Lone star

Contradictory, unconventional, difficult: words that could describe both Inga Sempé’s career and the designer herself. So why are top manufacturers clamouring to commission her, asks Jenny Dalton.

April 17 2010
Jenny Dalton

Designer Inga Sempé is unconventional in every sense. Despite being a designer with an increasingly visible public profile, she answers her own studio’s phone. She writes and e-mails her own press releases. She tells me candidly that she’s in too “down” a mood to do an interview on the spot. But she agrees happily to a weekend interview without questions in advance.

“It’s better to be spontaneous,” says the Parisian mother of two lightly, belying a reputation for being spiky, difficult and unhelpful. “They say I don’t like interviews, but it just depends who they’re with.”

When I call, she’s in her car, which she pulls over, and she good-naturedly sits in the glare of the winter sun for an hour, doing one of her least favourite things – talking.

Sempé has always been an intriguing design name to note. A Paris native born in 1968 to an illustrator mother, Mette Ivers, and a famous artist father, Jean-Jacques Sempé (who created many of the images on The New Yorker covers), she graduated from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle (ENSCI) in 1993, and has been critically praised ever since.

In 2003, she won the “Grand Prix de la Création en design de la ville de Paris” and had a solo show at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs in the same year.

Her work is as unconventional as she is: genderless, surprising, beautiful and poetic, sandwiched somewhere between the classic and the contemporary.

Take her Moël sofa for Ligne Roset, the 2007 piece (from €3,080) that has perhaps brought her more attention than any design to date. The fan-shaped back and couture-ish padding of the sofa and chair remind one of the shell encasing Venus in Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Contrast that with her pure, techie, minimalist 2000 wall clock for VIA (shortly available to buy) that combines both analogue and digital functions (the hands rotate as a normal clock but feature digital displays on their tips). There seems to be little stylistic correlation between the two, and she claims to prefer designing the latter – the kind of everyday objects you would find in a French droguerie.

Since the Moël, Sempé’s work for high-profile furniture and product manufacturers such as Ligne Roset, Edra – for which she produced the quirky and tactile Brosse shelving units with brush fringes through which the hand must pass to extract the required item (from €3,950) – Luceplan, Cappellini, David Design and the new French avant-garde design outfit Moustache, has multiplied. And despite the reputation that precedes (and dogs) her, she is being championed by several of them.

Moustache’s co-founder Stéphane Arriubergé – for whom Sempé designed a pleat-front sliding-door cabinet (from €480) and a fabulous table lamp that looks like a huge puffy white soufflé (from €200) in 2009 – couldn’t have conceived of launching a French design collection without her, and believes “she has a very special place in the great family of today’s designers.”

When Ligne Roset’s MD and creative director Michel Roset first approached Sempé to work with his brand he knew of her reputation: “There was a rumour that it wasn’t easy to work with her,” he says. “But these noises emanated more from design institutions than from companies. And it was exactly these rumours of ‘difficult character’ – which I interpreted as ‘strong personality’ – that, along with the various works and products she had exhibited, drew me to want to work with her.

“If she has a strong character,” he continues, “then it is precisely because it is founded on a measure of intelligence not commonly encountered. Intellectually, it is a real pleasure to cross swords with her. She is genuine, spontaneous, straightforward, and all this is crowned with a great sensitivity and an unremitting desire to challenge and question things, to find new approaches of forms, materials, functions.”

Sempé describes her relationship with Roset rather more prosaically. “I like to work with him, because, well, he is really French,” she says, only half-joking. “He’s like me: he’s always complaining – it’s what we do. I think we have the same defects. I can understand him, and he me.”

Sempé – who several times refers to her Frenchness as a kind of “explain-all” – admits that her “difficult” tag stems from the education she received at the ENSCI in the 1990s. “It was a good course,” she admits. “Because it was the first school in France dedicated to industrial design. It had great specialist laboratories. What I hated was the fact that the spirit of the college was the ‘spirit of ’68’ [she almost spits the term]. It was run by boring, moralistic people who wanted to instil that in us – they wanted us to work in groups, teamwork, all the things I don’t like. And so pretty soon, I went abroad [Italy] to work, just to escape the heaviness of the course.”

