Five years on the clock and five creatives on staff: Paris-based Paf Atelier uses its young character and small size to bend with – and beard – both industry shift and client needs. Founded by trained architect Christopher Dessus, the creative studio specializes in event and exhibition scenography, combining design and production like they are two inseparable entities.

How did Paf Atelier come about? What inspired you to start your own practice?

CHRISTOPHER DESSUS: I founded the studio in 2017 following an experience working as an exhibition producer at Villa Noailles during the 33rd Festival de la Mode et du Design and the Design Parade Toulon. It was after I studied architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure d’architecture de Versailles (ENSA) and in Montreal. The experience taught me about the small economics of scenography design, the beauty of production support and, above all, the satisfaction of producing quality scenographies in the company of other talents. As a scenographer you have to be very attentive to needs and find a humble place next to someone’s work. Combining my experience as an architect and the idea of production, Paf Atelier evolved very naturally.

Cover and above: Architect Christopher Dessus (right) founded Paf Atelier – now a team of five that includes interior designer Romeo Drege (left) – in 2017.

How have you developed your business over the past years?

It hasn’t always been easy since there is a lot of competition and, traditionally, architecture is about credibility, about seniority. But as a young and small studio we have the flexibility to constantly reinvent ourselves, whether that’s in size or organization structure. Our projects have always been varied, covering sectors ranging from retail to entertainment, culture and interior design. Today there are five of us working in the studio and everyone has different sensibilities, coming from complementary training in architecture, object design and graphic design. We value a porosity between disciplines made possible through collaborations with actors from various creative fields. The number of projects is increasing, but we will always continue to further develop a creative language that is both identifiable and unique. 

What have been the biggest struggles you faced in setting up your practice and how did you overcome them?

Creating an atelier focused on scenography and interior architecture is not an easy choice. They are skills that tend to be seen as a project’s ‘annex’. Why call a scenographer at all? It’s thanks to clients who placed their trust in us that we were able to design spaces in which scenography plays an essential role. They prove the value of our profession and our way of looking at things.

For Paris-based emerging fashion designer Louis-Gabriel Nouchi’s show for Chinese brand Joeone held on the forecourt of Palais de Tokyo in Paris last June, Paf Atelier clad the catwalk in a reflective material. The set was produced in collaboration with La Mode en Images.

Your studio aims to question the conditions of architectural practice, from creation to production. Can you explain in what way?

For each project, the story we want to convey is always the starting point, but what’s happening ‘on the ground’ plays an equally important role. We start talking about production design from the very start. We offer a complete service, adapted to the specific needs of each client. We take care of all stages of the process: from planning, research, interior, object and furniture design, to montage and construction. To work sustainably, we try to bring design and production more closely together, from the choice of materials to the way a project is assembled. It’s unthinkable to us to simply toss away a set after it’s been used and not think about its ‘afterlife’. We try to produce in more responsible ways by asking ourselves questions about reversibility and disassembly, but also by surrounding ourselves with people that have knowledge about the field of ecology.

We attach great importance to the study of the context and the territory of a project by adopting a responsible, ethical and sustainable approach. Our recent projects exemplify this approach. We look at the sites to come up with both effective and economical solutions. For Les Fleurs, a pop-up flower shop for Jacquemus, we utilized ordinary tools in flower delivery, such as carts, blue plastic buckets, metal shelving and tarpaulins, to dress the small interior. The intervention was simple, but insanely effective and brand-authentic, without upsetting the neighbourhood’s atmosphere.

Pop-up retail seem to have found new relevance this past one and a half years. Where do you think that new surge of pop-ups comes from? Does the need for brands to reconnect with customers play a role?

Given the health constraints and the evolution of the pandemic, pop-ups gained ground. Brands had to adapt. Only being able to work outdoors brought the retail experience onto the street and there was a renewed focus on storefronts as the key point of interaction between consumers and brands.

Designed and developed by Paf Atelier, a curtain with arch-shaped passages was part of the set design for the French Eurovision 2021 television show.

What are the main challenges of designing a pop-up as opposed to a permanent retail location?

Pop-ups tend to be much more ambitious, more radical, and we like to work in this dynamic. The duration is often limited, the constraints very strong: faster, shorter, more intense. The facilities are different but are inevitably of a higher degree of complexity and production. We really think of the permanent and the ephemeral as two different missions. Pop-ups are a great way to create a very different customer experience and we love playing that game!

What do you think the disruption COVID caused will mean for the future of the events/entertainment industry?

It gives hope for change. We’ve seen several attempts that have made events more accessible and inclusive, thanks often to digital solutions. But it’s early yet and the answers are still too few, or poorly regulated. Big (fashion) houses are making steps, but the cultural sector is having a hard time keeping up. Our role will be to contribute to new solutions and help accelerate ideas, to rethink outdated codes and organizational principles, to integrate ideas of openness, social co-presence and gender fluidity into the spaces we design. The scenography can sublimate subjects and voices, so we aim to be a part of that.

A motorized installation designed for the show Itmahrag, which was directed and choreographed by Olivier Dubois, responds to the dancers and performers that surround it.

What lessons from the past period do you think will be adopted more permanently?

The digital experience, which has exploded during the pandemic, will remain and we hope new tools will be developed to further embrace it. In the cultural sphere, there are still some real issues of spatialization and concept. We need to come up with new ideas to avoid the experience of a three-dimensional museum on a computer screen. We believe that digital technology has a role to play, but must offer something extraordinary, not simply a copy of reality.

This interview was first featured in Frame 143. Get your copy here.