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Furnishings: Free Rein

Adele Cygelman

Paul Mathieu named his new furniture collection Bianca after a photographer friend he goes horseback riding with. “She said that the pieces reminded her of a horse’s flank, and that’s exactly it,” says Mathieu. “Like a horse or deer, the furniture is strong on the ground and has a heavy body, but it is light and elegant on its feet.” And Mathieu hopes that clients appreciate the smooth lines and detailing below the upholstery. “The fact that the design doesn’t stop on the surface, that it continues underneath, really appeals to me.”

The Bianca club chair, daybed, and sofa rest on curved tapered feet and are carved out of walnut, his wood of choice. “Walnut is indigenous, and I love the pattern of its grain, its warmth [it’s not too light or too dark], and its connection to Scandinavian design,” Mathieu says. While the tops have a squared-off shape reminiscent of the 1940s, the legs have more in common with the 1950s. Yet as much as he admires midcentury modernism, Mathieu cites the craftsmanship of the Wiener Werkstätte and the work of architect Joze Plecnik, a disciple of Otto Wagner’s, as his strongest influences.

The French interior designer still does residential work but lately he has edged closer to product design. He started with chairs for Andrée Putman and Ecart. He followed that with a line of fabrics and a dining room suite for Donghia. And he is creating rugs and lighting for Stephanie Odegard. But his collaboration with Ralph Pucci and the New York showroom Pucci International has given his work a new dimension. “Ralph has an artistic yet hands-on approach to design,” Mathieu says. “And his clientele are people who want something unique and unexpected.” Pucci in turn admires the sculptural quality of Mathieu’s work, which he sees as a natural complement to the furniture by other designers in his stable, who include Putman, Chris Lehrecke, and Patrick Naggar. “Paul’s work reminds me of 1940s furniture but it’s fresh and sculptural,” Pucci says. “I’m drawn to things that make a strong visual statement, that aren’t decorative or pretentious.”

Mathieu maintains close ties to his native France. He heads regularly to his house in Aix-en-Provence to relax, sketch, and sculpt in clay. And when he needs to recharge, he returns to New York and his downtown atelier. “I need the action of New York,” he says. Spiritual balance has come in the shape of his most recent commission—designing the altar and chairs for a 17th-century church in Aix. “Working on a church is totally detached from any practical function,” he says. It also allows him to work alongside artisans and absorb hand- crafting techniques that he can apply to his own woodwork. “The world doesn’t need any more cube-shaped chairs with metal tubing,” says Mathieu. “I’m thankful that I can be an artist and see my vision become reality.”

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