Amphis sofa. In both cases, these prototypes gave way to editions organized by the ARC, which are now highly sought after by institutional and private design collectors.

Over the last four decades, the ARC has been responsible for over 500 furniture designs, commissioned from nearly every accomplished French designer one can think of: from Pierre Paulin and Olivier Mourgue in the 1970s, to Garouste & Bonetti and Martin Szekely in the 1980s, and Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec in the 1990s. Today, the Mobilier National remains active in promoting and preserving French decorative arts and design, and the ARC continues to support research into new materials and the development of prototypes in collaboration with exceptional designers and manufacturers. Louis XIV would be proud.

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    • Suzanne Demisch & Stephane Danant

      Suzanne Demisch & Stephane Danant

      Elegantly hip New York sensibility melds with post-war European design at Suzanne and Stephane’s Chelsea gallery, Demisch Danant. Partners since 2000, the pair champions design luminaries through tightly curated, multi-layered yet accessible exhibitions.