What she learned as a result of the experience was that “if you don’t agree with what people say, or you say no, then as a woman you quickly get the reputation of being difficult.” But, like a young Barbara Ehrenreich rejecting the cult of positivity, she is unapologetic: “I’m proud to be difficult, if that is what I am. Because I don’t want to do bad work. The aim of a designer is not the same as the aim of a company. We have different aims, but we have to combine them. Sometimes designers have to ‘win’ more than the producer so the product is good enough. And so I think it’s normal to be difficult as a designer. In fact, usually I don’t think I’m difficult enough.”

Sempé is suggesting that she doesn’t think her work always hits the mark – more of which later. Certainly, she says it often takes her weeks to get to like the finished article she has designed. Several of her initial drawings and models can be seen on her website next to the finished article, and the drawings are kookier, more energetic and romantic than the manufactured finished piece.

“It can take quite a long time to like something,” says the designer, who starts with a drawing. “The first time you see the prototype it’s almost finished and it’s always a little shock. You are like two dogs – not really sure if you’ll like each other or if you’ll bite each other. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to be sure what you think. But by then you are into other troubles and other doubts with new projects and so you don’t have much time to think, ‘What I did is so great. Or not.’”

There is clearly a part of Inga Sempé that doesn’t believe she is becoming a design superstar. Andrée Putman, for whom she worked in the late 1990s, has been recorded as saying, “Success is something that she rejects completely.” And yet success is finding Sempé, whether or not she likes, or believes, it. She says that living with two successful artists (and one a misogynist) left her doubting whether she could be successful in her own right. And perhaps the feeling has stuck.

Her childhood was comfortable, bourgeois even – if a little bohemian “for bourgeois people”. She and her mother lived in a St Germain apartment, which had a “beautiful view, no elevator” and where the only modern pieces of design were two lamps by Vico Magistretti.

She spent her childhood drawing and making things – everything from “small characters to knitted houses, to animals playing piano, because I also played piano a lot”. As a teenager, she spent each weekend visiting Paris’s flea markets (“every Saturday and Sunday, even if it was raining”). Although she talks with understanding of both parents, she admits that her father is a particularly complex character. “He has a great sense of humour, which is what I admire most in people. But is he funny? Oh no, mostly he is just really... er, bad tempered.” Her mother, meanwhile, is “Danish in body [her parents were Danish], but French in spirit”. For someone who doesn’t like to talk, Sempé has a pretty concise way with words.

Her awareness of design as a job possibility came late. “France has no design culture,” she says. But even at that early age she was conscious that everyday objects were ‘designed’. “I remember observing daily objects. I’d often think about the people who conceived them. I had a big period of thinking about the loneliness of someone sitting in a small room creating spoons thinking, ‘Maybe I should change this curve.’” She laughs at the memory of her intense younger self, and at the realisation that that is an approximation, albeit a fairly glass-half-empty one, of the life she lives today. “My studio is small and, yes, it can be a lonely job. Even if you work with lots of different people at various stages, ultimately you are alone because you have to try to convince yourself that what you’re doing is a good idea.”

Does such doubt creep into her work frequently? “Oh yes,” she says, candidly. “There are some projects that you’re really glad about from beginning to end. But mostly there is a time when you think you shouldn’t be doing it any more...”

One project that Sempé says worked well from the start is the new lamp she produced for Swedish lighting manufacturer Wästberg. The Sempé w103 lamp (about €411) was launched at the Stockholm Furniture Fair in February and features an angled arm topped with an integral mushroom hood that screws into a cast-iron inverted clamp at the bottom, so there are no fussy fastenings or bits of clamp hanging below the table – an incredibly neat solution.

The positive experience involved an initial e-mail from CEO Magnus Wästberg, and follow-up e-mails on a regular basis. “It was simple. Every time I wrote to him to discuss an aspect of the design, he’d reply immediately, almost like we were having a real-time conversation. I only met him afterwards, at the Fair, and we were both really happy to meet each other.” She is also extremely pleased with the finished object: “It’s really solid, tough. The bulb [not designed by Sempé] is designed to last 25 years and so should the lamp – if not longer.”

