There is an image that bounces around certain design-centric corners of the Internet with increasing frequency. It is a photo of a man lounging on a sprawling, low-slung teal sofa in a sun-drenched living room, his face shielded into anonymity. The man is the elusive musician and overall tastemaker Frank Ocean, and the photo feels like catnip for decor-minded millennial men. Ocean initially posted the photo to his personal Instagram account in October of 2019 and it continues to have legs some years later. The image is alluring for several reasons. First, it gives fans a rare glimpse inside the secretive singer’s home, from the artfully cluttered bookshelves in the background to the huge French windows. Second, it shows that Ocean owns a ridiculously colossal couch.
Pop star aside, the sofa itself is undeniably attention-grabbing. It’s massive, almost more floor than furniture, like a mid-century conversation pit that has been inverted to protrude from the floor instead of sunken within it. Yards of deep blue cushions come together to form peaks and valleys that resemble the jagged surface of another planet. Its design seems meant to elicit strong responses — positive or negative.
A large, statement piece of furniture like this one isn’t something intended to fly under the radar. It’s the work of Pierre Paulin, an innovative French designer who passed away in 2009 at the age of 81. In the 1950s, he trained in ceramics and stone-carving in hopes of becoming a professional sculptor, but a fight left him with a paralyzed hand. At the same time, Paulin had developed a passionate interest in Scandinavian and Japanese design as well as the functional furniture of American mid-century design. This blending of styles is evident in his work: Eye-catching chairs and sofas produced in unconventional shapes without sacrificing function or comfort. Today, Benjamin Paulin, Pierre’s son, oversees his father’s archive and helps produce classic and previously unreleased pieces.
Paulin’s designs are held in such high regard that they are displayed in collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Just last year, Sotheby’s presented nearly 40 pieces of Paulin’s furniture in a dedicated exhibition in the auction house’s Parisian showroom.
The Pierre sofa that captured the attention of Frank Ocean is not really a sofa at all. Initially designed in 1970, Pierre’s “Dune” collection features four different seating modules (from $5,400 to $8,220 per module) which are moveable and interchangeable, so the buyer can create their own unique environment. Each module has enough design impact to stand on its own, but when combined with others, the visual effect seems greater than the sum of its parts. Even today, there is something magical about how mountain-esque accent chairs and flat-seat ottomans come together to form a sofa that feels futuristic.
Paulin viewed modernity as something that could be sumptuous and wonderful as well as industrially manufactured. Pieces from Paulin’s “Dune” collection feel equally inspired by science fiction and ecstatic geometry. It’s the work of a designer who happily pushed against the orderly restraint of midcentury design.
Outside of music, Frank Ocean has earned a reputation as a bit of an aesthete, too. He’s dabbled in carpentry and zine-making, and his sartorial choices always feel thoughtful and considered. Other Paulin devotees include peers like rapper and controversialist Kanye West and Louis Vuitton designer Virgil Abloh. In fact, West has the same sofa, in the same color. It sits in his Wyoming ranch, in the middle of a near-empty warehouse, while a projector loops floor-to-ceiling video on an opposing wall.
The thought of a sofa as a status symbol — or a cheat code for aesthetic prowess — for the famous feels wholly unique to our era. Celebrities seem to assert and wink that they have great, refined taste with increasing frequency. (West’s sister-in-law Kendall Kardashian now wears and name-drops The Row, a beloved-by-insiders label known for its quiet luxury.) West has loudly spoken (and tweeted) about his “museum quality” Jean Royère couch that typically sells for around $750,000. “I sold my Maybach to get the Royère,” he told Architectural Digest last year. It is hard to imagine 1990s-era rappers boasting of French furniture in the place of lavish sports cars. For what it’s worth, a brand-new Dune sofa like the one owned by Ocean and West (nearly 12-feet by 12-feet) would have a price tag in the $150,000 range, according to the manufacturer.
High-minded taste in design is a new form of flexing. If you broadcast that you love the Phoebe Philo era of Céline or the Dune sofa by Pierre Paulin, then certain corners of the Internet are bound to take your overall moodboard more seriously, in design as well as fashion or music. Paulin’s work is the perfect symbol: It’s comfortable and cozy as well as challenging enough to assert that you’re ready for the avant-garde.