Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin’ opens this week at the Museum of Arts and Design
One night in June of 1986, there was a fashion opening at a SoHo loft for Barneys New York. With more than 1,000 attendees—both uptown fashionistas and downtown bohemians, including art superstars Keith Haring and Andy Warhol—the now-legendary party was splashed over the city’s social pages.
But that night also served as a coming-out moment for an inanimate object: a gold mannequin with broad shoulders and a stylized brow.
“We called her ‘The Olympian Goddess,’ ” said Ralph Pucci, whose family mannequin business manufactured this unique gold figure—a collaboration with French interior designer Andrée Putman that was inspired by art deco, classical sculpture and German expressionism. “We threw all these ideas into a blender and came up with this mannequin, which became a gigantic success,” said Mr. Pucci.
Very quickly, the gold dummy helped shine a spotlight on Mr. Pucci and his company, showing the worlds of fashion, art and industrial design where they might all convene: on a mannequin’s elegant frame. The firm soon became known for revolutionizing the stiffly posed, flesh-colored figurines with quirky action poses and dramatic colors.
The Olympian Goddess, as well as more than 30 other innovative figures, feature in “Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin,” which opens this week at the Museum of Arts and Design and runs through Aug. 30.
“Pucci was featured in an exhibition we did last year, where we had these mannequins in these dynamic poses, and it was the hit of the show,” said MAD Director Glenn Adamson. “We decided it was worth exploring a retrospective with him, but the diversity of what he’s done surprised me.”
Mr. Pucci’s mannequins result from three decades of artistic collaboration with creative professionals, including supermodel Christy Turlington, illustrator Maira Kalman and fashion artist Ruben Toledo. With designer Diane von Furstenberg, he created mannequins inspired by ancient Chinese terra-cotta warrior figures. With pop artist Kenny Scharf, the dummies became cartoonish, sometimes sporting one eye or heads curled like loaded paintbrush tips.
“Ralph is that rare combination of a good businessman with good taste,” said Mr. Toledo. “Since his family business originates from manufacturing mannequins, he is very familiar with fashion…so he is aware of trends in taste and can act on that instinct.”
One day last week, Mr. Pucci greeted a reporter at the Chelsea showroom of his high-end furniture and interior-design firm. One desk in his office was given over to more than a dozen stacks of art books.
Mr. Pucci, who was born and raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y., said his parents began their mannequin-repair business in 1954. His father would pick up the mannequins at stores and fix them in the Bronx.
“My mother was keen on fashion and she would do the wigs,” he said.
On weekends, he would man the phones or help his father load the delivery trucks. In 1976, he entered the family business and soon had an impact.
“The idea we stumbled upon that hit big was the action mannequins: handstands, joggers, bicycle riders, tied to the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.” Mr. Pucci said his idea broke company sales records.
He then began to look toward other arts for inspiration—from rock ’n’ roll to modern art. In the 1980s, Mr. Pucci said he had an “aha” moment: “Why not use an up-and-coming fashion designer and give them total freedom to create whatever mannequin they want?”
One flight down from the showroom, in the company’s mannequin-production facility, stood a platoon of figures made special-order for designer Kate Spade.
Also there, ready for delivery to the museum, were a birdlike mannequin made with Mr. Toledo and a model by Mr. Scharf resembling like a life-size sea monkey. Mr. Pucci estimates his firm manufactures about 100 mannequins a week, all in-house.
In another room, sculptor Michael Evert—who has worked for Pucci for more than 25 years—unwrapped a new design, adding balls of clay to its wire frame. For the MAD retrospective, Mr. Evert will be on hand every Thursday evening to demonstrate how the mannequins move from sketch to manufactured product.
“It is such a solitary, private thing, making these mannequins, that it’s interesting to have it opened up so that people see it,” he said, gesturing to a time-lapse camera nearby recording his creative process.
Mr. Adamson said that, by showing this process, it might cast these showroom dummies in a new light: “Presenting them without clothes, you experience these mannequins almost as you would experience classical or modern sculpture.”
“The next time you go to a department store like Saks or Bergdorf Goodman,” he added, “you’ll look at the mannequins and go: ‘I know how that was made and I realize it is a designed object.’ ”
Mr. Pucci said it is an honor to have his family business—60-some years after it was first established—recognized as museum-worthy. Usually, he said, “It is still easier to tell people that I’m in the high-end furniture business than the mannequin business.”
By Andy Beta