The story of Catherine & Sigolène

Catherine and Sigolène first met when they were sixteen, in Paris, thanks to Sigolène’s brother, Christophe, who introduced them to each other after having assured them both that they were very much alike.

It didn’t seem so obvious, but he was right.

They were both inclined to favour eccentricity, to making everything by hand and to distinguishing themselves by transforming their immediate environment in order to take a better grasp of it.

This was all the more astonishing because they both studied in rather classical schools in conservative areas, where they felt quite different.

A few years later, in 1984, when Sigolène decided to study industrial design, Catherine, who was about to take up opera singing and who was not so sure about her choice, followed her.

Ensci, or Les Ateliers, wanted to form real designers, by audaciously offering the students autonomy and responsibility. The enterprise was well funded and when Catherine and Sigolène were admitted, around sixty students frolicked about the eleven thousand square metres of which only one thousand were converted into a school.

After a month or so, the founders of the school resigned and left the establishment to protest against the way their initial project had been deformed. There was a small revolution among the students and the director was fired. Then most of the teachers left, followed by half the students.

Those who remained happily invested the wood, plastic and metal workshops, the immense empty rooms, the terrace, and, with the few remaining teachers, they made the most of the situation and experimented as much as possible.

In this melting pot, once the surprise had worn off, Catherine and Sigolène felt quite at home there. They formed the group Braguette Magique with another student, Renaud Supiot, and made multi-coloured and multi-formed jewellery in latex: fat, rubbery, pink, blue, spotty and striped hedgehogs, mice, elephants and spermatozoids.

Or a river of strawberries, a necklace in the shape of a motorway and unique items like a North Pole jacket, garnished with protrusive bears and penguins. It was a small, clandestine industry, with tanks of latex, plaster moulds lined up one next to the other, and new ideas every day. Everyone came to see them, try them on and even buy them. A friend, Léna Hirzel, who studied at the same school, offered to manufacture the objects in series and to distribute them.

She founded Pylônes with her husband Jacques Guillemet and they started the production line. It was an immediate success. Shops all over the world ordered them, and many articles and television shows were devoted to the three little prodigies whose creativity defied the economic crisis. However, in the meantime the school had become a school again, and Catherine and Sigolène went back to their studies, happy with their small glory and pocket money from the royalties.

Then, five years after they started school at Ensci, they were to leave with their diplomas, feeling very perplexed about their future.

Where did it all begin?

There was a studio for rent in Catherine’s courtyard, a not very large, abandoned one, and her parents were willing to pay the modest rent. Once repainted, cleaned, even if there were no toilets or heating, it was a brilliant, very promising place, and they settled in with three or four school friends to face the vertiginous future together.

After several months of uncertain cohabitation, Catherine and Sigolène did not regret seeing the others leave one after the other. The two worked endlessly on their press-book, and showed it to all the agencies their work might have interested, but nothing much happened, in spite of the enthusiasm their (fictive) projects aroused. The days of Braguette Magique were already over (the idea was overexploited, in too short a time, by the Pylônes, which gave them a desire for independence and for projects on a more long-term basis). They took on small jobs decorating shop windows and other “bricolages”. Even if, in the end, they knew very well that they wouldn’t go far doing that sort of thing, they were busy and earning a small amount of money. They had also succeeded in obtaining the status of artists with their Braguette Magique prototypes, which enabled them to write invoices.

A few months later, Ensci invited them to participate in a competition open to old and new students. The idea was to design a trophy for a cosmetics magazine that gave out prizes for the best beauty products. Their studio then resembled a laboratory even more than before. Around a set of small test tubes they had bought on sale at a glassmaker’s, they cast resin with fresh flowers and pigments, along with all sorts of inclusions and foliage. They made three models, and one of them, miraculously, won the competition and its two-thousand-franc prize. Then they had to produce the three hundred copies and deliver them to the magazine in time for the ceremony. It was mentioned in their contract, of course, but in very small letters. They were so happy about participating in the contest that they hadn’t thoroughly read the contract.

Their studio was transformed from a laboratory into a factory. All sticky with epoxy resin, breathing in fumes, they prayed for the weather to remain stable as not to disturb the mysterious process of polymerization their honour depended on. Fortunately, Ensci let them use their sanders and everyone gave them advice and support. They kept their promise and the ceremony took place, and they went on stage to receive a giant cheque (in size rather than amount). Alas, their joy didn’t last long: when the trophies were distributed to the laureates, several of them fell apart… Maybe the glue wasn’t dry enough or the weather was too wet for them to stick together.

They didn’t have much time to think about their misfortune, because a happy turn of events (due to their fame with Braguette Magique) sent them off to Tokyo to decorate a Christmas tree. It was during this voyage that they first presented themselves as Tsé & Tsé associées.

