AN INTERNATIONAL LEGACY DESIGN FIRM LOOKS TO THE FUTURE WHILE HONORING A STORIED HISTORY
BY LAURA D.C. KOLNOSKI • PHOTOS BY PRESSWALL FRANCE
Firmly rooted in its familial past, Roche Bobois has always been forward looking. Its emphasis on cutting edge fashion combined with the values of quality, creativity, and innovation have made it a worldwide leader in furniture design and distribution. The firm, founded in 1960, now has 265 showrooms in more than 55 countries, including the United States.
The company’s most recognizable creation is its versatile, contemporary Mah Jong sofa a bestseller since it was created by renowned painter/sculptor/designer Hans Hopfer in 1971. Creative Director Nicolas Roche, a direct descendant of the founders, describes it thusly:
“It can be an armchair, sofa, lounge, or even a bed. It was originally created as an economical product dressed in plain brown fabric, with the option of buying one or 20 cushions to build a bigger sofa or lounge. Over time, it became a playground for designers and fashion labels.” The Mah Jong resonated worldwide, as did the practice of enlisting top fashion designers to dress it with colorful, haute couture fabrics. To date, Missoni, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kenzo Takada, Christian Lacroix, Emanuel Ungaro, and American Stephen Burks have added their distinctive styles to it.
“When considering a collaboration, we look for shared values, the most important being a synergy in promoting a certain ‘art de vivre’ (being open minded to people and cultures),” Roche said. Reverence for another hallmark of Roche Bobois, Scandinavian design, was the impetus behind the firm’s two founders forming the company over 50 years ago. The tale began with the union of two family businesses, one owned by the Chouchans, Jewish émigrés who came to Paris from central Europe; the other was owned by the Roches, a Catholic family from southwest France who already had a successful furniture business since the 1800s. One enthusiastic young man from each clan met, recognizing in each other a shared entrepreneurial spirit, an understanding of the new generation, and an impatience to embrace it. Their mission became offering customers high quality innovative furniture designs relevant to the times. Their first Roche Bobois showroom opened on the Boulevard Saint Germain. Initially, the company was supplied by French manufacturers offering modular furniture systems and sofas using the latest materials pieces ideal for the new practice of lounging in front of the television. In time, they steered their enterprise toward importing modern, quality furniture from Denmark. Soon, Nordic design took off.
Nicolas Roche did not initially intend to join his family’s business. After graduating with a degree in architecture from the University of Paris La Seine in 2006, he started a studio with several partners.
“My uncle, Philippe, and my father, François, were thinking about getting some rest and starting to organize their succession,” he related. “When they asked me to join them and oversee the development of the new collection, I reconsidered my position and thought that it was a great opportunity to be a part of this wonderful adventure.” Gilles Bonan, Roche Bobois’s CEO, joined the company before Nicolas. They now work closely together.
“Gilles has a true respect for the brand, the founders, and the values,” Roche said. “He is a person of high culture and centers of interest…and is open to new talents and ideas.” Roche’s younger brother, Antonin, is responsible for the distribution side.
The creative director draws on his architectural background when it comes to issues of functionality, manufacturing technologies, and working with materials, colors, and light challenges, he said, which “must be solved with intelligence and creativity.”
Roche Bobois opened its first New York City showroom in 1974, and North America is the company’s most important market after France. While Paramus hosts the only Garden State location, there are three stores in Manhattan and one in Philadelphia. Other states include California, Florida, Texas, and Virginia. Showrooms proliferate throughout Europe, with more in Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Russia.
Roche attributes the worldwide popularity of the company’s products to them being manufactured in Europe, “guaranteeing an excellent quality while perpetuating the manufacturing tradition of furniture making there.”
“This know how is applied to the making of contemporary innovative designs combined with newly developed technologies,” he explained. “For example, the Aqua dining table combines a solid Carrara marble base with a top in lacquered polyurethane with laminated scratchproof Fenix. Our Astrolab dining table features a clockwork mechanism that activates the opening of motorized extension leaves, while our Lift sideboard looks sleek and simple, but lifts up electrically to reveal a bar inside.”
The conception of furniture at Roche Bobois is likened to the realm of fashion; the brand follows the traditional calendar of haute couture fashion houses, launching new “collections” twice a year. Roche is also inspired by the styles of the 1950s and ’60s, which he calls the “golden age” of design, its pieces embodying “excellence in the elegance of the details and the beauty of the proportions.”
Customers have choices in selecting made to order furniture, right down to the color of thread and type of stitch.
Fabrication allows for maximum levels of customization and intricate detailing at the finishing stage. Every piece moves among skilled craftsmen, including cabinetmakers and leatherworkers. Fine quality leather, metals, woods, glass, and finishes are sourced to find the most advanced ways to bend, build, pull, push, cut, and customize materials. The result is furniture with heirloom status.
Environmental considerations also factor in. Roche Bobois selects materials, adhesives, and finishing products that carry seals of sustainability and responsibility
“Being eco conscious has always seemed obvious to me,” Roche related. “One of the first collaborations I initiated was “Legend,” a bookcase with a tree like silhouette manufactured in locally sourced, responsibly grown French oak built without any hardware using water based glues and varnishes, making it entirely bio degradable. Today, there is an increased awareness of the human impact on the environment, so we must take responsibility and work on new approaches.”
The company is also is developing its own qualitative assessment tool called Eco8, in collaboration with the FCBA (Forest, Construction, Wood, and Furniture) Institute, that identifies the environmental impact of products and focuses on reducing them. A full time employee is dedicated to working on this and improving the firm’s footprint.
An outdoor version of the Mah Jong has been introduced, which “embodies the art of living close to the ground,” Roche said, adding, “This philosophy resonates particularly well with the outdoors. It is an organic evolution our clientele had been asking for. Modular components allow endless combinations, the metal base remains light, and the cushions are presented in bright and bold new fabrics.”
Other innovations include a virtual reality 3D design tool and a dedicated team of professionals who offer interior design services, with realistic renderings and depictions of how new pieces will work alongside existing furniture. The Mah Jong Sofa 3D app allows people to play with the modular elements, try different fabrics, and see finalized pieces in their space. Additional efforts are being made to improve the use of new technology, emphasize the bespoke character of products, and develop a retail website.
Looking to the future also means mentoring budding furniture and interior designers. Located in a new country every two years since 2009, the Roche Bobois Design Award is a competition to discover young talent. In 2017, it took place in the United States, in partnership with the Manhattan’s Parsons School of Design, where pairs of students worked on the theme “Seating for Eating.” Students had fruitful exchanges with Nicolas Roche, there was a final presentation of projects to a jury, and the selection of three winners occurred in the presence of CEO Bonan and American designers Stephen Burks and Barry Richards. Final projects were exhibited as part of New York Design Week, and the designs were manufactured and distributed for sale across the entire Roche Bobois network.
Roche relaxes with music; he has played piano since childhood and indulges in that passion primarily on weekends. Debussy, along with Bach and other baroque composers are favorites, but “On the other side, I adore Gershwin and (late American jazz pianist and saxophonist) Bill Evans.”
Roche said it’s “a big honor” to be part of his family’s nearly five decades of business success and inspired artistry. “I try to make that initial spirit linger on. And I hope that, in my way, I will have added something.”
776 Route 17 North, Paramus / 201.882.1007 /