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Pleyel's Piano Forte
December 7, 2011  | 

Grand pianos tend to look the same from one living room to the next. They’re typically large, black and austere, often hand-me-downs from parents or grandparents. In an age of synthesizers and electronic keyboards, they evoke a bygone era. Pleyel decided to change all that, dusting off the instrument’s time-honored image and bringing out a line of new-look pianos that couple acoustic excellence with visual pizzazz. During the past decade, the world’s oldest piano maker has enlisted prominent artists and big-name designers—Andrée Putman, Hilton McConnico, Michele De Lucchi—to rethink its instruments. The results are sleek, colorful and indisputably modern.

The mastermind of Pleyel’s designer pianos is artistic director Arnaud Marion, a consultant in strategy and crisis management who specializes in the cultural sector. Marion began working with the company in 2002, soon after industrialist Hubert Martigny bought both the Salle Pleyel, Paris’s celebrated concert hall, and the Pleyel piano brand, reuniting the two for the first time in 65 years. According to Marion, Pleyel’s new designer line and custom orders now represent an impressive 70 percent of annual sales (the remainder derives from sales of classic grand pianos). In all, 25 grand pianos are produced each year with price tags averaging €100,000. Just as fashion houses present haute couture collections to propel sales of their ready-to-wear, Pleyel has invested in a luxury label that seems to have rejuvenated la maison.

Marion knew from the start that it would take a bold move to revive the company. "The piano world has changed profoundly during the past 50 years," he explains. "For a long time, the piano was a bourgeois status symbol. Then during the postwar years, it came to symbolize a family’s cultural and intellectual standing. That was when Japanese manufacturers began crowding the market, producing reliable instruments that offered decent value for the money."

The Koreans and Chinese followed suit. At a time when no European piano maker produces more than 2,000 instruments a year, China’s top manufacturer puts out 150,000. The price differential is staggering: A European piano costs five to 10 times more than a Chinese brand.

Pianos "all have the same shape and look more or less the same," says Marion. "They’re not like cars—a Ferrari and a Toyota may serve the same purpose, but they are miles apart in aesthetics and desirability as well as performance. European pianos may be vastly superior in terms of quality and sound, but they look just like pianos made anywhere else."

Admittedly, labels such as Steinway, Bechstein and Pleyel still denote excellence, high culture and elite music making, and they grace the stages of the world’s top concert halls. Yet behind the scenes, they have all been experiencing the worst downturn in their history. Unbeknownst to many, Steinway is now 30 percent owned by the Korean piano maker Samick, which also owns a stake in Bechstein. Bösendorfer, meanwhile, has been rescued by Yamaha of Japan.

Cost is not the only explanation for the decline in European production. Whereas pianos once provided most of the musical entertainment in the home, people now have countless electronics to pipe in all the music they could possibly want to hear. "We’re looking at an instrument that’s no longer à la mode," says Marion. "It’s no longer part of trendy interiors, which have evolved considerably. Until fairly recently, well-appointed homes were filled with walnut, mahogany or rosewood furniture. Today, people choose much more contemporary decors." As a result, the market for pianos—be they upright or grand—has shrunk considerably.

While plotting Pleyel’s comeback, Marion delved into the company’s archives and discovered a strong tradition of great design. At the turn of the 20th century, you could not only choose the size of your Pleyel piano but also commission a Louis XVI, Charles X, Directoire or even contemporary finish. At the 1900 Exposition Universelle, Pleyel displayed a model that was a remarkable tangle of sinewy Art Nouveau shapes; it would go on to commission designs from leading Art Deco talents such as René Prou and Süe et Mare. In the 1930s, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and other designers made pianos for wealthy individuals or transatlantic cruise liners, giving them revolutionary forms.

Taking a page from Pleyel’s illustrious past, Marion commissioned interior architect Thibault Desombre to update the upright; his 2005 "Fidelio" gave that old musical standby coolness creds and earned two major design awards. Artist Marco Del Re—represented by the Galerie Maeght in Paris—signed Pleyel’s first designer grand, dubbed "Erato Humana Est," in 2006. A limited edition of eight, it has thick layers of bright red lacquer engraved with curvy white designs and an Art Deco odalisque on the lid. Also produced in a limited-edition black version, it sells for €120,000.

