Jean Prouvé portrait in the living room of his house in Nancy. Image courtesy of Vitra, copyright ADAGP & Centre Pompidou.
Dons of Design
We are pleased to welcome back our Dons of Design series with an edition focusing on Jean Prouvé, the French “constructeur” whose multifarious talents were applied to all elements of the built environment, and whose influence on design is still felt today.
It is fair to say that widespread appreciation of Jean Prouvé’s talent for furniture design is something that has only developed since the turn of the century. If one looks back at design literature in the 1980s and 1990s, his work is rarely, if ever, mentioned.
Chaise Tout Bois chair (deconstructed) by Jean Prouvé for Vitra
Twenty years ago, you may have been able to buy a few original pieces of his furniture as “objets d’art” in one of those lovely furniture galleries somewhere near Montmartre in Paris, but perhaps due to the rarity of the objects, and also probably due to the fact that none of his key pieces had remained in production, he was somewhat off the design cognoscenti’s radar. That all began to change when Swiss manufacturer Vitra, in close collaboration with the Prouvé family, began to issue re-editions of his designs in 2002.
Jean Prouvé Tabouret Metallique original drawing, image courtesy of Vitra, copyright Fonds Jean Prouvé at the Archives departementales de Meurthe et Moselle.
Jean Prouvé Rayonnage Mural original drawing, image courtesy of Vitra, copyright Fonds Jean Prouvé at the Archives departementales de Meurthe et Moselle.
Up until then, Prouvé was more widely known for his work in the field of architecture. Christened a “constructeur” by Le Corbusier, he was highly regarded as someone who created practical industrial solutions to the challenges of building modern architecture. He is credited as one of the first people to make the principle of the curtain wall technically feasible, and subsequently pioneered its practical application. His self-set programme that aimed to resolve the challenges of an architecture based on industrially fabricated components (prefabs), is still of relevance today, with its approach to lightweight, easily transportable and sustainable materials. His Sahara type (1958) of prefabricated house is of particular note, with its perfect balance of spatial and functional qualities, as is the Maison Tropicale, a prototype flat pack housing system he developed for construction in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, in 1951.
Maison Tropicale, rebuilt for a Design Museum exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, 2008. Image copyright Steve Cadman, Flickr.
Prouvé also produced truly innovative and beautiful work on a grand scale, working in collaboration on buildings such as the Maison du Peuple (1935-39) in Clichy, the CNIT Building (1956-58) in Paris, which was the first building created in La Défense, and on the Spa Building (1958) in Evian, all light, air and suspense. In the Thames and Hudson Encyclopedia of 20th Century Architecture (1988), Prouvé’s approach is neatly surmised: “He strove to create buildings that would give full expression to the dynamic and freedom which he felt must characterise a mass-culture served by machine production”.
“He strove to create buildings that would give full expression to the dynamic and freedom which he felt must characterise a mass-culture served by machine production”
Thames and Hudson Encyclopedia of 20th Century Architecture (1988)
Centre des Nouvelles Industries et Technologies (CNIT) Building (1956-58) in Paris, copyright José Pestana on Flickr.
Prouvé opened his first workshop in his home town of Nancy in 1924, after first training at the school of fine arts there, and then subsequently taking apprenticeships in both blacksmithing and metalworking. It was one of a series of workshops and studios he would run, until he established his own factory in 1947, soon after the war. During this early phase of his career, he would take on a number of furniture commissions, and it is this body of work that is now much revered within the furniture industry.
Prouvé’s inclination to cross-pollinate; taking a methodology or approach to materiality from one industry and applying it to another, is perhaps why his furniture designs are imbued with a timeless quality. In the description of his Compass Desk (1947) in Phaidon’s three-volume Design Classics book (2006), this is perfectly expressed. “He (Prouvé) did not separate design from production, nor architecture from furniture. The economy of materials, the means of assembly and the visibility of structure appear no matter what form or scale his solution intended. He used materials appropriated from the automotive and aviation industries to create pieces that were affordable and easily mass-produced and continue to be influential.”
Compass desk by Jean Prouvé for Vitra (1948)
"He used materials appropriated from the automotive and aviation industries to create pieces that were affordable and easily mass-produced and continue to be influential.”
Phaidon Design Classics (2006)
Alongside the Compass Desk, there is the wonderful Cité Armchair (1929-30), which is an incredible piece of engineering as well as a thing of true beauty. There is also the Standard Chair (1934), first created for a competition run by the University in Nancy, which neatly encapsulates many of Prouvé’s ideas about materiality and mass production in a beautifully simple form.
Most recently, Vitra have re-issued a number of his other lesser known designs, including the literally named Fauteuil Kangourou lounge chair, for its resemblance to a Kangaroo. The conical lampshade Abat-Jour Conique, which was made for the Potence Wall Lamp (1947), the two elegant stools Tabouret Number 307 and Tabouret Métallique, and the wall-mounted shelving unit Rayonnage Mural.
Jean Prouvé Abat jour Conique original drawing, image courtesy of Vitra, copyright Fonds Jean Prouvé at the Archives departementales de Meurthe et Moselle.
"One hopes his legacy will continue to inspire the next generation of changemaking designers in their quest for new material solutions, and simply better ideas."
Dons of Design
It is a powerful testament to Prouvé’s significance as a designer, although he never called himself one, that all of these products are now in production, in some cases, close to a century after he first created them. For an industry that is often lost in self-reflection, his role as an outsider, and as someone willing to think about how to approach furniture and product design with a totally different language is important. One hopes his legacy will continue to inspire the next generation of changemaking designers in their quest for new material solutions, and simply better ideas.