Call it a tale of two floors. Eleven flights up in a commercial loft building in Manhattan, the work in a typical light manufacturing firm-a mannequin maker-proceeds apace. Some workers mold fiberglass bodies; another employee spray-paints a pair of dummy arms; a platoon of torsos, ready for shipment, guards a windowless wall.
Climb one staircase, and suddenly all is serene, clean, and very stylish. Here, in a home-furnishings showroom, jazz plays softly. Rugs by London designer Christopher Farr and the French firm Ecart cover polished wood floors. Brick walls serve as backdrops to sleek yet welcoming furniture by architect Patrick Naggar; warm, Brancusi-like pieces by Chris Lehrecke; and Ecart's modernist classics. Ten-foot windows give onto a gorgeous city panorama.
If the transition between floors is startling, it's odder still that both levels are part of the same company: Pucci International, a family mannequin business that now encompasses one of the hottest furniture dealerships in New York. Ask owner Ralph Pucci how he managed this remarkable commercial parlay, and he says with a shrug, 'It really all makes sense.'
And, actually, it does. As Pucci explains, in the 80's all dummies looked the same. 'Everyone did realistic mannequins, and I wanted to try something different: abstract, active poses,' he says. 'I went to the up-and-coming artists and designers,' including Ruben Toledo and Andree Putman.
'I had such pleasure and fun,' recalls Putman, whose first Pucci mannequin was created for Barneys. 'The mannequin had one eye and no nose, but a beautiful full mouth.
I still remembers pushing my thumb into the modeling clay to make a dimple in her chin.'
Others enjoyed the surprising amount of artistic freedom Pucci granted them, even in a commercial venture. 'You do your thing, and Ralph takes it from there ', says Toledo, who has now designed several lines of mannequins for Pucci, most reminiscent of the slouchy, louche hipsters typically seen in Toledo's artwork. 'He's an incredibly brave businessman in that he trusts creativity.'
Luminaries like Andy Warhol and Thierry Mugler began to show up at Pucci's unveiling parties for the new mannequins. Before he knew it, Ralph was part of the fashion and art crowds.
It was Putman, then head of Ecart, who in the early '90's suggested that Pucci market furniture. 'I was impressed to see how pleasant, curious, and interested Ralph was about people who are often intixriidating,' she says. 'The more I became familiar with him, the more I thought he should do what he seemed born to do: deal with artists.'
Despite Putman's confidence, Pucci admits, 'I was hesitant at first. But we already had all these department stores coming through, so I said, `What the hell,' and tried it.' Immediately, Pucci says, he worried that his worst fears would be realized. 'We didn't know what we were doing,' he says. `After our first trade show, we had a thousand leads, and no sales. But little by little we developed a following.'
Success bred success. In I997, Toledo introduced Pucci to his friend Lehrecke, who was beginning to make a name for himself with designs that blend modernism with the feel of ancient crafts. 'Ralph has great instincts,' Lehrecke says. 'He never tells me what to design, but he edits me. I've gone in so many directions, and some Ralph wasn't interested in. Looking back, I have to say he was right on the money'
That reputation has helped Pucci add to his list of designers. Last year, he brought in Farr's rugs, and teamed up with the Egyptian-born Naggar to produce a small line of sofas and chairs. This fall, Pucci is including a line of minimalist, geometric furniture from British designer Spencer Fung.
Of course, mannequins are still a big part of the business. At the moment, the Pucci showroom is dotted with goofy, brightly colored characters designed by artist Kenny Scharf, which playwell with the subdued tones of the furniture. To Pucci, the mix is perfect. 'I like clean, simple designs,' he says. 'I never want to get trendy' That's a smart policy in the home-furnishings world. But then, as many a design maven will tell you, Ralph Pucci is no dummy.