Upon their return, in spite of the small embarrassment, the trophy story made them decide rather apprehensively to stop accepting to work for others and to concentrate their efforts on their own creations. The Braguette Magique adventure also pushed them on: in both cases they had worked without being submitted to the influence of teachers or clients, seeking to please themselves alone, and they had won. Which meant they had to renounce earning immediate money, be deaf to reason, and overcome their timidity.

As fortune would have it, they knew what path to follow: simply follow everything they loved. They were inspired by the garlands with lit up red pigments they had seen in the Mexican quarter of Los Angeles, and by the graceful wildflowers they admired in the window displays of the revolutionary florist Christian Tortu. Or the “estompés”, an incredible inventory of patterns in stamped brass that one came across in the Temple area, devoted to whimsical jewellery, of their studio. There was also the acid-coloured cotton velvet they had discovered at a wholesaler’s, along with the infinite varieties of pistils of artificial flowers, minutely classified by varieties in the maze of drawers in an old workshop at Strasbourg Saint Denis. Etc…

Encouraged by friends who had small quantities of charming jewellery manufactured by local craftsmen, they decided to do the same with their objects, and to put the idea of working for industry aside, for a while, at least. They bought little plastic tomatoes and dinosaurs and threaded them onto the bulbs of electric garlands, made velvet birds with flower pistil crests to fit in the pockets of jackets, welded stars and fish on hairpins and then brought them to the gilder to be tipped in gold. They became familiar with invoices, suppliers, and cost prices. They didn’t pay themselves, or count the number of hours they worked, but they were enthralled by their production.

They were very fond of the little test tubes, and linked them together to form, for example, an organ-like vase that would fall apart as soon as water was poured into it. One day, they decided to fix them with welded rings on stems like a system of hinges. They sawed a tube of brass that had the same diameter as the test tubes, and welded them on the stems they had cut beforehand. Twenty repeated metal elements with twenty-one test tubes seemed to be the right length to them. Then came the water and the flowers, and it became the Vase d’Avril, small, wobbly, but so absolutely marvellous.

They made ten of the vases and feverously organized their first sale. It was more like an end-of-school bazaar: taking place in the hot month of July. They didn’t know who to invite apart from their friends and family, but they were dying to show and to sell their treasures: the vase, and also the garlands that gave off such pretty light, the hair clips and all their “creations”.

The day of the sale, their first customer was a dove that flew in through the window and spent the day fluffing about in the dishes they had prepared for their clients, before flying off into the evening. After the dove, there were many visits. The little Vase d’Avril was for sale, and the larger model, of which they had made a model in plastic and silver cardboard, could be ordered (if one paid half its price as a deposit).

The success was encouraging enough to make them decide to manufacture the Vase d’Avril, and they ordered fifty copies: one thousand test tubes (made purposely for them with special dimensions) and one thousand metal pieces, almost industrial quantities at a reasonable cost price. They had to invent a box and write and draw a user’s manual. When they received the prototype (after several months of harassing their suppliers who weren’t so interested in their story), they mustered all their courage and obtained a date with their favourite florist, Christian Tortu. They trembled on their way to see him by metro, with the Vase full of water and flowers in a mushroom basket. He immediately loved the object and ordered their entire stock. They delivered them and the next day spent long moments dreaming and contemplating their vase in his shop window, with flowers chosen by their favourite florist who had written “a creation by Tsé & Tsé associées” on a little blackboard.

In the middle of December, 1990, Christian Tortu, contrary to what they had hoped, did not immediately call to say he had sold all their vases. With the few remaining models, they organized their first Christmas Sale that was to last three days. Their invitations, made of little green leaves found in the artificial flower workshop and sent by mail, aroused people’s curiosity. Their exceptionally tidy studio, rearranged as a shop, all lit up, seemed magical to them.

On shelves, alongside the Vase d’Avril full of daffodils, were gold and silver hair clips, pocket vases, the pocket birds, garlands made with plastic tomatoes, dinosaurs and onions, and a pocket mirror in polished nickel with an openwork pattern, all very carefully presented. They followed every step of their rare customers in order to explain the functions of all their inventions to them. On the evening of the third day, they had made 13000 francs, and could order new items from their suppliers, whose bills they paid when they were delivered, before they had sold anything: it was one of their principles, because if ever nothing was bought, they were still sure they could honour their debts. Fortunately, they were never in that position.

In January 1991, following the advice of their accountant, they started to pay themselves a salary of 300 francs a month, a new triumph.

Whatever will be will be!

