Design Heroes: Jean Prouve [1901-1984]

Introduction

The A&R has argued that Colin Chapman ought to be considered Industrial Designer of International repute. This has not always been the case but we hope to rectify this omission by a series of articles and benchmarking. There is some evidence of change and more academic published authorities are now including his work. In this article we will compare and contrast both men and allow our subscribers to make their own evaluation.

In this instance we discuss the industrial design of Jean Prouve whose work extended from newspaper kiosks to bicycle trailers ,a live in trailer [ designed with Jeanneret] to a bicycle with a sheet steel frame , demountable prefabricated emergency houses , curtain walling and a mass of contract furniture and some highly regarded minor masterpieces of architecture in conjunction with others.

Both Chapman and Prouve believed in technology and the mutation of materials [both extensively used aluminum] and technologies from other industries; mainly aviation and advanced motor production. Both men were capable drivers and handled a motor car well. It’s believed both might have significant contributed to their own personal residence and factories as well as furniture ranges.

In this article we will provide some detailed analysis of specific examples from both Prouve’s furniture and architecture.

Subscribers may wish to look at other A&R articles in the Design Heroes series:-

  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel
  • Buckminster Fuller
  • Chairman Chapman- Colin Chapman and Furniture Design
  • Marcel Breuer
  • Minimalism and the Motorcar
  • Architects as Car Designers [A&R book Review]
  • Eileen Gray [ to be published shortly

Jean Prouve: Brief Biography

Prouve was born into a craftsmen/ artisan / artistic family that extended back generations. Parents and grandparents were artists and craftsmen. His father was ceramicist and worked in marquetry and associated with the leading designers of the day. His father also founded the “School of Nancy” The Nancy region of France held a concentration of iron and steel works plus crafts in furniture and glass.Jean Prouve had hoped to become a professional engineer but circumstance forced him to compromise although it’s evident he retained an engineers disciplined and focused practicality in every design he undertook. Throughout his career he would be optimistic, experimental and progressive. He could certainly be provocative and unconventional.

Prouve underwent an apprenticeship c 1916-19 and this probably included metal forming, craftsmanship, light engineering and almost certainly traditional blacksmith. It’s possibly that during this period he produced some pieces to his own design. He expressed like Chapman an interest in aviation and of making things.

It’s believed that Prouve undertook military service between 1921-23 and opened his own workshop on leaving possibly in 1924.

The 1920’s were an exciting time in Paris between the wars as many of the early Modernists were declaring their manifestos and their work was emerging.Formost[JS2]  amongst these would have been Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens ,but it’s possible that Prouve also meet Walter Gropius and Eileen Gray. His design skills and practical construction techniques permitted him to register his first patents.

Significantly in the early 1930’s Prouve was confident enough and possibly respected to have co-founded U.A.M. [Union des Artistes Modernes]

In the early 1930’s possibly 1931 Proud started Ateliers Jean Proud which has been assessed as being part laboratory, part design studio cum factory in conjunction with social experiment. Prouve was advanced in social and worker organization as he believed and implemented teamwork and worker participation. This formed the basis of a social and economic organization of a collective work team. Profits were reinvested in equipment and plant. The editors deduct that it has certain similarities with the Bauhaus possibly seeking the alliance of craftsmen, industry and art but actually established and delivered on a more commercial scale. This was in Nancy. It’s been suggested that about this time he might have 30 co-workers employed.

During his time he produced some significant pieces of furniture like the “Grand Repos” and his work bears some comparison with his architect peers [see tabulation in Chapman and furniture].His reputation was possibly established with the entrance Portal for Villa Reifenberg [1927] and furniture for the Cite Universitaire in Nancy.

During the Second World War Prouve was active in the resistance and due to the shortages mentioned he improvised many designs to overcome limitations by working with substitutes. This possibly rather suited his pragmatic and craft based approach.

Post war like Britain France suffered shortages and housing crisis to which Prouve would provide some excellent practical solutions. Whereas Britain ran up the “prefabs” Priuve offered several government and charitable institutions emergency preassembled accommodation units that were both reasonably cheap and quickly constructed [potentially by the occupants] or two semi-skilled craftsmen.

Through the late 40’s and 50’s Aluminum was a leading technological material through aviation. [Note that in America Buckminster Fuller would adopt techniques and Chapman was briefly employed in the aluminum industry].Prouve design approach and new capital and office building created considerable opportunities for the material. He briefly joins a larger organization to contribute .Throughout the 1950’s he seems to have abandoned furniture for the more lucrative and expanding architectural work.

Prouve is not a qualified architect and unable to adopt this title although he makes considerable contributions both directly and indirectly [see dedicated paragraph]. In 1955 Prouve co-founds “Les Constructions” and under reorganization and grouping he possibly decides to leave and return to a greater independence.

In 1968 at the age of 67 he forms an independent architectural consultancy in Paris. During his career Prouve was honored and decorated for his design work. This is possibly why at age of 70 he was adopted as the president of the Jury for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. During his later career Prouve had proved a popular lecturer.