A not-so pleasurable project was one that nevertheless resulted in a finished product that is both unusual and beautiful: the new Ruché sofa from Ligne Roset (launched at the Paris Furniture Fair in January, from €3,280). The process of getting there sounds painful in the extreme. She says working with Ligne Roset is “great” because the prototyping studio is right next to the factory. “When you arrive you see the prototype and they want you to make a decision on it right then. They’re waiting for you to cut the foam, the fabric, to sew it as you want. Which is brilliant, but you have to think really rapidly, whereas I like to take time to think. Anyway, the prototypes were terrible. So boring and ugly. I thought, ‘I have to stop this right away; it’s terrible.’”

She is laughing. “The quilting looked like bathroom tiles. And I was so bored by it I just wanted to escape. I was sitting there wishing I was in a café with a girlfriend talking about the great shoes she’d just bought.”

At last, however, she found a solution: “We reduced the squares to 10cm but they were still boring, so reduced them to 8cm. Finally, we interrupted the sewing lines so they’re incomplete, broken lines – like interrupted crosshatching. It began to create some relief and changes in the fabric, which began to catch the light in different ways.”

The result is genuinely novel: sumptuous velvet quilting combined with bare beechwood legs on an upright, quite high-backed bench sofa. “I had to fight for wooden legs. I had to write long letters about why natural wood was right.”

Sempé sees the sofa as meeting her constant brief to herself: “What I always try to do is fulfil the idea that an 80-year-old could buy this just as easily as a 25-year-old. I hope it’s neither too classical nor too ‘now’.” Because, oh yes, being too trendy is another pet hate: “I try to avoid creating an object that’s a caricature of its generation or of its time or materials. I try to avoid being part of one generation or of a group or being easily classified. I don’t want my objects to be too easily classified, either.”

Which is interesting, because post-studies, she worked for Marc Newson, whose work is absolutely recognisable and of his generation, and then for Putman, France’s first lady of design and interiors. Sempé was grateful for both experiences, not least because they taught her what she could not – and did not want to – do. At Newson, she learned to be absolutely aware and knowledgeable of each technical aspect of her design: she couldn’t turn up to a client meeting and not have an answer for how something worked.

Even today she will make full-scale models of her designs, which, says Stéphane Arriubergé of Moustache, is “very comforting for an editor like myself”. Chez Putman, she learned she did not want to run a big design company or work in a large team for large luxury brands. In fact, Sempé cares little for interiors or luxury. Her home is a pretty bare apartment/studio in the Canal St-Martin part of Paris which she shares with her boyfriend, son Cornelius (11) and daughter Mette (two). Her desk is a board across two trestles. “I’m not good at interiors. I’m not good at making things nice,” she says without irony. “I don’t buy objects, and I don’t buy furniture. I’m too busy, plus I don’t want to own many objects. I prefer emptiness. I suffocate with too much stuff around.”

And so, admitting her need to “control everything”, it was in 2000 that Sempé started her own studio, alone. The studio itself has not grown much. She employs just two people to help with computer design and model-making, but even they are part-time. She admits, “I don’t make much money. I’m not commercial. I don’t think I could ever produce something commercial. I don’t do ‘big business’.” However, it should be noted the Moël has already sold 4,300 units since its creation – a figure that is growing rapidly each year.

Arriubergé notes that Sempé’s designs are among Moustache’s strongest sales. And at least now Sempé is beyond those demoralising early first months (“I was so lost”) when she would cold-call the companies she wished to work for: a scenario she compares to having to ring up Hugh Grant (her ideal date – for his sense of humour and ability to speak French) out of the blue to ask him out to dinner. “Which, of course, would be hideous because he wouldn’t oblige!”

As Sempé’s designs continue to seduce new audiences and new collaborators, her comfort zone of “non-commercial” designer may be challenged to the extent that she may find (a) the tooling companies for which she really wants to design hammers returning her calls, and (b) when you Google “Sempé”, it will be her name, and not her father’s, that appears first.