Pierre Deux takes old fabrics, papers and brings their beauty to life again

January 26, 1992|By Jo Werne | Jo Werne,Knight-Ridder News Service

Serge Bisono could be a poet, the way he describes Pierre Deux fabrics.

"It's cheerful, it's smiling. It looks like the province it comes from. Finally, it looks old. It could be the bedroom of your grandmother when she was a young girl."

Mr. Bisono is director of Pierre Deux's design studio in Paris.

Pierre Deux itself doesn't manufacture fabrics. Rather, it commissions fabrics from several manufacturers and distributes them through its designer showrooms and boutiques. The fabric lines include 18th century French designs, "Souleiado" (an old Provencal word meaning "the sun's rays shining through a cloud after the rain") and Provencal prints -- toiles de Jouy, chintz, tapestries, as well as plaids and solids. Cost of the fabrics ranges from $39 to $250 a yard (retail), with $45 a yard the average price.

Considering the lengthy process it takes to produce this fabric -- two years, in some cases -- the prices do not seem excessive.

Before a fabric is commissioned by Pierre Deux, quite a lot of detective work must be done. Mr. Bisono said the firm's designers search for 18th century fabrics and wallpaper -- called documents -- to use as inspiration for new designs. Their search takes them to libraries, museums and auctions.

"A lot of auction houses are now organizing auctions of old documents," Mr. Bisono said. "Years ago, people would get rid of wallpaper or use old fabric as rags. Now, people are more aware of the value of these old scraps. Sometimes friends will pull a bit of fabric out of their pocket and give it to me in hope that it

might be used as a document."

Once a document has been found, the designer usually has to adapt the scale to 20th century standards. Sometimes, however, changing the scale ruins the pattern. "It's better not to change it at all," Mr. Bisono said. "Sometimes a pattern is so perfect it would be a crime to change a thing. Then it's better to have one color in a collection rather than a range of colors."

After the design is chosen, the choice of the textile itself is an important step, for "every design must have the right weaving."

Today, Pierre Deux fabrics are silk-screened. Until the end of the 18th century, however, fabric was printed only with hand-carved wood blocks. Each color used in the printing required its own block. A piece of fabric 50 meters long in four or five colors would take a printer three to four days to complete. But some 18th century prints contain 25 to 30 colors, making the printing extremely labor-intensive.

By the end of the 18th century, roller printing machinery had been invented. The pattern was carved on a round surface, and the fabric was printed as it moved across the roller.

The silk-screening process is labor-intensive, too. Two printers spread the color through the screen "heavily or thinly, quickly or slowly, depending upon the demands of the design," Mr. Bisono said.

The same team must finish the fabric because it works "like one person with two hands, so in tune are they to each other. Every team has a good hand for a certain look. One team must finish the fabric; you can't substitute another team."

The first Pierre Deux shop opened in 1967 on Bleeker Street in New York City. It began as an antique shop selling fine 18th century furniture that was hand-carved in the provinces of France.

The partners who launched this company were Pierre Moulin and Pierre Le Vec -- hence "Pierre Deux," or the two Pierres.

While on a trip to France to purchase more antiques, the partners bought some Souleiado fabric to make pillows and draperies for their shop. Customers repeatedly asked if they could buy the draperies and pillows, many times leaving their cards under the door if they got there too late and the shop had closed. The pillows and draperies were sold out, and a second and third batch sold almost as quickly as they were made.

So began Pierre Deux's expansion from 18th century French antiques to country fabrics and furnishings for the home.

Ten years ago, Pierre Deux reintroduced toiles de Jouy fabrics to the United States. The original toiles were produced in a factory in Jouy near Versailles in the mid 1700s. These fabrics told mythological, historical and seasonal events in large-scale monochromatic pictorials. They became a huge, immediate success among the royal society of France.

Today, only two original print machines from Jouy exist. One is in disrepair in a museum basement in France. The other has been restored by Pierre Deux and is producing some of the historical toiles.

The company offers 10 toile designs. One remarkable design tells the story of how the toile is made -- a fabric that reports its origin.

Today there are six Pierre Deux showrooms and 13 boutiques in major markets in North America. The two Pierres have gone into semiretirement, and there is new ownership.

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