Par Jacqueline Mainguy.
Jean Prouvé, an architect and designer whose work is collected around the whole world, is recognized nowadays as one of the most talented “inventors” of the 20th Century.
From the exhibitions of his prefabricated houses, the opening to the public of his habitable homes, the copying of his furniture, the sale by auction of his furniture or his objects which are truly works of art, the skill of Jean Prouvé is proving to be as relevant to today’s taste, as it was during his era of “Avant Garde”
Craftsman in wrought iron, inventor, designer, brilliant creator, this man, who followed a remarkable course, left his mark on history from the beginning of the 20th century.
Born in Paris in 1901, his father Victor Prouvé was himself an artist and founder of L’Ecole de Nancy.
At age 15, because of the First World War, Jean Prouvé was sent for three years to his father’s friend Emile Robert in Enghien to be an apprentice blacksmith, then a craftsman in wrought iron.
Jean Prouvé, who was already being noticed for his designs, began his work in wrought iron in the Art Nouveau style by creating vase supports and wrought iron gates……he loved this craft. This apprenticeship encouraged him subsequently to form many more himself.
He explained: “I wasn’t at all a person to work in an office, nor in design. I lived in the workshop, and I remember that the work uniform of ironworkers and blacksmiths was a leather apron to protect against sparks. For years I wore a leather apron.”
“I think that that was the greatest opportunity of my life, the chance to very quickly become a worker, and a building worker too. I think that everything started from there“
In 1924 in Nancy, he opened his own workshop. He preferred working with others to working alone. In the process of creating objects Jean especially wanted to highlight the laborer as one taking part in the fabrication of objects and he inclined towards a “production line” to make art accessible to all. Therefore, even l’Ecole de Nancy encouraged innovation and rejected the hierarchy between major and minor arts.
During the 1930s he undertook on a grand scale the manufacture of objects for the home. He made furniture, produced on industrial machines, with steel components. His work is always inspired by the choice of material used: sheet metal, aluminum or wood.
In addition to the simplicity of shape, his approach was always to use the techniques and materials available at any given moment. For a long time he would pursue the idea initiated by Galle, Daum and Marorelle of art applied to industry. But with the production line system he abandoned “these references to Nature”. He no longer made staircase banisters with floral motifs, but was the inventor of elevator cabins and removable metal partition walls.
At the start of the 1930s Andre Citroen undertook the reconstruction and adaptation of a very large building in the center of Lyon to concentrate all the activities of a car manufacturer under one roof. Completed in 1932, the huge display windows, the metal doors, the sash windows, the banisters, the hand rails and the elevator cabins lined in pressed steel, the removable and adaptable partition walls, the whole concept was fingerprinted with the logic and simplicity which was the trademark of Jean Prouvé. This work signified the skill of the wrought iron craftsman which he promoted in his workshops in Nancy, particularly the pressing of sheet metal on an industrial scale to adapt it for new purposes as yet unknown in those days.
In 1939 Jean Prouvé registered a patent for the mass construction of weekend homes on stilts, and huts for the army which could be dismantled and rebuilt.
Active in the Resistance, in the post-war years he contributed greatly to the reconstruction and urbanization of France, as someone who was so experienced in the collaboration of art and industry.
After the Liberation, having become the Mayor of Nancy, he continued to be the Director of his factory co-managed by more than 300 workers. He broke the norm by favoring experiment over profitability. An idealist, but lucid in regard to people, he would say: ”I have noticed how quickly and with such intelligence people who do interesting things and who have financial responsibility become even more intelligent”.
He decided then that his “life’s work” would be: to create, to invent, for the masses. In particular a home for the homeless called “a home for better days”, which Le Corbusier would describe as “the most beautiful house I know”.
In 1954, since accumulating personal wealth did not interest him and he had patented more than fifty or so inventions, he chose to sell “his” factory to his shareholders, because for him, if investing in research and having happy employees is bad for business, he would prefer to abandon it. Persona non grata, he devoted himself to other passions, like piloting aircraft or driving, still continuing despite everything to create prototypes. He contributed especially to the manufacture of curtain walls and glass facades.
After 1957 he became a professor at the Conservatoire Nationales des Arts et Metiers in Paris and an independent consultant for the architects with whom he collaborated: Robert Mallet-Stevens, Alexander Calder, Albert Laprade, Tony Garnier. He is an “architectural engineer” Corbusier would say, (who himself preferred to be described as a “constructor”). This discipline, architecture, let him associate with Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret, the most famous furniture designers of the 50s, and who, along with Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, were themselves regarded as the pioneers of contemporary “Design”.
