SBHD: 3 Suisses sells affordable work by world-famous designers to seven million people in France. Howard Rombough finds out how and why
The best-selling, glossiest, smartest design magazine in France appears just twice a year and weighs almost two kilos. Inside its splashy colour pages, the latest furniture and objects from name designers such as Andre Putman, Philippe Starck and Marc Newson are previewed, along with the work of lesser known, anonymous creators. With a circulation of seven million, the publication can be found in one third of French homes. It’s called 3 Suisses, and has nothing to do with Switzerland, nor is it really a magazine. It’s a phenomenally successful mail-order catalogue with a conscience.
Started in 1932 by textile manufacturer Xavier Toulemonde, 3 Suisses developed rapidly after the Second World War as a women’s and men’s fashion catalogue. Household objects later joined the parade of silk dresses, cotton long-johns and accessories. Today non-fashion items make up half the catalogue; 20 per cent of these are furniture and designer objects. Starck, who first appeared in the 1984 catalogue, is the group’s pet. The latest fanfare in the autumn catalogue was the Maison Starck: for Ffr4990 (Ãº625) the French can buy the building plans to the two-storey wood house lived in by the French design guru himself.
Such stunning, forward-thinking projects are what keep 3 Suisses ahead of the game. Whatever it touches – from undies to a clever expandable chest of drawers designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier – the group follows the same design philosophy. According to vice-president Daniel Richard, 3 Suisses has three broad concerns: accessibility, design and the planet.
The tripartite mandate particularly concerns the company’s work with furniture designers. The first point, accessibility, is achieved by the simple but impressive fact that the catalogue, available by subscription and on the news-stand for Ffr39 (Ãº4.75), is read by millions of people. It also means that the clothes, objects and furniture must be affordable for the mass public.
The design aspect is evident in the group’s continual work with well-known designers. Richard is, however, forcefully against elitist design. Elsewhere, Putman, Starck and Newson work with major manufacturers, some of which charge consumers a pretty penny for limited edition products. Not so with 3 Suisses – here the idea is quality, name design at a reasonable price. Ecologically, 3 Suisses pursues an environment-friendly policy, whether it’s the paper used for each season’s catalogues or the wood farmed for a shelving unit.
“Designers and creators we like can make their designs accessible to seven million clients – which isn’t to say that they will sell seven million products, but that they can present their products under the buying conditions which are possible for all those people,” Richard explains.
Once it meant selling an Issey Miyake ensemble (bag, dress, swimsuit) for Ffr300 (Ãº36.60) at a time when boutiques sold the Japanese fashion designer’s pieces for up to Ffr4000 (Ãº490)
“We’re not going to put the designer in a position where his things are inaccessible. For example, we’re not selling the Maison Starck for Ffr5 000 000 (Ãº625 000). If the designer isn’t interested in working within these boundaries, then we won’t do the operation. This isn’t to say that we make a discount of an oeuvre. The designer makes an original creation for us, a particular product which must authentically concern the maximum of our readers.”
The all-time 3 Suisses best-seller is Starck’s multi-usage stool called Bubu. Selling at Ffr199 (Ãº25) for a pair, the rigid PVC Bubu is a simplification of an African seat. Available in different colours, people use them for everything from foot-stools to plant-stands. Richard himself has eight in his office, stacked high like a totem pole. More than 100 000 have been sold. Starck’s famous square-box metal ashtray first appeared in the 3 Suisses catalogue, as did his Mister Bliss black backless chair with knee-support.
Some designers refuse to work with 3 Suisses either because they prefer to remain “elitist” or because they are prohibited by their financiers.
A diplomatic Richard declines to name names, yet does state his position: “We believe the financiers, who are not marketing experts, are completely wrong. An enormous number of fashion designers have sold in our catalogue – Miyake, Popy Moreni, Azzedine Alaia, AgnÃ¤s B – and in household objects, Putman, Starck, Gaultier, Gae Aulenti. Objectively, no-one can show us that appearing in our catalogue affected his or her image. On the contrary, to use a media form with a circulation of seven million gives an important notoriety. And even if your company sells in an elitist manner (which I don’t personally like), it needs popular notoriety at its base to do it.
