Arab culture's influence on the French designer Pierre Paulin

The inspiration that the modern designer found in Bedouin culture resulted in one of his most acclaimed creations.

Of all the designers who helped shape modern life, few had so lasting and deep an impact as Pierre Paulin, who died two years ago this week. Contemporaries recognised the French designer's sheer genius, and bestowed countless awards upon him. In 1969, he won the Chicago Design Award, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City included his furniture designs in its permanent collection. In 1987, he was given France's National Prize of Industrial Creation, and the Louvre museum opted for Paulin to redesign the Denon Wing.

Despite the praise and admiration by the elite, Paulin had a utilitarian philosophy and approach to design. "Working for the enjoyment of the greatest number is very gratifying, much more so than any official honour," he said near the end of his storied life.

But the pursuits of visionaries often seem crazed and misguided, and long before he was praised, Paulin was dismissed as quixotic. In some of his designs, he went so far as to stretch bathing suit fabric across chairs and ottomans, saying other textiles lacked adequate composition. It was the 1950s, when the cultural revolutions were still nascent. The design houses that Paulin worked with were sceptical of skin-tight upholstery and sofas that seemed to hug the floor, but when one company director noticed how much Paulin's low-level furnishings - and the fabric's masking of the structure of the piece itself - meshed with how his teenage children and their peers socialised, Paulin was given the green light, and design would be forever altered.

The smooth, perfect forms, which were Paulin's signature, stemmed from his training. Before an accident damaged his right arm, Paulin studied ceramics and stone carving, manual trades open to him after he failed France's gateway to university studies, the Baccalaureat. He hoped to make his mark as a sculptor, but an accident at age 18 forced him to reconsider. He entered École Camondo, the same French institution that would later train Philippe Starck, and studied style.

"He managed with will to use his right hand, but it was difficult," says Maia Paulin, his surviving wife, who opened the design firm ADSA with her husband. The damaged nerves limited dexterity for the rest of his life, but he carried the sculptor's eye to furniture and industrial design. "He could see what he was designing in his head, was gifted with the ability to see it from all angles. As a result, his technical drawings were so accurate and impressive," Maia explains, "and his chairs look interesting from all sides."

Early designs landed him an exhibition at the Salon des Arts Ménagers in 1953, and Paulin's reputation grew. He began working with the French furniture company Thonet, and later joined Artifort, marking the start of a 50-year collaboration that would produce some of the 20th century's most emblematic furniture designs, beginning with the Mushroom and followed closely by a bevy of clean, comfortable and playful designs, including the Oyster, Tongue, Lips, Tulip, Orange Slice and Ribbon chairs. International fame soon followed.

Paulin did not confine his design work to furniture. He took on industrial design and branding projects, including the logo and brand of Air France, the Paris showroom of Roche Bobois and the atelier for Christian Dior. Swarovski even hired Paulin to design a chandelier for its Crystal Palace collection.

Commissions took him around the world, including the Middle East. Paulin designed hotels in Syria and, in Saudi Arabia, a beach house for a member of the royal family.

His travels through Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, according to his wife, nurtured the designer's affinity for Bedouin culture. "Pierre liked Middle Eastern architecture, Arab music, and the natural beauty of the desert. Pierre was a designer who just seems so very French, but in reality, there was a great cross-fertilisation between Arab culture and his work."

Perhaps the greatest example of Arab influences in Paulin's work is also his most famous commission: the renovation of President and Madame Pompidou's apartment in the Elysée Palace. The Salon Fumoir, or Smoking Lounge, features a domed ceiling with an upholstered wall. The "back" of the sofa lining the wall is the wall itself, and the furrows of the sofa extend the length of the wall, ultimately converging at the tip of the vaulted ceiling. This icon of modernism is actually a reinterpreted Bedouin tent, and also displays aspects of the diwan and liwan common to Arab and Persian design.

The Bedouin tent fascinated Paulin, especially, according to Maia, "the notion of temporary dwelling that you could pack and start all over again". The tent's use of textiles in walls, seating and flooring suited his aesthetic aims.

"The Smoking Lounge is a space architected by furniture, designed from the ground up to be transported and installed elsewhere," says Alain Moatti, a French architect and friend of Paulin's.

Unlike rooms where the architecture eclipses the furnishing, Paulin's rooms reorient the dynamic, emphasising the furnishings and, moreover, comfort and utility for the user, much like the Bedouin tent.

Recreating the Salon Fumoir for audiences around the world, especially in the Middle East, now figures among Maia Paulin's goals for stewarding her husband's legacy. Although no city or museum has signed on to feature the exhibition, Maia has enlisted the aid of Moatti and his firm, Moatti-Rivière, to recreate the Salon Fumoir.

While Maia awaits more concrete proposals on an exhibition in the Middle East, she is occupied with planning an exhibition in Paris's Centre Pompidou in late 2012 or early 2013. Rereleases of Paulin's work by Artifort and Ligne Roset will accompany the museum retrospectives.

In the final years of Paulin's life Ligne Roset became the firm entrusted with new, previously unseen designs. "He gave Ligne Roset several drawings and asked them to produce two designs every year for some years," Maia says.

Ligne Roset designers were shocked that an aged, ailing man could have drawn such detailed, accurate designs by hand in an era when computer-generated models are the norm.

As Maia tells it, illness never quelled her husband's lifelong passion for design. "He was severe towards himself and a very hard worker. He wanted people to be happy with what he designed. He designed for everybody and when he made a seat, it was for people to sit well and to be comfortable."

It was a simple goal, which Paulin pursued over his 60-year career. As we admire his work's smooth forms and inspiring colours - which now seem so commonplace with modern furniture - we can be grateful that he dared to improve the way we live and integrate the designs of distinct global cultures.