written by:
photos by:
February 26, 2009
Originally published in Homes With History

A maker of unfussy, elegant design objects, Inga Sempé delights in things both great and small—even if she doesn’t own any.

Inga Sempé stands aloof and alight by both the tall and short versions of the Lampe Plate for Cappellini in 2001.
Photo by 
1 / 8
Sempé’s Grande Lampe Plissée for Cappellini.
Photo by 
2 / 8
Bougeoirs for Baccarat.
Photo by 
3 / 8
The Moël armchair for Ligne Roset.
Photo by 
4 / 8
Sempé’s Lampe Extensible for Cappellini.
Photo by 
5 / 8
Her Etagère à double accès, a prototype designed for the VIA Carte Blanche grant, serves as an airy space divider, book or object shelf, and art piece.
Photo by 
6 / 8
Sempé’s Rangements Brosse, for Edra, is a swishy number that conceals objects flippantly and easily with its flapper-like skirt, exemplifying the designer’s lighter side.
Photo by 
7 / 8
The Stepladder Chair, designed for the VIA Carte Blanche grant, expresses Sempe's love of functionality.
Photo by 
8 / 8
sempe tall and short lampe plate for cappellini portrait
Inga Sempé stands aloof and alight by both the tall and short versions of the Lampe Plate for Cappellini in 2001.

Inga Sempé likes objects. Not just the objects she’s designed, which appear in the galleries and sleek showrooms of Milan and New York, but things like vegetable peelers, hammers, kitchen pots, screwdrivers, and baby strollers—items produced by the thousands, intended not for cultural enrichment but rather as machines for better living. “People are ashamed to say they like objects. It’s always art they praise. You know, ‘Art, it’s the noblest thing, it’s superior, I couldn’t live without it,’” explains Sempé, “but I think you’d live a lot less well without a sink than without a painting on the wall.”

When she graduated from the ENSCI-Les Ateliers industrial design school in Paris in 1993, 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.”

Now 39, Sempé has come into her own. Though her renown still lags behind that of fellow French designers Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec and François Azambourg—part of her coterie—the pace of commissions has picked up. Current work includes a suspension lamp for Luceplan and a sofa for Edra, as well as a range of clever prototypes that debuted in January at Salon du Meuble. Cognac maker Hennessy has commissioned a project, still under wraps, while Ligne Roset, buoyed by the success of their initial collaboration, is adding another piece to its Sempé line. “We’re going to get the word out about her and make her well known even to the general public,” says Roset. Ambivalent about her newfound success, Sempé admits to wanting public recognition, but adds, “You do this work for yourself—not for others—so you’d better be happy with it. And on the whole, there’s much more self-doubt than overall satisfaction.”

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.”
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. “I had the disadvantage of being the daughter of an extremely misogynistic man,” she says, referring to her father, the illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé, whose work has appeared on dozens of New Yorker covers. “It’s something that holds you back but pushes you forward at the same time.”

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.”

That said, the 19th-century Parisian apartment she shares with her eight-year-old son—in which her studio takes up a large corner room—could use a few things. Despite having designed countless light fixtures and furniture pieces, including the Edra sofa she calls a “silky cloud,” she suffers an “awful” single bulb dangling in her bedroom and lacks a comfortable couch. “A kitchen that works would be nice, too,” she quips. Perhaps it’s the absence of these home comforts that has inspired her to create them for others.

Since the age of 15, Sempé has only followed her own lead. She fiercely protects that freedom, and it has made her a more resilient designer, even if, as Edra’s Massimo Morozzi said, it can make collaboration with her “look like a fight.” He and other executives continue to seek out what Luceplan’s Sarfatti describes as someone who
is “100-percent true.” At this rate, it may be quite a while before Sempé gets around to giving the banal objects she loves most—tools, wooden stoves, and lawnmowers now top the list—a redesign.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

Chalet in the French alps
An innovative glass addition adds contrast to a timber mountain lodge in France.
February 11, 2016
Aumas' assorted collectables.
Bright colors and vintage furniture are abound in these French homes.
February 11, 2016
Kogan designed a number of the built-in furnishings, including the headboard and cupboard in the master bedroom.The cupboard is deliberately reminiscent of a mid-century stereo speaker. The vintage lounge chairs are by Percival Lafer.
Need to relax? Make your bedroom an oasis from the rest of the house.
February 11, 2016
Modern Florida seaside home with corian island, dornbracht faucet, cees braakman combex chairs and marble knoll table in the kitchen
Read more about Knoll's impressive career here, but in the meantime, explore just a few of her works in these contemporary homes.
February 11, 2016
Modern small box home in Mexico
Letting the warm climate indoors is a common thread through these diverse dwellings.
February 11, 2016
Modern white cabinets under the stairs with skylight above
What could be better than a modest-sized house in a quaintly historic city?
February 11, 2016
dining room lighting
These renovations connect rustic, classic, and modern design in Italy.
February 10, 2016
12362509 211441865858796 1743381178 n1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 10, 2016
modern outdoor garden room plastic polycarbonate
From colorful living rooms to a backyard retreat, Belgian designers reimagine vernacular forms and materials for the modern world.
February 10, 2016
Tel Aviv kitchen with custom dining table and Smeg fridge
Would you go for an out-of-the-box palette for your major appliances? See how these kitchens tackle the trend.
February 10, 2016
Exhibition view, of Klaus Wittkugel works at P! gallery, New York
On view through February 21 at New York's P! gallery, a new show explores the politics of Cold War-era graphic design with a presentation of works by Klaus Wittkugel—East Germany's most prolific graphic designer. Curator Prem Krishnamurthy walks us through the highlights.
February 10, 2016
Reclaimed cedar and gray-stucco home outside San Francisco.
The new kid on the block in a predominantly Eichler neighborhood, this Menlo Park home breaks the mold and divides into three pavilions connected by breezeways.
February 10, 2016
A third floor addition and whole-house renovation modernized a funky cottage on an unusual, triple-wide lot in San Francisco.
From modern interiors hidden within historic structures to unabashedly modern dwellings, these seven renovations take totally different approaches to San Francisco's historic building stock.
February 10, 2016
Delphi sofa from Erik Jørgensen and gyrofocus fireplace in living room of Villa Le Trident in the French Riviera, renovated by 4a Architekten.
The Aegean's all-white architecture famously helped inspire Le Corbusier; these five dwellings continue in that proud modern tradition (though not all are as minimalist).
February 10, 2016
San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016