“Creators who don’t have popular notoriety don’t do good business. But financiers don’t understand that. We share Starck’s opinion on this point. He says, `To get up in the morning, to have an idea, and to share that with five people, in an elitist way, is to steal from, to swindle society.’
“We are design fanatics, and our mission is to try to convince the designer to make a creative operation in the most accessible way possible for our seven million clients. For that, one must not be in a too high price range and products shouldn’t be very, very pointu [radical].”
It is just this point that has French design critics questioning 3 Suisses’ logic in selling the plans to Starck’s house. The 138m2 home is surely inaccessible to the majority of the catalogue’s readers. First off, you must find and purchase a plot of land. Second, once building contractors, plumbers, electricians and lawyers are hired and the place built, the Starck house can cost as much as Ffr1 200 000 (Ãº146 000).
Starck, who worked with Patrick Bouchain and the architects L Juliene and JM Mandon on the project, has created a sort of two-level oriental pagoda crossed with a Canadian log cabin. Buyers of the plans are encouraged to hire their own architect and personalise the house.
As Starck explains: “It’s the schematic house which is already in our heads. What’s happening is the end of the reign of admiration: narcissistic creativity which only lived for and by itself is finished. Products and houses must not be beautiful but good for the person who uses them. I don’t want people to say how pretty my house is, I want them to say how good it is.”
It all sounds very noble, but for 3 Suisses the question surely is can you make a profit selling good houses? Apparently, that’s not the point, though Richard has discussed further houses with US architect IM Pei and Frank Gehry. “It’s clear that we won’t sell an enormous amount,” he concedes. “Why? Because you must fall upon the people who need a house, who like houses in wood, who like Starck’s style and this house in particular, and who have the necessary funds to buy the land and construct the house.
“There has been some misunderstanding with some saying that Starck is trying to take profits away from architects – absolutely not. What’s important is that the clients, one third of French households, can say to themselves, `when it’s time to build a house it must look good and there [in Starck’s house] I see an idea which I like. I’ll re-use it in my house’.
“Our philosophy of creation is that. At the moment, we make a table in PVC by Newson. It can be folded or mounted in an easy way. It is extraordinarily beautiful, and it costs Frf790 (Ãº99). For us what’s important is that Newson can change the impressions of our clients in an authentic way.”
Putman first entered the 3 Suisses catalogue in 1987 with a series of metal racks on casters – a clothes stand, screen and shelving unit. More recently, a table and chairs, lamps and home office furniture have appeared. “The idea of selling by mail-order has always fascinated me,” Putman says from the offices of her Paris group Ecart International.
“I love 3 Suisses’ approach to design. It doesn’t have the naivet to place itself in the avant-garde, but rather it brings a few signed objects to the essential products of our daily life.”
As a designer working on hotel, corporate, retail and private contracts with generous budgets, Putman says she is stimulated by the constraints placed by 3 Suisses. “It’s very natural for me to ask myself, `Is this object immediately understandable, attractive, useful? Will it really last for many years to come? Does its manufacture allow for a remarkably low price?'”
At the Paris branch of 02, the environmental design agency with offshoots across Europe, a year was spent sourcing materials and reducing the costs of a new furniture line launched in last month’s 3 Suisses catalogue.
02 designer Matt Findall, a Brit working as a full-time freelancer with Jean-Michel Wilmotte in Paris, confirms 3 Suisses’ dedication to design which does the least damage to the planet. The beechwood for his lamps is from managed, easily resourced forests. Plastic, the key material in the 02 – 3 Suisses collaboration (dining table, console, coffee table, bookcase and chair), is recycled.
“Rather than making design elitist or putting it on a pedestal, 3 Suisses brings it to the average person in France, which is where it should be,” Findall says. “You have to realise its influence – you see the 3 Suisses catalogue lying on the living table of most households here. The group wants the general good. Obviously, it wants to make a profit, but it wants to do it in a sensible and sensitive way.”
Richard agrees: “When we make something, why not make it look good? To make something beautiful isn’t any more expensive than to make something ugly. As a seller of good design, that is really the mission of a distributor in 1995.”