Inga Sempe' was born in Paris in 1968. She inherited a talent for drawing from her parents; her father is the French illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé (whose work has appeared on more than 70 of new yorker covers) and mother, the Danish painter and illustrator Mette Ivers-Sempé. Inga graduated from l'ecole nationale supérieure de création industrielle in 1993 and opened her own studio in Paris. Inga is one of the most renown female designers today. Sempé doesn’t see her work as being gendered in any way. If anything, her work is androgynous, singular, and conceptual rather than earthy or sensual: a double-sided asymmetric shelving system inspired by an ironmonger’s shop, cylindrical storage containers with a magnifying-glass lid, a retractable rolling chair whose extendable back doubles as a stepladder. It is all by a woman, yes, but not feminine. She has only followed her own lead and fiercely protects that freedom.
Sempé thought she might design casters and screws. Instead, she has channeled her interest in the banal and utilitarian to become one of the dominant emerging talents in furniture design, taking principles of utility and simplicity and adding a singular twist: a giant pleated lamp for Cappellini evokes a paper accordion folded by an idle child’s hand; a candlestick series for Baccarat flips the crystal maker’s signature stemware upside down to use as a base; a new sofa line just released by Ligne Roset provides rare intimacy, cradling its inhabitants with a towering quilted backrest.
“She designs with force, without making any concessions, and that’s what interests me—even if at times it can be a bit difficult,” says Michel Roset, co-owner of Ligne Roset. “She’s a woman in the prime of her life, with a strong personality, experience, and maturity.”
Those who write about Sempé regularly remark on her reserve and occasional frostiness. Many manufacturers cite her strength of character—which often produces an active collaborative exchange—as the source of strength in her work. Perhaps what destabilizes critics is not her willfulness (her personality, if it was ever chilly, has now defrosted), but rather the fact that she’s a woman: Despite talk of democratization, the field of furniture design remains a distinctly masculine one. Sempé is conscious of standing alone, though she doesn’t see herself as a poster child for affirmative action. But Alessandro Sarfatti, CEO of Luceplan, sought her out to reconcile his company’s “masculine” image, believing that Sempé can tweak the “same old promise of Luceplan to the market—innovation, technology, quality—with a feminine touch.”
Such gentle contradictions hold sway in Sempé’s character; her inspirations are all push and pull. A child of artists “with zero DIY in them”—she grew up with her mother, painter and illustrator Mette Ivers—Sempé inherited a talent for drawing, but she was totally uninterested in art. In the face of her parents’ impracticality, she became an expert tinkerer. And though she may profess a love of objects, she doesn’t particularly want to own any. “I don’t particularly like possessing things. It bothers me, and I don’t like to be given things. I guess I just don’t want them. Potential for mess.”
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