It wasn’t always easy, but they started to believe in their adventure. Also, if one of them was discouraged, the other would cheer her up, because they were never depressed at the same time: it’s the advantage of being two. Anyway, their greatest desire was to meet each morning in the local café at quarter to nine, and then spend all day making and selling new objects.

They’d pass the same pencil one to the other, while chatting and scribbling whatever passed through their heads in a notebook. Often, one would misinterpret the drawing of the other, and an unexpected idea would come about. The drawings were tossed off one after the other, and the projects then took shape. After that, they’d consult their great Bible of suppliers, the Kompass, to see who could manufacture them. Internet didn’t exist yet. They sent faxes to ask for price lists that started with: “Designers by trade…” And since they didn’t have a company name, they signed with both their names, and they would hardly ever receive an answer. They’d call back again and again, harassing secretaries until they obtained an answer that wasn’t just the same old “What you are asking for does not fit into the frame of our fabrications.” That was obvious, because they had imagined a new object – and that was the point: to fit into the frame of their fabrications.

They were less convincing once it came to selling, however it was indeed necessary to do door-to-door selling to shops. Christian Tortu’s buying their entire stock was exceptional. Some people didn’t like their work and told them more or less politely (without managing to make them doubt). Others would order a ridiculously small amount of items after being overly enthusiastic. But the main thing was that there were very few places that seemed right for their objects, and they didn’t feel comfortable in hype, precious-looking design galleries.

They had noticed the Galerie Sentou for some time, a bastion of architects and designers of the 70’s that presented with admirable constancy wooden furniture smelling of earthy, macrobiotic ideals. One could also find Isamu Noguchi’s paper lamps, Roger Tallon’s cast iron staircase and Charlotte Perriand’s furniture: and those three designers were prestigious references for them since their childhood, and they dreamed of showing their work alongside them.

They made an appointment with the young Mr Romanet who replaced the irascible Mr Sentou, known for his difficult moods. Finally, they went off, taking the Vase d’Avril full of water and flowers as usual, thinking it alone could fit in such a prestigious temple of design.

Pierre Romanet was very friendly and interested in our vase, although he did seem rather perplexed, because he thought that it might stick out in the gallery whose spirit he was careful to maintain. After having envisaged making a copy of the vase in wood so it could fit in better, he decided to take a risk and display it on a shelf. The next day, he called up to ask for a replacement because he had sold it that very same day. The Tsé & Tsés ran over, and they took up the conversation where they had left it the day before. The same scenario was repeated over several months: every day he’d sell a vase, and they’d deliver another. Each time, they’d chat an hour or so, about their studies, the future of design, and how they admired Noguchi. They got along very well.

They went back to the studio full of energy and in a year designed the Paresseux Vase, the Fleurs Flottantes and the Squelettique Garlan. These objects were appreciated during the Christmas sale, but they didn’t dare show them elsewhere. The Vase d’Avril, in the meantime, had started a brilliant career in America, in a trendy fashion shop in Los Angeles, Maxfield, frequented by stars. Christian Tortu introduced it to New York, where it naturally found its place in the windowsills. And so, every evening, they’d wander around the Sentier area looking for boxes people had thrown out. They picked out the cleanest of them and used them to send of their orders.

One winter’s day in 1993, a fax slipped out of their fax machine.

Pierre Romanet was offering to exhibit their work in an annex of the gallery that was used as the window display for the Nogushi lamps. They thought he had written to the wrong address: the only piece he knew of their work was the Vase d’Avril. But the fax was indeed addressed to Tsé & Tsé associées.

He came to visit their studio and instantaneously adopted all their objects. The date of the opening was the 1st of April: time was flying and press releases had to be made, the invitation done, the products finalized along with their wrapping and presentation.

As spurred as ever, they elaborated a pedagogical scenography of large black boards where the objects were to be stapled. The Vase d’Avril, for example, was taken apart on one side and put together on another. Their cutlery surrounded fictive plates and glasses, drawn in chalk. Pierre had a little pond made for the Fleurs Flottantes to float among goldfish. Remembering that they had thought of selling the Vase d’Avril by the metre, they had thin shelves installed along the windows and spread out lengths of the articulated tubes on them. Putting the flowers in wasn’t easy, but the striped window display was breath taking. On the other side, they had hung a grape of Paresseux Vases with spotted pink pear blossom. They had never seen so many of their objects displayed at once, and they were dazzled. The bus driver must have been, too, because he slowed down in front of the shop window to enjoy the spectacle with his passengers.

On the opening night, they passed from backstage to limelight. Even if their fame was very small, the seed they had planted had germinated, the sprout was solid and vigorous: Tsé & Tsé existed. The Galerie Sentou never really took the show down: the objects stayed there, and multiplied.