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Q&A: Inga Sempé on Designing a Sofa That Doesn’t Bore Her Stiff

Parisian designer Inga Sempé discusses her exuberant new Ruché sofa for Ligne Roset.

Inga Sempe sofa

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Inga Sempé is one of the hottest designers working in Europe now,
a description that would doubtless annoy her to no end. Sempé, who was
born, lives, and works in Paris, has said she would like to
die in Paris
and has a uniquely French disdain for tidy labels. She thinks artistic
inspiration is for hacks and refuses to characterize her work
thematically, claiming only that, “My aim is to do things I’m interested
in.” Mais oui!

Sempe bench

So her new Ruché sofa, unveiled by the French
furniture company Ligne Roset during New York Design Week
this weekend, wasn’t influenced by anything in particular and doesn’t tell any
grand stories, which is strangely refreshing at a time when every last
beanbag bills itself as the next Odyssey. Nevertheless, Ruché couldn’t have been designed by anyone else.

Sempé
has a knack for enlivening the banal. She has has transformed a basic
floor lamp into a 6-foot-8-inch tower of pleats; has
covered a shelving unit in industrial-style brushes as if it were a
carwash for the closet; and created lamps made of paper you blow up. Ruché, with
its simple frame and origami-like mattress, has the same unaffected
exuberance.

Here Sempé, 42, describes the new sofa, detailing matters that do
interest her: experimental sewing, why France can’t get over Louis
Quatorze, and why working with her fellow countrymen is the best thing
since French bread. Antoine Roset, Ligne Roset’s executive vice
president, joins the conversation.

FastCompany.com: How did the project get underway?

Inga Sempé:
That story is related to the previous sofa I did for Ligne Roset
[Moël, below]. Michel [Roset, co-owner of Ligne Roset], asked me to do a
second sofa and I didn’t want to do the same thing, because I hate to
get bored. I cannot stand to work on something I don’t like. If I’m
bored I cannot work.

Sempe chairs

How did you get started?

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My first sketch was really a small and light structure. I didn’t know
if I wanted wood or metal, I just wanted something high and light and
on which there’d be a mattress that looks as if it were swollen. This
was a beginning. I did a badly made small model, and sent those
pictures to Michel. At the beginning, he was not really convinced. It
took two months before he said, “Let’s do it.”

Why, what took so long?

It’s really different from what they had done before. Doing this
required a lot of time and adjustment with prototypes. When we began to
do the first prototypes, they were terribly boring. At first it was
just a basic quilt made of squares, which were 20 centimeters and it
was really flat and boring; it looked like the tiles of the bathroom.
So I decided to shrink it, but it was still really boring and without
life. So with my assistant and my sewing machine we did many many
trials in my studio. We tried many, samples, until we arrived at this
one.

Why that pattern?

They’re
interrupted squares. That the sewing is interrupted makes it twist and
pop out. And it gives it something that has a rhythm. That took us very
long to obtain. Many times when I was going to see the prototypes I was
wondering if maybe we should stop the work, because I was really not
happy with the prototypes. But this way of quilting the mattress gave
some life to the sofa.

What was your inspiration?

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Sempe sofa

I don’t believe in inspiration. Journalists always ask and I’m obliged
to say my inspiration was…. But I don’t believe in it. I think we
should find another word. I believe in inspiration for a bad designer
who would look at a chair and say, “OK let’s get inspired by this chair
and do almost the same.” Looking at the small model I did, it reminds
me of an outdoor swing chair. But that wasn’t the original idea. My
inspiration was not inspiration, it was a will of not doing the same
kind of sofa.
The sofa comes in a natural wood frame, which is something of a departure for Ligne Roset.

Antoine Roset: When it came to the prototype, the natural color was something we were not very for.

Sempé:
So I wrote two pages explaining why it had to be natural. People want
to know what they’re eating, they don’t want pesticides on a tomato.
It’s the same with wood that is painted to look as though it were
walnut. People want to see natural things that aren’t changed to look
like something else, so I thought Ligne Roset needed some natural wood.
Because hyper-worked wood looks really to me boring and really
bourgeois.

Roset: And finally, we decided on the natural
color, and people love it. Sometimes we have to focus on our business,
sometimes we have to focus on the products, and a mix of the two has to
be the recipe.

Why did you design in a side table for one of the models?

Sempé:
When I design, I’m not focusing on the movie stars that have a huge
house, though I can also do that because I did some sofas for Edra and
I think the only buyer was Berlusconi
. With Michel Roset,
he always said it’s important to have small sofas for people like me
living in houses with small rooms. So for people who have rooms too
narrow to have a table in front of the sofa, I put the the table on the
side.

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Is there a through line in all your work?

Sempé:
No. My aim is to do some project in which I’m interested. I’m not able
to design something that is best-selling. When we were beginning this,
Michel was saying, “Maybe we won’t sell any, but it’s important to have
it.” It’s like in book publishing. There are book publishers who
publish books like the biography of Oprah Winfrey because they want to
do something more ambitious.

Roset: At Ligne Roset, it’s a
mix between the more mature part of the collection–which are the
money makers–and the image products, which are known for quality,
research, and the design itself.

Sempé: Ligne Roset is almost
the only French company I work with. There are always these feelings
that design in France is really important, but no, we have a lot of
culture for fashion, or movies, or literature, but not for furniture. There are maybe historical and social reasons. Maybe because as we were
the king of the world 200 years ago, and we didn’t want to change the
furniture. So many people want fake Louis Quatorze to keep thinking we
are really important. Now it’s changing because many French designers
are well-known. It’s nice to have a French company to work for.

Why is that?

Sempé: We have the same faults.

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Such as?

Sempé:
Complaining. When I work with the French, I know I can complain. It is
a fault but also a good quality. Without complaining, we would not have
had the [French] Revolution.

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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