My papa, Jean Prouvé
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Jean Prouvé (1901-84) was not only an extraordinary engineer, architect and industrial designer but an extraordinary man. As a member of the French Resistance during the second world war, he operated under the codename Locksmith and, according to his daughter Catherine (the youngest of his five children), organised five escape routes from his apartment in Nancy, France, to avoid capture by the Germans.
Prouvé became the city’s mayor in 1944, but left the position the following year. “He loathed the idea of becoming a career politician,” explains Catherine. We have met at Nancy’s golden gate-framed Place Stanislas to talk about her father, whose work is the focus of a major launch this June by the Swiss design brand Vitra. Vitra has produced 150 limited editions of his Fauteuil Kangourou armchair (1948) in Bleu Marcoule – a colour Prouvé developed specifically for a client in the 1950s – which will be sold online priced £3,610 from June 15, as well as at the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein. Vitra will also unveil a new square there, the Place Jean Prouvé, as part of the Art Basel celebrations.
At 82, Catherine is sprightly with all the warmth and candour I would imagine of her father. We cross the square to Nancy’s Museum of Fine Arts and its permanent Prouvé exhibition, pausing inside at an image of Ateliers Jean Prouvé – the factory in Maxéville, just outside the city, which became a centre of exploration for her father. “He was self-taught, and referred to his workforce as companions, sharing everything with them, including his best tools,” she says. He was not as keen to share the spoils with the Nazis, however. “He switched off all the machines during occupation so they couldn’t use them; they had no idea,” adds Catherine.
Prouvé was a man driven by the machine age, an engineer working with electric welding and sheet metal who was not preoccupied with “design”, but with functionalism and the mastery of material. He was also a creator with a social conscience, who believed that advances in the automotive and aviation industries could provide solutions to social issues. As an advocate of mass production and the prefabricated home, he sought to address affordable housing and the plight of refugees.
Catherine directs my attention to a black-and-white image of one of Prouvé’s Demountable houses. Made of wood and metal, they could be easily transported and dismantled, and were shipped to bomb-devastated villages where they could be assembled by two people in a day.
The picture revives a memory for Catherine. “My mother wanted to get away to Brittany with all the children after the war but had nowhere to stay, so my father said, ‘I have a house for refugees in the factory, you can take that.’ He had no time for vacations,” she recalls. “So all the panels were put on a train and it went to Brittany. My mother went to scout the area on her Jean Prouvé bicycle and found a place to put the house just for the summer, and it was built there.” It sounds like the ultimate caravan holiday. She laughs: “It was normal for us but so nice.”
Prouvé track record
Prouvé was a master of prefabrication, of movable metal walls and porthole panels (which featured on key architectural projects of the early 1950s, including the Maisons Tropicales, Congo, prefabs designed to be flown out to remote parts of Africa). He worked also with utilitarian wood-and-metal furniture made for schools, factories and offices. Before establishing his factory in around 1924, he honed his skills at his first workshop making pieces for the architects of the art nouveau, and collaborating with contemporaries such as Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand. But I don’t mention Perriand to Catherine. Her father was not fastidious in protecting and patenting his work and is no longer named as a designer on several important pieces now solely attributed to Perriand.
Catherine, one of three remaining Prouvé sisters (along with Simone and Françoise), is now determined to preserve her father’s legacy. To this end, the three siblings have permitted Vitra to reissue key Prouvé pieces. Vitra’s first collection in 2002 brought the Standard chair, the Antony and Cité armchairs, the Potence lamp, and the Trapèze, EM, Guéridon and Granito tables back into production. This was followed by the late Virgil Abloh’s 2019 neon-orange “hack” of Prouvé’s ’50s Antony armchair as part of his vision for the home of 2035. Greatly inspired by Prouvé, Abloh said at the time: “I loved the idea of introducing some Prouvé classics to a generation that might not know the importance of his work.”
Many of Prouvé’s original pieces are in safe hands at the Vitra Campus: the Vitra Design Museum owns one of the largest collections of Prouvé furniture in the world (started by Vitra chairman emeritus Rolf Fehlbaum in the 1980s, before, he admits, he was priced out of the market). The pieces are stored in a vault-like space among other treasures, from Eames to Wegner and Sottsass. The grounds of the Campus also accommodate one of Prouvé’s original metal-clad petrol stations (designed with his architect brother Henri in 1953), where Abloh DJed for a party honouring his icon.
