How to make furniture that is elegant, economic and stable at the same time? Jean Prouvé didn’t know the answer to this question, but still designed items like this easily. How? By always reminding himself of the following: “If people understand, there’s no need to explain. If they don’t there’s no use explaining”.

Decoration as a matter of past

Jean Prouvé was born in artistic family in 1901, in Nancy, France. He was the second among seven children of the sculptor and painter Victor Prouvé and the pianist Marie Duhamel. As he was expected to follow his parents’ path, he entered School of Arts in Nancy at the age of 11. After three years of education, he moved to Enghien-les-Bains, 280 kilometres west of home.

The reason for leaving home was the wish to study materials that were unfamiliar to his father as a tool for work. Prouvé was 14 at the time, which showed how much courage and determination he carried in himself even as a young fellow. Blacksmith Émile Robert introduced him to basic characteristics of tin, aluminum and steel. The knowledge he gained as a blacksmith represented the foundation of his career. The will for learning more would lead him directly to Paris, to Aldabert Szabo’s workshop where he became completely independent.

At the age of 22, Jean Prouvé opened his own workshop and as a craftsman started to create hand-made lamps and chandeliers. He also helped local Art Nouveau Artists in realization of their works, but was never a true lover of decoration. He wasn’t interested in details, he saw the potential in smooth surfaces and metals were ideal means of working. The arrival of unknown materials in France such as chrome and stainless steel additionally affected his way toward Modernism.

With Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand and others Jean Prouvé helped the Foundation of the movement The French Union of Modern Artists that lasted for 30 years. The idea of association was that the objects’ function and the production process itself carry the same message: If the object is “easy” to operate with then it must be “easy” to make. The manifest of this movement was “We like logic, balance and purity”, which Prouvé would stick to until the end of his career. 

Solution to problems

Since 1931, workshop grew into respectable “Ateliers Jean Prouvé”. During this period he collaborated with French architects Eugène Beaudoin and Marcel Lods. He started considering design as a question of morals, and socio-political concept was his everyday inspiration. He was especially devoted to creating structures that gave answers to state problems of those times. When there was a need for projecting hospitals and schools he issued a catalog of standardized objects of those purposes. What inspired him further was the mass production and how to use its potential. He brought great achievements into the world of architecture by introducing advanced production technologies. In a period that followed, Prouvé played a great part in developing serial made modular systems of houses.

Some examples of such architecture appeared after the World War Two with a lack of living space for French colonies in Africa. He designed three prototypes of prefabricated, metal structures called the Tropical house. Produced in France, they were then transported by plane to remote parts of Africa and installed there. The houses and Prouvé himself were far ahead from their time for many reasons. Easy transport and simple assemblage of elements is the feature of one of the most famous furniture retailers – Ikea. Does the concept of this mega company hide in Prouvé’s ideas?

We find a new layer of originality in the system of natural ventilation. Outer walls were installed to protect from direct sun heat while inner walls were perforated so that the air could circulate through space. Apart from the fact that some house segments were very complicated to produce, Prouvé wasn’t criticized for that. Tropical house was a modern house which had a charm of French retro beauty.

The smallest of all houses that he designed was the so called “6×6” from 1944. As the previous one, this one also solved problems caused by the war, when a vast number of French lost their homes. It was an early example of ephemeral, social housing of mass production. In this case, Prouvé found analogy between the table and the house and patented “axial portal frame” in that way which would be a constructive support to his every future work of this type. 

The wealth is in simplicity

Jean Prouvé described himself as an engineer rather than an artist or designer. When they asked him how he succeeded in making aesthetically attractive pieces, he couldn’t explain. The only thing he was aware of was that the essence of his work was based on rational production and constructive relations between materials. Unlike most architects, he didn’t put form and beauty first. He succeeded in creating an ideal balance between these two, which gave him fame and contemporaries’ respect. This Frenchman’s talent is noticeable through attractive items and objects that had simplicity as a starting point. Although utopian ideas adorned the Architecture of the fifties, Prouvé leaned on real, simple ideas. „Never design anything that cannot be made.”- he repeated.

Throughout his career he got familiar with good and bad sides of metal, but he found nobleness in wood. By combining these two materials he knew how to find harmony and moderation. One of the iconic pieces that could be found in Vitra catalogues is the Standard chair. While metal frame gives stability, wooden parts give gracefulness to it. In a bit refined Antony chair Prouvé drew gracefulness with one light, wavy move. Although his goal was to produce cheap furniture, made of metal elements and simple plywood, that same furniture found place in museums and private collections. 

The pioneer of future styles  

The generation of architects that entered the French scene after Prouvé, studied his innovative work carefully. Among them were Richard Roger and Renzo Piano, authors of the Georges Pompidou Centre, the masterpiece of the high-tech architecture. One of the jury members for the competition in which Pompidu Centre deservedly won the first award was Jean Prouvé himself.  Back then he didn’t know that he was a role model for these young architects, but was sure that everyone observed construction and installations as a new kind of aesthetics. Some Art historians regard him as the pioneer of high-tech Architecture besides the fact that his work describes the movement in the most primitive form. Richard Rogers remained faithful to Prouvé’s work until today. In 2015 he designed cylindrical kitchen and bathroom updates for „6×6“ houses.

Jean Prouvé thought that architecture should be flexible and practical. His concept that everything, from chair to house had to be portable supported the development of nomadic architecture, which is becoming more and more popular in the 21st century. The question is: Was Prouvé the first to patent the small object which transformed fast into numerous individual elements? It could unpack then and turn into a living space and adjust to new surroundings. Will history repeat, is he the beginner of another architecture style?  

Many people consider Jean Prouve to be the carrier of the “machine” age in the Architecture because he brought engineering convenience in his work. His works contain an honest Modernist aesthetics with characteristics of industrial production. Prouvé’s occupations were changing from craftsman and manufacturer to architect and engineer. There’s no doubt that in his heart he remained young craftsman who boldly went to the epicenter of France. Gradual learning and clear attitudes could give us the answer how he was able to design true works of art. He didn’t only leave furniture and objects behind but paved the path for many leading architects of today. After 60 years of career, one bright star that brought in a futuristic glow to Modernism went out in 1984.

Featured image: Jean Prouvé by Rob Croes / Anefo, used under CC0 1.0 / Cropped from original

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