x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Ligne Roset's design for modern times

For the family-run French furniture giant, the way we live is changing the shape of its products.

Togo. Courtesy of Aati
Togo. Courtesy of Aati

The Rosets may be design royalty, but as they descend from the first floor of Aati's Zabeel Road showroom, apologising profusely for keeping me waiting - even though it was I, lost in a mire of Bur Dubai backstreets, who was late for our meeting - you wouldn't know it.

Michel Roset, the chief executive officer of Ligne Roset, one of the world's most iconic furniture brands, is warm, affable and quick to apologise for his "not so perfect English". We are joined by his son, Olivier, who is the fifth generation of the Roset family to work at the company.

The Rosets are in town to attend Aati's 30th anniversary celebrations. Their presence is a mark of the close relationship between the two brands - Aati has been the exclusive UAE distributor of Ligne Roset products since it was launched three decades ago - but also, I suspect, an indicator of how important this region has become for the French furniture giant.

With economic uncertainty consuming much of Europe, and furniture emerging as one of the first things to be scratched off the priority list during times of trouble, the Middle East is becoming an increasingly attractive market, admits Olivier. "Europe is still our biggest market," he explains. "France and Germany are really big for us. Then we have the US. And after that it is this region, which is very strategic for us. I would say that the crisis has not come here, yet."

In Europe, the brand faces the paradox of a consumer who is increasingly knowledgeable about design and increasingly willing to invest in design, but who may not have the confidence or capital to do so at this time. "It's a bit of a contradiction because the house is becoming more and more important in terms of investment. It's less church and more house, in a way; the family is becoming more and more important, so globally speaking the home is becoming more important. But in times of crisis, one of the first things people stop investing in is furniture. Tourism suffers less than us, generally speaking," says Michel.

Then there's China to contend with. Michel mentions the country repeatedly during our conversation and eventually concedes, only half jokingly, that "they are not my friends". It is probably no great surprise. The mass-produced, low-quality ethos of China's furniture industry is the direct antithesis of Ligne Roset's high-quality, family-run, generations-old approach. But China's cut-price offerings are an undeniable threat to all of Europe's high-end furniture producers.

There are currently some 850 Ligne Roset stockists around the globe, and the company prides itself on being represented in every major city in the world. But being a global brand is not without its challenges, the duo concedes.

"The flats in big occidental towns are getting tinier and tinier, and this is where the majority of our consumers live because they are well educated, have double salaries and enjoy downtown living. So we need to produce products for these tiny spaces, but we also need huge items for other regions, like the Middle East for example. So we have to offer more products for the same turnover. That, in a way, is a problem in terms of profitability and so on," says Michel.

"You have this problem of space and then you have the problem of taste. We have two types of client - the progressive ones, who are informed and educated, and love occidental things and modern furniture that carries the name of a designer and has new fabrics and new shapes. And then you have people with more classical tastes, who have money and huge flats and houses, and we have to manage between the two."

There's the underlying impression that these contradictory demands may be forcing the company to rethink its strategy. While Ligne Roset's commitment to quality is non-negotiable, there seems to be a realisation that it may need to become less Europe-centric in its approach. "We try to keep an occidental image but maybe we have to adapt more. Maybe we have to keep the image but adapt the details," says Michel.

This may be the next stage in an evolution in which the company has grown from a humble wood processing factory into one of the most important and inventive furniture companies of our age. Antoine Roset, Michel's great-grandfather, launched the factory in the Ain province of France in 1860, and with his son, Emile, quickly diversified into the production of wooden umbrellas, walking sticks and, crucially, chair frames.

In a 1950s era of post-war reconstruction, Antoine's grandson, Jean, redirected the company's focus to contract furniture and, after a period of intense growth, made the move into domestic furniture in 1960. Michel and his brother Pierre joined the company in the halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s, and were responsible for leading what Michel jokingly refers to as "the revolution". This was a period of intense creativity when the company started collaborating with leading interior designers and architects - a hallmark of its success to this day.

Arguably the most significant of these partnerships was with Michel Ducaroy, who was responsible for designing Togo, one of Ligne Roset's most iconic pieces and the poster child for its "foam revolution". Still a firm favourite almost 40 years after its launch, Togo was a true game-changer, Michel says. "It was an all foam seat, very comfortable and very low. What we were saying to people was, 'Change your way of living. Don't be old English, be modern French.'"

Other landmark collaborations included a tie-up with the German designer Peter Maly, which took the company into cabinet furniture for the first time, and with Pascal Mourgue, the designer of the Calin chair. And then there was the legendary Pierre Paulin, who designed a series of products for the company before his death in 2009.

Ligne Roset also has a knack for spotting young emerging talents, collaborating with people like the Bouroullec brothers long before they were the darlings of the design industry. The company holds a design competition each year to help it source young talents and, as we part, I ask Michel who he thinks the "next big thing" might be. "It's like the lotto," he answers with a smile. "It's like pumpkins. When you plant the seeds, you don't know which will be the big one."

His great-grandfather, toiling at his wood processing factory more than a century ago, inadvertently sowing the seeds for what would become one of the biggest names in modern design, would probably agree.