Prouvé influenced many creatives, including architects such as Renzo Piano; he was on the jury for the Centre Pompidou proposal and came out strongly in favour of Piano/Rogers’ radical plan of 1971. But surprisingly, given his functionalist aesthetic, it is the art world that has championed his contribution as a designer. Today, his pieces exchange hands for huge sums of money at auction (at the peak of “Prouvémania” in 2014, his Table Trapèze from 1956 fetched €1,241,300 at Artcurial’s Paris design sale, doubling its upper presale estimate of €600,000). He is rightly celebrated for his ability to meld the finer principles of art, design and architecture. As Le Corbusier said of him in 1954: “He represents in a singularly eloquent manner… for everything he touches and conceives immediately assumes an elegant plastic form while offering brilliant solutions with regard to strength and manufacture.”
The next day I meet Catherine and her daughter Delphine at the Prouvé House in Nancy, the modernist home where she grew up with her father and mother, Madeleine. The house is now a weekend visitor attraction from June to September, the guided tours booked in advance, as the house is occupied by a tenant who cherishes it as his own.
Built in 1954, the project took Prouvé’s mind off losing his beloved factory in the years before. He was forced to resign from the failing business only to see his partner, Studal, the French national aluminium company, take over management. The designer once commented: “I died in 1952.”
Catherine’s memories, however, are of her family’s excitement of moving into a new home, particularly her mother’s. “She had waited to have a house for years; it was difficult to find a place to build,” she says of the plot that is wedged into a steep hill commanding skyline views across the city. “My mother had an American Jeep and all the panels were tied behind it and hauled up the hill.” A prefab built over one summer by the family and a few friends (“I was in charge of ordering the screws,” Catherine says, smiling), the house bears all Prouvé’s signatures, such as its lightweight transportable materials salvaged from his factory, including a façade of aluminium porthole panels on one side of the entrance.
There are echoes here, too, of the aerodrome clubhouse (now a home) near Metz that Prouvé built with Le Corbusier in 1952, in the shape of the overhanging roof sheltering large glazed windows, and design elements borrowed from the aviation industry. Le Corbusier called him “the archetypal builder”, although Prouvé always referred to himself simply as a constructor.
Although Le Corbusier had several meetings with Prouvé at the family apartment at Place de la Carrière (along with characters such as Josephine Baker), he never visited the Prouvés’ hillside home. “My father worked in Paris at that time, only returning at the weekends and, of course, later taught at the School of Arts and Craft [from 1958 to 1971].” She does recall meeting the priest at the Le Corbusier-designed chapel in Ronchamp (1955) where, following Le Corbusier’s death, Prouvé was commissioned to build an independent campanile with three bells (the chapel having none). The bells are still rung every day. “The priest said, ‘Every time I hear those bells I think of your father,’” Catherine says.
Similar memories pour into her mind as we sit in the large living room of the Nancy house. There’s a palm plant in the corner, not secured in a pot but sprouting through the floor – “We threw the seeds down there and it just grew” – and a large metal stove that she recalls her father constructed by hand: “The tiles were made and decorated by a neighbour.”
It was a very important room for Prouvé, she continues. “He saw it like a village square: somewhere to meet and talk. When you wanted to be quiet you’d go to your 5sq m bedroom,” she says of the layout of the house, in which the living room gives way to a corridor of cabin-like bedrooms where each child had their own room on one side, and a storage unit on the other.
Catherine is excited that Vitra’s new Place Jean Prouvé will have the same communal energy: “It will be the same: a place to eat and talk and meet.” And the Vitra-Prouvé collaboration will continue in further projects. There will be a new palette for all the products, approved by Catherine; and the brand will introduce four additional designs – the Abat-Jour Conique lampshade, his Tabouret No 307 and Tabouret Métallique stools, and the Rayonnage Mural, a shelving system designed for the Ecole Nationale Professionnelle in Metz.
“I think it is wonderful. The original furniture is so expensive but now people can buy an edition that is relatively affordable. This is very important,” says Catherine of the collections. “Just before my father died he had signed an engagement for an edition of one of his chairs, and I could never have launched this if he hadn’t signed that contract. It was almost like he was giving me his permission to do this. He would have been very happy.”