"We took a big risk with that piano," recalls Marion. "It turned out to be a big success, so we were hugely relieved." What’s more, "it immediately took us beyond the confines of the music world, getting us coverage in decorating and lifestyle magazines." Encouraged by that success, Pleyel approached another Maeght artist, Aki Kuroda, who created the colorful "Spacemeeting" model.

Another artist commissioned the same year was Jean Cortot, whose pianist father had frequently performed at the Salle Pleyel. Cortot brought his trademark mixture of writing and painting to the task, inscribing the instrument with the names of famous musicians who had played at the concert hall.

In 2008, Marion began wooing top designers. The first was Andrée Putman, whose work ranges from New York’s Morgan Hotel to Christofle silverware to the Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent boutiques. Having initially trained to become a professional pianist, she knew the instrument intimately. She came up with "Milky Way" ("Voie Lactée"), giving the elegant black-lacquered grand piano a speckled mother-of-pearl lid and a black-and-white checkered lid prop and music tray.

Last year, Pleyel took an even more adventurous turn when it partnered with Hilton McConnico. His "Parallèle" model, with its striped brown exterior, acrylic glass legs and bright turquoise interior, looks more like a funky piece of furniture than a musical instrument.

The piano maker looked to Italy for its latest recruit: architect Michele De Lucchi. His "Lirico" has a classic black-lacquered case, yet the rest of the instrument—lid prop, music tray, legs—is made of light, natural wood shaped into organic curves. The contrast is indeed lyrical. Of all the designs to date, his has perhaps refashioned the instrument most radically.

Along with offering designer pianos, Pleyel now also customizes its classic models to fit any décor. Special orders have included a romantic 18th-century style for a Venetian palace, a Directoire motif for a Russian dacha and a black-and-white cartoon cat pattern (made with a collage technique) for a restaurant in Trouville.

The strategy seems to be paying off, bringing in orders from such far-flung markets as Kuwait and Doha as well as Monaco, London and Brussels; in all, foreigners account for 75 percent of sales. So is Pleyel, like some of its competitors, appealing to the blingy, nouveau-riche set? "What we do is the very opposite of bling," says Marion. "In 2008, the French State named us an entreprise du patrimoine vivant. We cannot have a gimmicky approach to what we do."

He points out that the piano sold to the client in Doha is a replica of an instrument made for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, coated in gold leaf and adorned with copies of paintings by Watteau and Poussin. "I want to export le bon goût français," he says.

That France’s last surviving piano maker should pay a handful of artists and designers to jazz up its top-of-the-line instruments seems surreal. Pleyel, after all, was Chopin’s favorite piano, and the company was not only a pioneer of its industry but also invented the modern concert hall.

The founder of the family concern was not French but Austrian. Born in 1757 and a teacher’s son, Ignaz Pleyel was a prodigiously talented musician. With a benefactor’s backing, he trained for five years with Josef Haydn, becoming the composer’s favorite pupil. He then moved to Strasbourg in 1783, became a French citizen and changed his first name to Ignace.

By the end of the 18th century, Ignace Pleyel had become one of Europe’s most respected composer-musicians. Those were years of revolution in France, and Pleyel’s talents were at times placed at the service of the governing powers. In one instance, he and Rouget de Lisle, who later wrote "La Marseillaise," were ordered to compose a song celebrating France’s new constitution. Pleyel wrote the music to "L’Hymne à la Liberté" and conducted it at its premiere in September 1791.

Political upheaval soon forced Pleyel to leave for England, where he again met up with his former mentor, Haydn. The two men were each invited to conduct 12 performances of their works, and bookmakers took bets on who would outperform whom. Not only did both come away rich and successful, their friendship remained intact.

After returning to France, Pleyel bought a château outside Strasbourg. He was arrested by the new government but managed to save his neck by composing—in less than a week—an eight-hour-long homage to liberty. More revolutionary tunes would follow, keeping the man, his wife and their four children well fed and out of trouble.

In 1795, Pleyel set up a music publishing house, and two years later opened his first sheet-music store at 13 rue Neuve des Petits Champs in Paris. There, he sold the music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven as well as a piano exercise method he co-authored. In 1800, he added a new string to his bow: instrument making.

