A French furniture company’s executive vice president and fifth-generation proprietor Antoine Roset talks about the evolution of his family’s design-forward company and his own conviction for creativity.
Antoine Roset, head of the Americas for global furniture company Ligne Roset, is about to answer a question that four generations of Rosets have wrestled with before him. “How do you balance risky new ideas from cutting-edge designers with the need to create furniture that will sell?”
Our interview is nearing a close, but he suddenly sits forward, almost like he’s going to stand up from the sleek and spongy couch he’s been resting on, a couch his family made. His lyrical accent and diction, now sped up, mark him as a Frenchman with passion, which, in his own words, “can bring you death, and can also be something very nice.”
“We don’t try to create something that has never existed, like having something that does massage, or putting speakers in [the sofa]. No, that’s not the purpose of our company. We just try to make the most comfortable, the nicest sofa possible. And every year, it’s a new challenge how we can do that with new technology and materials.”
It was 155 years ago when Roset’s great-great grandfather, Antoine Roset senior, opened his wood-turning factory powered by a water-wheel. The original Roset company made parasol handles and walking sticks that, while popular, were at the mercy of fickle fashion trends, so with forethought, the mill started turning out furniture legs, too.
Fast-forward to 1970, the day the company’s resident designer, Michel Ducaroy, came into Jean Roset’s office, the company’s then leader and Antoine Roset junior’s grandfather. Inspiration had struck Ducaroy that morning in the form of a tube of toothpaste. In its shape, he saw a pillow-like, exceedingly comfortable, all-foam sofa unlike anything the world had seen. For the previous 20 years, France had been focused on rebuilding after two world wars, and the Rosets mainly made simple tables and chairs for hospitals and universities. But a new era was dawning in the interior design world.
Jean Roset had faith in Ducaroy’s vision. Dodging doubts of “Don’t do it,” and “You’re crazy,” from all directions, the Roset family pushed their foam manufacturer to create the material they would need. It took two years of being on the market to sell the first “Togo” sofa. After that, sales slowly climbed until the squeeze-tube-inspired seat became an icon. Today, it’s Ligne Roset’s best-seller in their 700 retail locations worldwide.
Ligne Roset still works with the best foam manufacturers throughout Europe to drive the artform forward. “We have suppliers that like a challenge, like us. And that’s why we’re able to push always new products, new shapes, adding new complexity. We use the technology of the foam and we are very well known for it.”
Design, Roset says, is “creating or recreating a product that you use every day and making it better, nicer, and more affordable.”
“You have your apartment, you have your idea, ‘Oh I like my sofa like this.’ When you come into a Ligne Roset shop-in-shop like in Livingspace, you change your mind. You say, ‘Okay, you know, I was wrong. I didn’t know, I didn’t know.’ We bring something else. That’s our job.”
When Ducaroy retired in 1980, Ligne Roset shifted to an all-freelance cast of designers for its new collections.
“When you have an in-house designer, you have a tendency to always reproduce the same things. You’re working in a closed cycle, and you have this problem of not being challenged enough. Working with a freelance designer brings you the possibility to work with very young, or very famous designers, and have a balance from all around the world.”
Roset and his cousin, Ligne Roset’s current head of design, didn’t attend design school, but that doesn’t matter, according to Roset.
“The school teaches you how to draw, teaches you certain things. Us, we are a manufacturer, we are in industry, so we know how to do things. We have the tools, we know the tools by heart, and we are telling you what we can do and how we can do it.”
A design sense can be developed in time, says Roset as he shares the wisdom he’s gleaned from his ancestors.
“One thing they told me when I started is that the best way to learn is to open your eyes. Every day when you wake up, when you walk, or wherever you go, have an interest for things; make sure that you have an interest. If you go to a restaurant, look at things, how they are finished. I try to be as open-minded as possible, and to focus on the details, the material aspects and elements of design, every day.”
So what type of aesthete has Roset become?
“I like things quite modern, but I also like to get some warmth by adding aspects of the past,” he says. For instance, he tells me his white-walled, 14-foot-high loft in New York is furnished with a rug from an Italian brand that is a patchwork of old rugs stitched together, but his lighting collection is like a retrospective on modern 20th-century design.
“I love lighting,” he says. His collection includes classics from legends like Ingo Maurer: his pendant lights made of red bottles, a lamp from the winged bulb series, and a third made of paper-thin sheets of gold whose light rays glow blue after passing through the precious metal.
Roset has the “Ploum” sofa, the same one we’re sitting on for the interview, designed for Ligne Roset by French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. “They’re probably the hottest designers in the world right now,” says Roset.
Evocative of a quilted nest, the curvaceous foam cradles the body perfectly, is versatile and relaxing, yet aesthetically unconventional — low to the ground with hairpin legs, and is as shapely as ripe fruit.
Brought to market in 2009, he says his company had to really push the limit of their suppliers to get this new technology of hyper-memory foam, and find just the right fabric which would stretch just enough, but not too much, to create a taut and tailored aesthetic.
“It was very challenging.”
It’s all about having the best designers, he says. “People who are, totally… not crazy, but who have a vision of the interiors, and can bring it to life and share it with everyone.”