Mark Kurby, the attentive manager of a furniture store in the trendy SoHo neighborhood of New York City, spends most of his time standing up. He won’t hesitate to demonstrate the quality of his merchandise: a scarlet armchair with legs made of natural ash. Ligne Roset’s Ruché model is designed by Inga Sempé, daughter of the famous cartoonist. Pricetag: 3,880 dollars. “Not only is it beautiful, it’s also very comfortable!” Lying on the quilted armchair, hands crossed behind his head, the salesman smiles. “Try it!”
Overseeing the 45 American stores – 28 of them in the United States – the vice-president of Ligne Roset U.S.A. shares the same first name as his great-great-grandfather: Antoine. Aged 36 and armed with a degree in business and another in luxury management, Antoine Roset – who sports three-day stubble and a well-cut blazer – loves beautiful things. He regrets that we live in a society where everyone has their eyes glued to a cellphone, and he is full of praise for the work of the carpenters, seamstresses, and upholsterers employed in his family’s factories. To emphasize the point, he runs the palm of his hand over the “hydro-blue” Ploum sofa on which he is sitting.
Antoine Roset remembers being shocked by the American public’s lack of interest in design when he first arrived in the U.S. in 2007. Cars took up too much space. The wide and cozy sofas, upholstered in dead-leaf-brown or mouse-grey velvet, were neither sophisticated nor elegant. “There’s a difference in design education between France and the United States,” he notes. “When you move into an apartment in Europe, the first thing you do is to go buy furniture and decorate it. Americans have a tendency to take interior decoration a little too lightly.”
Nine Factories in the French Countryside
The story of Maison Roset begins with a chair-rung factory. In 1860, Antoine Roset, a 19-year-old café waiter, opens a small carpentry shop in the foothills of the Jura Mountains, in eastern France. Using local beech wood, he makes walking sticks and handles for umbrellas and sunshades. When sunshades go out of fashion, the carpentry shop starts manufacturing chair legs, then whole chairs: colonnade chairs, cane chairs, Louis XV chairs, and from the 1930s onwards, armchairs upholstered in leather.
At the end of World War II, the house mechanized and builds “modern Scandinavian-inspired furniture” for schools and institutions. Lyon’s Institut National des Sciences Appliquées and the student residence of Anthony, south of Paris, are among its clients. In the 1960s, brothers Pierre and Michel Roset – the founder’s great-grandsons – join the business and modernize the collection. They stop making royal-style furniture and diversify the range by introducing new materials. Precious woods such as mahogany and rosewood are added to the inexpensive and easy-to-use beech wood. Metal, plastic, microfibers, and polyurethane foams are also introduced. In 1982, the brand opens its first store in the United States: a retail space on Lexington Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.
Today, Ligne Roset has 739 retail outlets from San Diego and Tokyo and from Abidjan to Tehran, and generates 60% of its sales abroad. Yet the entire collection is still manufactured in Ligne Roset’s original heartland: the rural areas of the Ain département. Nine hundred employees work across nine production facilities. The Saint-Jean-le-Vieux factory processes the lumber and assembles the furniture; the Briord factory prepares the textiles and foams, and upholsters chairs, armchairs and sofas. More specific components are acquired from specialized third-party suppliers: some woods come from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe; the porcelain and vases are manufactured in Spain and Portugal; the metallic pieces, chrome and glass are machine-made in Italy; and the lighting comes from Switzerland.
Very Few American Designers
Since the mid-1980s, the brand works exclusively with independent designers. The guidelines are simple (“they have carte blanche”), yet the screening process is stringent. Out of the “thousands” of design proposals received each year, only 80 to 100 pieces of furniture and objects – a decorative accessory, a knife, a candle, a lamp, a sofa, a table, a bookcase, or a rug – are chosen. Reflecting prevailing trends, the roster of artists who have collaborated with Ligne Roset reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary design: Peter Maly, Claude Brisson, Jean Nouvel, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Didier Gomez, the Bouroullec brothers, Philippe Nigro, Jean-Philippe Nuel.
Using the work of eclectic designers,” the house “creates a coherent collection.” The designers of the 51 furniture pieces in the 2016 catalogue are mainly French, German, and Italian, but there is also a Swiss, a Belgian, a Czech, a British, a Greek, and a Cuban designer. “We work with very few American designers,” notes Antoine Roset, who attributes this to the history of design in the United States.
Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the works of Frank Lloyd Wright and of Charles and Ray Eames represented “the golden age” of American modernism. Yet the emergence of excellent European designers in the 1960s overshadowed American production. Driven by prestigious schools like the Rhode Island School of Design, the Parsons School of Design in New York or the Institute of Design in Chicago, “a new generation of American designers is trying to break through, but European designs are omnipresent on the market.”
Offices, Hotels, and Three Ocean Liners
Converting the American public to the art of interior decoration à la française requires a wide-ranging catalogue. Available in yellow, fuchsia or orange, the Pumpkin armchairs – the reissue of a furniture range designed for Mrs. Pompidou by Pierre Paulin in 1971 – are not to everyone’s liking! Alongside its iconic pieces, Ligne Roset proposes a more classic collection, soberly enlivened with a touch of color. Expect six to eight weeks of production time, then four weeks to ship your Plummy sofa (or your Lady Carlotta table) to the United States. To dispatch the products as soon as possible, the brand has introduced an express delivery system: Stored in warehouses in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, “a small collection of bestsellers” is available within two weeks.
While high-end contemporary furniture constitutes “a very small niche” in the United States, the country remains Ligne Roset’s second most important market after Germany. Estimated sales of 50 million dollars generated on the American continent represent a relatively small total for such a large market, explains Antoine Roset. So until it gets a Togo sofa (3,850 dollars for the three-seat model) into every American living room, Ligne Roset is diversifying.
In the past three years, the brand has been offering its decorating and designing skills to private customers such as Lyon’s Institut Paul Bocuse, the Hotel Molitor in Paris’ 16th arrondissement, or the cruise ships Le Lyrial, Le Soréal, and Harmony of the Seas. In North America, the French house has furnished the Guggenheim Museum’s Wright restaurant in New York, Sophie’s, Saks Fifth Avenue’s seventh-floor restaurant in Chicago, and the Canadian offices of a “very large oil company.”
The attitudes and tastes of the American public “are starting to change”: Design is more and more present every day, says Antoine Roset. In the SoHo store, customers walk in, have a laugh with Mark Kurby, and stretch out on the colorful sofas. “Take the example of the television set: Only a few years ago, it was impossible to decorate your living room with such a bulky device. Today, you wouldn’t hesitate to leave it in plain sight, sitting on a nice piece of furniture.”
The Togo, Ligne Roset’s Cult Model
The world’s top-selling sofa is manufactured in a village of 946 people east of Lyon.
In 1973, an odd-looking sofa is produced by the Ligne Roset factories. The company’s chief designer, Michel Ducaroy, designs a couch with no frame or legs, made up only of three types of foam of differing densities. The two-seat model weighs less than 33 pounds! Its pleated fabric, available in a hundred textile and color combinations, brings to mind a bruised fruit or a wrinkled dog. The hollow seat gives it a welcoming smile. Gone are the upright backrests of the 1950s: You don’t sit on a Togo, you lounge on it! But the sofa puzzled people, and had a hard time appealing to customers. Ligne Roset even considered removing it from the collection, and eventually persisted. That turned out to be a good move: With more than 1.5 million models sold, the Togo is the top-selling sofa in the world, a true emblem of 1970’s nonchalance.