The man behind design giant Roche Bobois

The son of hipster parents, Nicholas Roche, creative director of furniture maker Roche Bobois, came to the family business late. Since then the company has become a leader in global design

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When you think of designer furniture, household names that spring to mind tend to be mid-century Scandinavians or Americans. The French brand Roche Bobois, despite having more than 250 showrooms worldwide, slips quietly below the radar.

Yet the figures speak for themselves. Roche Bobois had a turnover of €437 million in 2015, an increase of 7 per cent on its 2014 figures, and revenue from exports increased to €254 million, up 13 per cent.

The company remains a family business, headed by creative director Nicholas Roche, the architect son of Philippe Roche who, with his brother François, was chasing the modernity of Scandinavian design when they met one of their furniture-shop rivals, the Chouchan family, at a trade fair in the 1950s.

Each already had a shop in Paris: the Roches had bought the old Alexandre Dumas theatre, now the company’s flagship store on Rue du Lyon, in the Bastille area of the city, in the early 1930s, at a time when the Chouchans were still selling furniture in Russia.

When they moved to France they opened their furniture store, Au Beau Bois (beautiful wood), on Boulevard Sebastopol. By the mid-century each was looking to take their existing businesses in a more contemporary direction.

Soon they joined forces, believing that the economies of scale would be better for each business, Roche recounts. “They started to import furniture from Scandinavia and to share advertising space in magazines promoting it. As partners they visited every decent home store in every French town to get them to take the new furniture.”

This was 1953. Arne Jacobsen had yet to design his Egg chair and Eero Saarinen his Tulip table. The two families hyphenated the shop names and Au Beau Bois was abbreviated to Bobois.

The game-changing move for the company was its decision to design its own ranges and bring designers such as Pierre Paulin on board. Paulin did the first bedroom collection for Roche Bobois. His work has graced the offices of former French president François Mitterand and his Orange Slice Chair was selected by the Vitra Museum as one of its 100 masterpieces. In 1967 Marc Berthier presented its first collection in plastic, a material Roche still loves, and that included the now very collectible Ozoo desk, one of which has pride of place in Nicholas Roche’s Paris apartment.

But the design most readers will associate with Roche Bobois is the Mah Jong sofa, designed in 1971 by Hans Hoper. It espouses the freedom of that period, says Roche, who owns several pieces. “The principle is you can buy as many or as few as you want and that you’re not locked into any particular shape. You can make it any way you want.”

An architect by trade – Roche practised for more than 20 years before being lured into the family business – he always had design in his DNA. “My parents’ taste was very different to the homes of my friends. They were sort of the hipsters of their day. This was the era of Mah Jong, shag carpets, lounging on the floor, smoking and listening to Pink Floyd. All the bookshelves, tables and cabinets were very elegant, very low-set, with single armchairs instead of sofas. My mother would change them around all the time.”

Having been reared in aesthetically interesting surroundings, he was preoccupied by modernity and by imagining forms, shapes and materials, but he didn’t want to work with the family. “It was uneasy for me to be in the mould,” he explains. I really wanted to be an architect. Eleven years ago, when my father was thinking of retiring, I’d been an architect for 20 years. Maybe it was time to be part of the story. And who else would take over the firm?” he asks. In 2005 he joined the company.

He is responsible for the development of new collections, but never signs the pieces he designs, preferring to call it a team effort. His brother, Antonin, who is 18 years his junior, works on the business side of the firm.

Cédric Ragot was an iconic designer who became very closely associated with the brand until his untimely death last year.

Roche first met Ragot the year he joined the company. Cutecut, a coffee table, was his first design for Roche Bobois and it sold 600 units in its first year and 800 the second year.

Roche and Ragot worked on more than 40 products together. “He did so much to change the spirit of Roche Bobois. He helped me so very much to bring interesting products. He was an intense part of my professional life. When he disappeared I felt orphaned, like I’d lost my partner.”

Real passion

While Roche has some pieces by the brand in his home, his real passion is African artefacts, many of which are mounted on metal frames, while a very big mask, bought in a tiny shop on his last visit to Benin, stands on the floor.

He regularly meets with his dealer in Paris. The negotiations, which usually take two to three hours, begin with Roche offering a low price for the item in question – usually one third of the price he’s looking for. By this time several drinks have been taken and after repeating the best price he wants to offer about 20 times, the dealer may actually hear him. “I usually demur saying I don’t need to buy another piece but he keeps pushing and eventually I cave. It is a game, of sorts.”

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