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

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


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

Sempe bench

Sempéhas a knack for enlivening the banal. She has has transformed a basicfloor lamp into a 6-foot-8-inch tower of pleats; hascovered a shelving unit in industrial-style brushes as if it were acarwash for the closet; and created lamps made of paper you blow up. Ruché, withits simple frame and origami-like mattress, has the same unaffectedexuberance.

Here Sempé, 42, describes the new sofa, detailing matters that dointerest her: experimental sewing, why France can’t get over LouisQuatorze, and why working with her fellow countrymen is the best thingsince French bread. Antoine Roset, Ligne Roset’s executive vicepresident, joins the conversation. 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 asecond sofa and I didn’t want to do the same thing, because I hate toget bored. I cannot stand to work on something I don’t like. If I’mbored I cannot work.

Sempe chairs

How did you get started?


My first sketch was really a small and light structure. I didn’t knowif I wanted wood or metal, I just wanted something high and light andon which there’d be a mattress that looks as if it were swollen. Thiswas a beginning. I did a badly made small model, and sent thosepictures to Michel. At the beginning, he was not really convinced. Ittook 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 thisrequired a lot of time and adjustment with prototypes. When we began todo the first prototypes, they were terribly boring. At first it wasjust a basic quilt made of squares, which were 20 centimeters and itwas 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 withoutlife. So with my assistant and my sewing machine we did many manytrials in my studio. We tried many, samples, until we arrived at thisone.

Why that pattern?

They’reinterrupted squares. That the sewing is interrupted makes it twist andpop out. And it gives it something that has a rhythm. That took us verylong to obtain. Many times when I was going to see the prototypes I waswondering if maybe we should stop the work, because I was really nothappy with the prototypes. But this way of quilting the mattress gavesome life to the sofa.

What was your inspiration?


I don’t believe in inspiration. Journalists always ask and I’m obligedto say my inspiration was…. But I don’t believe in it. I think weshould find another word. I believe in inspiration for a bad designerwho would look at a chair and say, “OK let’s get inspired by this chairand do almost the same.” Looking at the small model I did, it remindsme of an outdoor swing chair. But that wasn’t the original idea. Myinspiration was not inspiration, it was a will of not doing the samekind of sofa.

Sempe 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 wantto 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 werewalnut. People want to see natural things that aren’t changed to looklike something else, so I thought Ligne Roset needed some natural wood.Because hyper-worked wood looks really to me boring and reallybourgeois.

Roset: And finally, we decided on the naturalcolor, 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 tobe 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 hugehouse, though I can also do that because I did some sofas for Edra andI think the only buyer was Berlusconi. With Michel Roset,he always said it’s important to have small sofas for people like meliving in houses with small rooms. So for people who have rooms toonarrow to have a table in front of the sofa, I put the the table on theside.

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 ableto 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 haveit.” It’s like in book publishing. There are book publishers whopublish books like the biography of Oprah Winfrey because they want todo something more ambitious.

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

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

Why is that?


Sempé: We have the same faults.

Such as?

Sempé:Complaining. When I work with the French, I know I can complain. It isa fault but also a good quality. Without complaining, we would not havehad 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