This is the latest installment of our Designing Women series. Previously, we profiled the Cuban-born furniture and interior designer Clara Porset.
Maria Pergay. Photo by Philippe Pons; all images courtesy Demisch Danant
“Everybody is scared of stainless steel, but we have a link—there is something deep inside between me and stainless steel,” Maria Pergay told the New York Times in 2010. “This material which looks so strong, hard and cold is sweet and not sharp, and it matches with everything.” Although stainless steel is commonplace today (good luck buying a new appliance that isn’t finished in it), when Pergay began her devotion to the alloy in 1967 it was a profoundly unorthodox endeavor. Up until that point the Parisian designer had been known for her small-scale silver objects, which she produced for fashion houses like Hermès and Christian Dior, but when the stainless steel manufacturer Ugine-Gueugnon approached her about experimenting in the material she jumped at the chance to design larger forms.
Excited by the new possibilities in scale, Pergay’s first piece of furniture in stainless steel was the massive Flying Carpet Daybed—a curvaceous form that would be introduced to the world by the equally curvaceous Brigitte Bardot, who was photographed on the bed during a movie shoot. Pergay followed it with the Ring chair, a seat made of three concentric circles of bent stainless steel that has been her calling card ever since. A line of stainless steel furniture followed, and was exhibited in 1968 at the Galerie Maison et Jardin in Paris, just a year after her first foray in the material. Her sinuous lines and luxurious treatment of an otherwise industrial material created a sensation, and the entire exhibition was snapped up on opening night by fashion designer Pierre Cardin.
An archival photo of Pergay's 1967 Lit Tapis Volant (Flying Carpet Daybed), her first furniture design in stainless steel Brigitte Bardot reclining on Pergay’s fur-covered Flying Carpet Daybed in 1970. Pergay’s Ring Chair can also be seen in the background. Pergay’s Chaise Anneaux (Ring Chair), made of three concentric circles of bent stainless steel, 1968
Following the exhibition’s success, Pergay continued to design in steel and also took private commissions for custom furniture pieces and interior designs for wealthy patrons in Europe. But as the decadence of the ’70s began to give way, Pergay sought new clients in the Middle East, moving to Saudi Arabia in 1977 and working on interior commissions for the royal family for the next eight years. In 2004 Pergay returned to her stainless steel roots, designing a collection of furniture that was exhibited at Lehmann Maupin and Demisch Danant galleries in New York.
When not designing in steel, Pergay’s taste tended toward the surreal; here, she poses with Pierre Cardin and her Canapé Tortue (Turtle Sofa) in 1977. A custom piece commissioned by Cardin, the sofa’s upper-half of tortoiseshells opened and closed to reveal a brown leather cushion for lounging.
Not happy with the term designer, Pergay instead prefers to call herself a “laborer of ideas,” and at age 85 she has certainly earned the title. Still at work, Pergay most recently collaborated with Fendi on a new collection of furnishings for the Fendi Casa Icons series, raucously combining leopard print with her beloved stainless steel. As she told gallerist Suzanne Demisch in the book Maria Pergay: Between Ideas and Design, “Copper is too fragile, aluminum too light, gold too symbolic, silver too weak, bronze is out of fashion, and platinum inaccessible. . . . Nothing is more beautiful than steel.”
Pergay’s 2013 collaboration with Fendi Casa Icons included an ornate chair called the Chaise Lion. Pouf Ruban (Ribbon Pouf), made from enameled stainless steel, 2007 Much of Pergay’s career has been devoted to treating stainless steel as a precious material. Her 2005 Meuble Nacre (Mother-of-Pearl Cabinet) combined steel, inlaid mother-of-pearl, tinted sycamore and a silk tassel and was produced in a limited edition of eight. Stainless steel Enveloppe magazine holder, circa 1968 Pergay combined stainless steel and acrylic for her 1969 Acier chairs Pergay’s 1970s cocktail table combined brushed and mirror-polished stainless steel. A custom stainless steel chest of drawers commissioned in 1972 1970 stainless steel lounge chair