On Her 85th Birthday, Maria Pergay Looks Back at Her Decades-Long Design Career
Iconoclastic furniture designer Maria Pergay turns 85 years old today. She’s spending her birthday in the south of France, where she’s settling into a short reprieve from a six-month production spree. For the past year, she’s moved swiftly between workshops specializing in steel, wood, and bronze as she prepares for the May 2016 unveiling of a new body of work, rumored to be her most surprising yet. It’s a bold, but not unfounded prophecy considering Pergay’s illustrious and overwhelmingly experimental career that’s seen her bend stainless steel into free-flowing bows that double as seats, forge dressing screens for Saudi Arabian princes from golden tiles, and craft surrealist sofas for Pierre Cardin by topping plush leather with tortoise shells.
A week ago, I sat with Pergay’s dealer, Suzanne Demisch—who, with Stephane Danant in 2006, helped resurface the French designer’s work by hosting her first New York solo show in over 30 years—as she scrolled through the designer’s latest sketches. They pictured the first iterations of the forthcoming collection, a series of tables, cabinets, and armoires that, even when rendered in pencil, are sumptuously elaborate and laden with a variety of materials—woods, stones, geodes, and bones, among them—sourced from Africa, China, and sometimes the her day-to-day locales. “They are all materials that have a history,” Pergay tells me. “They are what attracts and engages me right now.” This seems fitting, at a time when she’s looking back at her own 50-year-long career.
Furniture design came to Pergay like many of her ideas: somewhat spontaneously. In the 1960s, a young Pergay owned a silver shop in Paris’ Place des Vosges. (She had immigrated to France from the USSR, in what's now Moldova, at age six.) There, she sold small boxes and barware festooned with puckish, trompe l’oeil details, with oversized tassels and belt buckles enlivening ice buckets and clipboards. One fateful day, a stainless steel manufacturer asked if Pergay would design something using the industrial material. Not long after, she realized her first several pieces of furniture—sinuous tables, chairs, and daybeds that made metal look as malleable and free-flowing as water. Lit Tapis Volant/Flying Carpet Daybed (1968), her most iconic piece, seems supple enough to lift off and roll with the wind, but still carries the light-bending, transformative sheen of steel.
At the time, metal wasn’t a fashionable material in the echelons of top-tier design. But Pergay has never been one to follow fashions. Instead, she’s driven by an intimate relationship with her materials and a passionate belief in their manifold abilities. “When I fall in love with a material, I become completely dedicated to it—to making it look brilliant, to bringing out its inner energy,” explains Pergay. “I have to do my best for it.” Along with steel, she has pioneered new approaches to ammonite, marble, glass, and even straw, which she has dyed and lacquered to resemble a leopard hide and draped over an angular stainless chair. She is also a master at marquetry, building intricate patterns by suturing carefully hewn bits of bone, wood, and metal together. Sometimes, drawers are hidden cheekily within patterns, or corners of tables peel back to reveal cores glowing with crystals or whorled wood.
While Pergay has used wood before, the new series marks a deeper engagement with the age-old material. “I thought to myself, why would I show what I am able to do in stainless steel, again? Why do I deny wood, which is so precious?” she posits. “These woods are coming from Africa and China. They are full of inherent lines. They are precious not because I made them precious, but because they are, in their essence, precious.” Notes scrawled on the sketches point to areas of redwood and black ebony, rimmed with “petits bibelots précieux” (“little precious trinkets”). Thin sheets of stainless steel—on the drawing, described as “froissures lumineuses,” or luminous wrinkles—curl around the wood’s edges.
Indeed, these pieces seem to house numerous histories—the lives of the woods, shells, and stones themselves, as well as the experience of the artist who gave them new form. The new body of work unites almost all of the materials Pergay has explored over the course of her career, sometimes in a single object. Despite this, Pergay admits that she didn’t approach this series any differently than those that came before. It was the product of renewed bonds with materials that she’s known for 50 years, and some that she’s meeting for the first time. “When I meet a new material, I start to talk with it, even if I don’t open my mouth: ‘How nice to meet you. How beautiful you are. What kind of form will you become?’” she explains.
It’s no surprise to learn that Pergay describes the moment when a new work pops into her head as magic. “They come from anywhere!” she says, referring to her ideas. “Like lighting a match, they appear in a burst, fully formed.” Somewhat famously, she siphons inspiration, almost inadvertently, from the world around her. The concept for Chaise Anneaux/Ring Chair (1968) arrived, impromptu, as she was peeling an orange. “I cannot live without this magic,” she explains. “That’s perhaps the reason I’ve continued all of these years. When an idea comes, I have to realize it.”
At one point, Pergay, with typical warmth and curiosity, asks about my first experience with her work. I explain my Rust Belt roots, visiting my father at his steel plant when I was young, and the shock of seeing Pergay’s delicate Lit Tapis Volant, magically wrought from steel, for the first time several years ago. “Was he polite to you?” she asks, laughing, likening the daybed to a male suitor. I told her that he was more than polite, even welcoming. “I’m pleased to hear that,” she responds. “I hope my Lit Volant begged you to come to it and go away together somewhere.” It turns out that Pergay doesn’t want to be the only one having conversations with her works. She hopes they’ll wield their magic with the rest of the world, too.