I have to admit that I’d never heard of Jacques Biny before last month’s Design Miami/ Basel, where Galerie Pascal Cuisinier gave over its entire space to a rosy-hued installation of the midcentury French lighting designer’s work. The display was a revelation, a reminder that hidden gems still lay within the annals of design history, awaiting discovery.
Brimming with curiosity, I reached out to Mr. Cuisinier—who brought the revival back to his Paris gallery with the exhibition Jacques Biny: Créateur-Éditeur, on through mid-September—to learn more about the many dimensions of Biny’s brilliant practice. Here’s what he had to say.
WC: What drew you to Biny's work, and what do you most want people to know about him as both a designer and manufacturer?
PC: I choose to raise awareness of the best designers of the past when they are forgotten or overshadowed by the notoriety of the other creators. Biny is one of them. He is a great designer who conceived sophisticated light fittings—absolutely beautiful in their simplicity and efficiency, in both functional and aesthetic ways. This is still an aesthetic choice on my part, of course; but this choice is greatly influenced by the quality and innovation embodied in Biny’s pieces.
What I wish to convey about this designer is his relevance; he produced according to the needs of the time without having profitability as his main criteria. What Biny was doing was working to do his best, even though it took years to gain recognition and success. I admire the vision and determination of such personalities. For example, when Biny could not find a producer to manufacture his creations, he decided to do it himself and opened his Luminalite company. And he offered to produce the works of other modern designers too. I think this is a great gesture, even a little altruistic, without any doubts.
WC: How would you characterize the landscape of design in France at the time Biny was most active (1950-1970)? How did he reflect, influence, or eschew modernist currents?
PC: At that time in France, the great majority didn’t buy "modernity." Instead, people had a tendency to turn to more conservative productions: copies of old-style pieces or relics of the pre-war years. And yet there was a generation of designers who desired to introduce modernity. They were undoubtedly the best of their time, graduates of the best schools, having the goal to convert a part of the population to the furniture of their time by creating innovative, high-quality pieces for the wider public.
Unfortunately it took many years to accomplish this goal. In the early ‘50s, their pieces were not selling well, which explains why they are so very rare today. This is what Jacques Biny endured, and it was not until the ‘60s that he found success and was able to focus on larger scale, more technical projects, like architectural lighting systems for public spaces.
The modernist movement, properly speaking, dates from the beginning of the century (precisely from the ‘20s and ‘30s). What we see after is often just a continuation of what existed before, or, sometimes, a reaction to it. Jacques Biny—like most of the French designers that I present at the gallery—takes ups and builds on the work of the experimental designers from the ‘30s, using their research as his foundation. Biny, like the best of the generation working in the ‘50s, is rather a vehicle that seeks to convey to a general public the modernists’ research around functional efficiency, simplicity, and modern materials—[but resulting in] a radical aesthetic that is far from mere imitations of another time.
WC: In your view, what was Biny’s pièce(s) de résistance and why?
PC: The term "pièces de résistance" itself is quite ambiguous. Let's say that today’s market better recognizes Biny’s big pieces, so his Appliqué 163 is in high demand. But personally I’m passionate about his research into bedroom lighting, which led to a wide range of varied pieces that enable one to read without dazzling his or her neighbor. I find it to be brilliant work! If we conceive Biny as a producer, then, for sure, the pieces of Jean Boris Lacroix—who was a very important designer of the ‘30s—are absolutely fantastic. My preference, however, without any doubt, goes to the young Michel Buffet, who created in the ‘50s a collection of amazing and rare lighting for Biny!
WC: Can you tell us more about Biny’s most interesting collaborations with other artists and designers?
PC: What is very interesting about this designer is that he is not only a designer, an author of a concept, but also a producer. This was quite rare at that time. In this sense, he is closer to Gino Sarfatti than to Pierre Guariche, his French contemporary. He mainly tended to work with young and innovative people who seemed to have a promising future or whose quality of work interested him.
The best designer he collaborated with, in my opinion, was Michel Buffet, who designed in the ‘50s a range of luxurious light fittings remarkable for their clarity, simplicity, radicalism, and perfect aesthetic. He later worked in the transport sector and stopped putting his signature on his productions. It was the same for Louis Baillon, Gustave Gauthier, and Charles Ramos, who were renowned decorators of their time. It was a bit different with Jean Boris Lacroix, who was older and, more than that, was already recognized as a big name in modernism in the ‘30s. He was very focused on the subject, on lighting in particular, and created some of the best modernist lamps of the prewar period. With Biny’s Luminalite company, he designed a lighting series that incorporated the then-new material Plexiglas. He treated it as a valuable material with the formal language of the ‘30s reinterpreted in light of the modernity of the late ‘50s. It's very spectacular, very beautiful, very accessible and familiar, and yet they are very rare. We discover in this lamp—one of the first to use colored Plexiglas—the inspirations of Pierre Chareau, the modernist movement, and Neoplasticism.
WC: How would you characterize the market for Biny’s work? What sort of clients do you find are most drawn to his work?
PC: The market for Biny’s pieces, like for many other creators of that time, hasn’t been formed yet. It's similar to that of Guariche a few years ago. This is a paradoxical situation: on the one hand, these pieces are almost impossible to find on the market (except for some that were widely produced and can sometimes be found on public sales because they are more common); on the other hand, the prices start to climb because the aesthetics are so alluring. They are not well-known by the general public; only by a small number of international collectors. Yet some collectors anticipate a rising market and chase the rarest pieces. They are both difficult to find and expensive to purchase, as well as difficult to sell to an uninformed public. This intermediate phase is a little weird, but it is something typical for the beginning of a market construction. In the end, there are more common pieces, which are still available for reasonable prices, but the prices for the rarest ones are growing.
The potential for price development is still extremely significant since the international market is not yet captured. There isn’t a book or monographic exhibition in a major museum. There exist two types of clients: for the most common pieces there are customers or designers who just want beautiful functional lighting for a reasonable price; for the most outstanding pieces there are very well-informed collectors who monitor the market, know the work of the gallery, and, having already acquired the pieces of Prouvé or Perriand 20 or 30 years ago, are seeking a similar kind of advance investment.
Well, I’m sold. If you’re in Paris, see for yourself at Galerie Pascal Cuisinier on Paris’s rue de Seine.
* All Images courtesy Galerie Pascal Cuisinier.