From 1956 till 1974 … The opening of the Steph Simon Gallery, a promoter of Charlotte Perriand’s furniture. She was the artistic director and with Jean Prouvé, they became the sponsors and headline names of the gallery Boulevard Saint-Germain.
Dating from 1934, this chair was the result of lengthy studies and experimentation.
The aim was to respond to several criteria: It mustn’t break if you swing on it, and its design must meet the expressed requirement of Jean Prouvé, who maintained that the mechanical quality of an object was important. He himself would say that “the chair is the most difficult piece of furniture to construct. There is no difference between the construction of a piece of furniture and that of a building”.
From 1980 to 1984, Jean Prouvé continued to develop and improve the design of his furniture.
He died in Nancy in 1984
Nowadays one can still find some examples of the prolific work of Jean Prouvé:
In Saint Auban, near Château Arnoux in Provence, four of the last “Chalets”, thanks to the Heritage Director of the region, were classified in 2001 in the inventory of Historic Monuments.
These houses were built between 1941 and 1943. They were planned in great detail in the spirit of the architects Loucheur, Pierre Jeanneret and Le Corbusier, to be minimal, economic homes.
They had a simple, free flowing plan, completely furnished and destined for the engineers and their families who were working in the area.
Detail of the houses at Chateau Arnoux in Provence
These drawings represent the lodges from 1944 which could be dismantled and rebuilt for the casualties of war in Lorraine, and also an experimental section of portico in 1949, subsequently used in all the houses at Meudon.
The houses in Brazzaville
In the year 2000, the 1947 “tropical” houses, conceived by Jean Prouvé, intended for the colonial center Brazzaville, and of which only the prototypes remained, were disassembled and repatriated to France. These houses had heat evacuation systems and a very ingenious room distribution.
Sold by Christie’s in 2004, one can be seen next to the Tate Modern in London, the “little house” of 140 m2.
A second, a model of 180m2, can be seen on the roof of the Pompidou Center in Paris, restored and rebuilt.
An avid Irish art devotee, Paddy MacKillen, rediscovered two of the 450 prefabricated houses which Jean Prouvé had built for the 1945 refugees. These two homes, after he had them restored, rebuilt and furnished with contemporary furniture, he installed in the grounds of his property. Exposed to the atmosphere of woods, hills, vines and olive trees, they are among the creations of a great number of architects and artists, in his vineyards near Aix-en-Provence, the ‘Chateau La Coste”.
For his part, Patrick Seguin, an avid collector of Jean Prouvé’s work, sent to Miami in 2013 one of the 17 houses created in 1945 by Jean Prouvé and Pierre Jeanneret . Having arrived in Florida in separate pieces by boat, it was identically reconstructed in Miami and this house, cool and pleasant to live in, was named “the Beach House” and nowadays could fetch $2,5 million.
From 2002 onwards, the recreation of the works of the great “manufacturer” Jean Prouvé was begun, making new editions of his furniture.
“The Metropolitan house”, Dismountable, Transportable, Modifiable.
Jean Prouvé Exhibition, Turin 2014. Installed on the roof of the Lingotto building at the “Pinacotega Agnelli”.
A structure belonging to the Seguin family, great collectors of the works of Jean Prouvé.
In 2014 in Tourcoing
In Nancy, the town where he was mayor, some of his works are preserved, refurbished and exhibited.
Finally, in May 2014, the Artcurial Society, thanks to its vice President who for 20 years had enthusiasticly supported the work of Jean Prouvé, succeeded in regularly putting up for sale some pieces signed by the creator. A table became “the most expensive in the world” produced by the designer, as it was sold at auction for a record price of Euros 1,241,300, a price never beaten for a work by Jean Prouvé.
Considered as emblematic of his work, this table by Jean Prouvé, called “Centrale” was made in 1956 for the refectory of la Cite d’Anthony It measures 3m long.
Its originality lies in the fact that the table, which is rather aerodynamic in appearance, is supported by a large central support rather than four feet. A little domed, it reflects the light beautifully. The world record price for this piece of furniture by Jean Prouvé is an amazing tribute to the dedication of this French architect and designer, today collected all around the world.
A committed human being, the humanist Jean Prouvé defined in one simple phrase his great dream that he hoped would apply to everyone: “House your family, so that they will be sheltered”. His whole personality was marked by his inventiveness, his sense of innovation, his extensive creativity and his visionary genius.