Inga Sempé

The French designer’s strikingly modern work is being celebrated this month at the Stockholm Furniture Fair

Inga Sempé’s simple yet quirky style has a strong affinity with Swedish design — so much so that she has worked with more Swedish companies than her native French. Her strong links with Sweden earn her the Guest of Honour title at this month’s Stockholm Furniture Fair, for which she is creating a 200 sq m lounge in the entrance hall.

‘It’s a big space in which work can sometimes look lost, especially with so many people walking through it,’ says Sempé, ‘so I have tried to enclose the space so that people can sit and escape the busy fair in this small, secluded environment.’ The area will showcase Sempé’s finest creations, ranging from her seating for Ligne Roset and Gärsnäs to her lighting for Cappellini, Moustache, Luceplan and Wästberg, plus other pieces made for Edra and Svenskt Tenn.

Sempé’s style is strikingly modern, mixing subtle elements of familiarity, classicism and comfort. ‘I try to do simple, not minimalist,’ she says. ‘I don’t like minimalism. I prefer more rather than less. But my objects are only complicated when it comes to deciding the smallest details.’ For inspiration she browses shops, flea markets, antique stores and eBay for unusual objects, analysing not just the aesthetic but also the evolution of the idea. ‘There are always funny things you’ve never seen before,’ she says. ‘I find it amazing how you can see different versions of the same item sold around the world. You can see how problems were solved in the past and in different cultures. Sometimes the designers arrived at the same conclusion but sometimes they did not.’

This attention to detail is key to Sempé’s success, as is her ability to create adaptable products that are not too characteristic of a particular time or target market. ‘I try to design for all ages, from 20 to 80,’ she says. ‘I don’t just aim at my age or social level. A sofa is expensive because a lot of handiwork and high-quality materials have gone into it, but that means it needs to last a long time. I like to think my work could fit just as well in an older person’s apartment as in a younger person’s home.’

Born in Paris in 1968, Sempé’s parents fostered her passion for creativity from an early age. Her mother, Mette Ivers, is an illustrator and her father, Jean-Jacques Sempé, is a well-known cartoonist who has produced numerous covers for The New Yorker. Sempé studied at the ENSCI — Les Ateliers (Ecole

Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle) and, after graduating in 1993, went on to work for Marc Newson and Andrée Putman before setting up her studio in Paris in 2000.

Her early projects for Cappellini and Edra boosted her career and she has since become one of the most prominent names in the industry and certainly one of the most globally successful French designers of recent years. According to Sempé, French designers are currently enjoying ‘a special moment’ — their talent fostered and appreciated by the public’s increasingly sophisticated understanding of design. This is, in her opinion, in stark contrast to the state of French industry. ‘It’s sad that I don’t work with many French companies but it’s because French industry is not interested in design,’ she says. ‘French designers mostly work abroad because the industry at home is almost non-existent. Companies are only just beginning to understand how designers can boost the industry.’ Sempé’s understanding of international markets and innate design flair have enabled her to produce carefully refined and polished products while staying true to a process that is still refreshingly spontaneous and free spirited.

The Stockholm Furniture Fair will highlight this side of Sempé’s work in a satellite exhibition at the Skridskopaviljongen (Skating Pavilion), part of Hotel Skeppsholmen in the city centre. The show will feature Sempé’s sketches, handmade models and unfinished prototypes, offering a rare and fascinating insight into the designer’s ad-hoc creative process. ‘I always start with sketches but they’re not very precise — they are just for getting out what’s in my head,’ Sempé explains. ‘I work in my apartment and don’t have any machines so we just use scissors, cardboard, glue, fabrics and a sewing machine.’ Using this endearingly basic toolkit, the designer and her two assistants (with whom she has been working for five years) produce the core ideas for each project, conveying form, scale and concept and proving the simplest tools are often the most effective. These initial concepts are followed by 3D renders, technical drawings and further development as each project progresses but, like every aspect of Sempé’s approach, the process is in no way linear. ‘It’s not done step by step. We go back and forth and do each stage when it needs to be done,’ she says.

Soon to emerge from Sempé’s studio are a table for Gärsnäs, a hanging lamp to add to her collection for Wästberg, and a range of items for Svenskt Tenn including clock, pitcher and tray. The last group represents a new direction for Sempé in that she is working on a smaller scale, even designing stationery. ‘What I like about design is its diversity. I get bored really easily, so I like changes. One minute you’re designing a small clock, the next a huge sofa. It’s always different,’ she says. This also applies to materials and techniques.

‘I worked in wood last year, which was new for me, and I didn’t know anything about it. But you learn and it’s exciting. You have to work in areas you don’t know and adapt yourself to them — as well as considering economic constraints, marketing needs and everything else — without losing what you want from the design. That is vital.’

This article was first published in idfx Magazine.

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