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Hello Dolly!

House Beautiful December 2000

Hello Dolly!

After turning mannequins into an art form, Ralph Pucci went on to build a design studio that nurtures creativity in everything from photography to furniture.

No one had ever designed a mannequin doing handstands before. But Ralph Pucci had an idea-why not jettison the wigs and false eyelashes and sculpt a streamlined athletic figure caught in mid-motion? It was 1978, Bruce Weber was shooting heroically muscled young men, and our current obsession with the body beautiful was just beginning. Picture twelve fiberglass cyclists hunched over their handlebars and barreling down a store aisle toward you.

The first buyer to see them loved the concept and Pucci, who was just helping out in the family business after graduating from college, forgot about the job he had planned in journalism. 'I saw an opportunity,' he says, 'and my father, who had started out repairing mannequins as a sideline, encouraged me to take a chance.'

The company built a reputation for originality, and when Barneys New York commissioned Parisian designer Andree Putman to do the interiors of their Chelsea store, they sent her over to Pucci to develop a mannequin. 'Normally I would never touch that kind of object,' says Putman, 'but Ralph was so charming and wise and modest that we immediately became friends.' At the store opening, Pucci watched hip clothier Stephen Sprouse hobnob with Andy Warhol, and was struck with a pivotal insight. The worlds of fashion and art were intermingling. Wouldn't it be fun to ask dress designer Anna Sui or artist Kenny Scharf to cross over and create a mannequin?

Meanwhile, Putman suggested that Pucci turn his eye to furniture as well. She thought his downtown-Manhattan showroom a better place to present her collection for Ecart International than the usual uptown stores. The first day her pieces were on his floor, Pucci sold $200,000 worth to a buyer who had come in for mannequins but also wrote another check.

Pucci had always admired the young American designer Chris Lehrecke, who brought out the natural power and beauty of wood with only the subtlest interventions, so he drew him into the fold. On a trip to London, he spotted Spencer Fung's starkly geometric chairs and tables and signed him up too.

In a vast new Flatiron District showroom, with windows stripped down to the metal and walls peeled back to the brick, Pucci introduced each new line with a party.

People sipped vodka and made themselves comfortable on the furniture, arranged with plenty of space around it as if each piece were a work of art-just like the photographs by up-and-coming talents exhibited on the walls. Was this a furniture showroom or an art gallery? Pucci found himself occupying an excitingly blurred aesthetic zone.

Just one flight down are the mannequin workrooms, where disembodied arms and legs hang from racks and craftsmen paint eyes and mouths on heads held in their laps. Twice a year, Pucci still introduces a new collection of figures, designed by artists like Maira Kalman, and dressed for the occasion by young fashion designers (Todd Oldham was one of his prescient early picks). This fall he takes his operation one step further. For the first time, he will actually be manufacturing, not just representing, Andree Putman's latest line of furniture.

'I knew I could do it,' says Pucci. 'I simply needed to find the right team of old-world craftsmen who take pride in their work.' Pucci simply grafts on a new-world 'Wow!' factor that makes everyone take a look.