The first Pleyel pianos came out in 1807. From the start, they were among the most well-crafted in the world. But it was a difficult business, and Pleyel required sustained financial support from friends and investors. Finally, in 1824, he retired to his property outside Paris, leaving the company in the hands of his 35-year-old son, Camille, a gifted pianist in his own right.
Camille was so talented that Chopin once described him as the only living man who could play Mozart. He, too, was a composer, though with a much smaller repertoire than his father’s. Most of all, he was a talented entrepreneur, and la maison Pleyel would thrive on his watch.

Camille Pleyel was quick to see a synergy between music making and piano making, and he made sure that members of Parisian high society were acutely aware of which brand they heard. With time, the greatest composers of the 19th century—Chopin, Liszt, César Franck—performed on Pleyel pianos. In return, he showed a keen interest in their acoustic desires, progressively developing what would become known as the "Pleyel sound," described as "round, warm and sensual."

In the early 1830s, Camille Pleyel began lending pianos to the fashionable salons where music was played. He also set up his own salon in the Pleyel building on Paris’s rue Cadet, which quickly
became the place to hear the finest French and foreign virtuosos of the day. His marriage to the talented young pianist Marie Mocke (formerly Berlioz’s fiancée) opened more doors. When the company moved to larger quarters on rue de Rochechouart, Camille Pleyel designed the new premises to accommodate manufacturing, offices, a showroom and a concert hall—the first public venue in the world devoted entirely to musical performances.

Camille’s knack for keeping up with changes in taste, style and technology led his company to win numerous awards and become King Louis Philippe’s supplier. Pleyel’s reputation for excellence spread well beyond France, earning him clients throughout the world. He was even known to adapt instruments to the climatic
conditions of their destination.

By 1834, he was producing 1,000 pianos annually. His relentless efforts to constantly improve kept Pleyel at the top of a growing list of competitors (there were 30 piano manufacturers in France in 1820 and 200 in 1850). Auguste Wolff, who became Camille Pleyel’s associate in 1853, continued to burnish the brand, incorporating the latest technologies and producing elegant designs.
Wolff was also instrumental in the 1865 opening of Pleyel’s

Manufacture de Saint-Denis, an expansive 600,000-square-foot space north of Paris. The state-of-the-art plant was further modernized under Wolff’s son-in-law, Gustave Lyon, who in 1927 inaugurated the Salle Pleyel, a handsome Art Deco edifice on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré where generations of stars—from Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel to Leonard Bernstein and Ella Fitzgerald—would perform.

Pleyel was at the height of its glory, but like countless other companies was soon brought to its knees by the Depression. In 1933, the piano maker declared bankruptcy, and two years later, it was split off from the concert hall. The manufacturer limped through the remainder of the 20th century with various owners and partnerships, but it never regained its former prestige or prosperity.

The new millennium brought new opportunity in the form of Hubert Martigny, a music enthusiast and businessman who had bought the run-down Salle Pleyel in 1998. He decided to pump €30 million into renovations, but the Italian investors who owned the rights to the Pleyel name would not allow him to call the concert hall the Salle Pleyel unless he purchased the brand name. Martigny did so, buying their piano manufacturing plant in Alès and later transferring production of Pleyel instruments to a new plant in Saint-Denis, Pleyel’s historic home.

The premises are small—a far cry from the sprawling factory that once kept 200 workers busy—but the company believes it can survive and hopefully thrive in its new incarnation as a producer of high-end instruments. It recently expanded its luxury vocation by branching into furniture making, taking advantage of the talents of its 15 craftspeople, some of whom have attended the prestigious Ecole Boulle, to produce contemporary designs.

Already, Pleyel has turned out sleek sofas and chairs by Hilton McConnico and clever display cabinets by Michele De Lucchi, all spinoffs of their piano designs. These pieces and various Pleyel
models can be seen in the company’s elegant showroom, designed by Jacques Garcia and housed in the renovated Salle Pleyel. "Design is a way for us not only to showcase our savoir faire, but also to ensure the longevity of the manufacture, so it doesn’t rely solely on the market for pianos," say Arnaud Marion.

Meanwhile, like Camille Pleyel before him, Marion continues to seek out valuable public exposure for his brand. In 2009, singer Christophe had a Pleyel piano wheeled onstage for his comeback concert at the Olympia in Paris, and this year, Julie Depardieu posed with one in the pages of Paris Match.

The new-look piano has definitely put Pleyel back on the map. Given the emotional attachment that so many musicians have to this historic brand, there is fervent hope that it will continue to thrive.

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