THE INDISPUTABLE GRANDE DAME OF FRENCH COLLECTIBLE DESIGN IS ANYTHING BUT STEELY
Maria discusses her prolific career in an intimate interview with Jina Khayyer.
"It’s 5:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon at the Hôtel Lutétia in Paris. Maria Pergay walks through the lobby as if it were her home, each of her steps determined. She chooses an armchair and asks for an extra cushion, to sit higher, more upright. While most of the regular Lutétia crowd is sipping tea and eating cake, Madame Pergay (she prefers simply Maria) asks for a Diet Coke, with “plenty of ice and extra lemon, s’il vous plaît.” She is not tall but strong. Her voice is warm, and she speaks quickly and precisely. No sign of her being 83 years old.
To sum up her life and career in a few words would be impossible, but here’s a quick attempt: born in 1930, to Russian parents, Maria spent part of her childhood in what is now Moldova. When her father, a Russian spy, was arrested and sent to the gulag, she and her mother escaped to France, where relatives took them in. After the war, Maria studied costume design and sculpture at Paris’s Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques, where she met her future husband, Monsieur Pergay, with whom she had four children. It was as a young mother that her career began crafting beautiful objects out of sterling silver: ashtrays, cigarette boxes, little vases, which she sold at her shop in the Place des Vosges.
In the 1960s she was asked to produce one of her designs in stainless steel, and so began her long love affair with this most virile of materials, with which she made her name and her fortune. Looking back now at her catalog of often iconic pieces, where steel is passionately bent, welded, and wrought into shapely submission, it’s hard to believe that this utilitarian metal could have ever been considered the antithesis of bourgeois good taste. Which isn’t to suggest that Pergay’s creations — which grace the homes of Saudi royalty and oligarchs alike — are of conventionally good taste. Indeed Pergay isn’t afraid to use elements that in the hands of lesser talent could easily take a turn towards the tacky. But under her steely direction bows, precious stones, tassels, and even fur, are transformed into pure design poetry.
In recent years Pergay has stepped back into the limelight, thanks in large part to the New York gallerist Suzanne Demisch who, legend has it, tracked the retired designer down in 2003 at her daughter’s home in Morocco. Since then Pergay has been working non-stop, producing seven to ten new pieces per year. When she’s not working, she likes to spend as much time as possible in her country home in Béziers, in the south of France. But on this particular afternoon at the Lutétia, she was all ours..."