Sadly after a lifetime of design and practical construction and design patents Jean Prouve died in 1984

Contemporaries: Architects and Designers

Prouve was fortunate to mix with and be influenced by one of the greatest generation of architects in Europe at the early birth of Modernism. It included:-

  • Le Corbusier
  • P.Jeanneret
  • C.Perriand
  • Robert Mallet-Stevens
  • E.Beaudouin
  • M.Lods
  • Tony Garnier
  • Jacques Andre
  • Henri Prouve [brother?]
  • Andre Sive
  • M.Novarina
  • Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer of the Bauhaus School
  • Eileen Gray [ although not mentioned as meeting they were contemporaries in Paris during the 1920’s & 30’s and shared similar group of Avant -garde designer friends]
  • Rogers ,Piano and G.Franchini

Aesthetic and Design Methodology

Proud is considered by design critics to be left leaning with a predisposition in design aesthetic towards austerity, functionalism and economy. The editors detect however that he was not dogmatic.He did not publish manifestos and that is work was rather special for the approach that he adopted. His approach was more humanitarian, more sympathetic, less rigid and his techniques although part borrowed from aviation and motor manufacturing still contained a craft element i.e. semi mass production which was possibly also consistent with the volumes/ size of the contracts he won.

Foremost in our assessment of Jean Prouve we ought to remember first that he adapted and responded to two World Wars with all the consequences and impacts on materials availability, technological advances and scarcity as did Chapman. Secondly Prouve directed his design and production to the contract market essentially within the public sector which comprised, hospital, schools, universities, public utilities and other related institutions particularly social housing. Thirdly he designed and manufactured in an intermediary sector between mass production and one off commissioned pieces. This is quite significant and will be elaborated. For example it is evident in his work and the photographs of his ateliers that he adopted and worked with cheaper materials, low to medium technology plant and craft skills and that the spot welding and general forming and bending of his furniture reinforces this. He was also to adopt Formica in his furniture.

Prouve’s own statement helps clarify:-

“It was sheet steel that inspired me – folded, ribbed then welded”

Prouve had a particular affinity with this thin sheet steel material and the technologies for welding aluminum and stainless steel. He invested in equipment that would produce results.

Jean Prouve is considered to be a visionary humanist by many design critics. The editor’s share this believe and feel that Prouve’s aesthetic and oeuvre substantiate this. Prouve like many of the modernists and contemporaries of the 1920’s [see below] believed in technological advancement [ the aero plane and the motor car were held up as the noble examples and vanguard and particularly the achievements of Henry Ford in regard to exacting standards , price and  volume i.e. accessibility] as means of  social advancement and improved quality of life. However he was rather special. Rather than an outright theoretician Prouve remained a powerful mixture of craftsman/artisan designer dedicated to practical and affordable solutions whether they be in architecture of furniture. He was dedicated to the function of the object but related this to the materials available the industrial methods by which they would be produced but his overriding concern was that they would serve everyday use. Although not without some arrogance. There is an example where his co-workers suggested that a chair designed for university students was to low and therefore impractical but defended the design refereeing to the agility of youth.

Prouve is reputed to have said of himself that he possessed:-

“A 2CV way of thinking” and that he described himself as a “factory man” allowing for translation this indicates both a modesty but possibly more importantly his rejection of theory. It is evident that he was inspired by the Citroen 2CV [see A&R article on Minimalism and extended reference to the 2CV.]   Many of the modernist designers liked to believe their design aesthetic was practical and embracing the poetry of industry but Prouve actually delivered in a considerably way. Prouve was driven by an aesthetic and construction technique that was founded on savings of materials, manual labour and time [see A&R article on Minimalism].It was a simple elegant style born from the deployment of inexpensive materials and production methods. It might be expressed as optimizing and simplifying. As such he did not pursue an aesthetic for its own value or statement but rather a workmanlike practicality, serviceability and user friendliness.  Peter’s assessment of Prouve is that:-

“In his work Prouve pursued everything but the creation of the monumental. His primary concern was the notion of human beings living in a flexible and changeable modern environment”

Prouve’s designs both in furniture and architecture are considered “nomadic” because of their essential lightness, maneuverability/ transportable and demountable nature. These are engineering qualities particularly associated with the airplane. They are essentially sustainable through their nature to rest on the ground without irrevocable damage.

The editors assess Prouve as being inspired by the Bauhaus school. However in many respects he achieved greater results in his furniture design [he was quite critical of Marcel Breuer’s bent tube furniture. Although not expressly stated he might have found the exaggerated aesthetic and high price contrary to its design objectives, overelaborate ad expensive for the intended clientele and not easily translated into mass production]

Prouve was equally practical delivery in his social housing particularly the Maisons a portiques, Standard Houses, Maisons coques and houses for Abbe Pierre. Although of course the Bauhaus did produce prototype prefabricated houses and a low cost home ownership estate of houses for workers.

The Prouve family residence indicates that the designer was not a hypocrite and the modest home is not ostentatious[JS3]  but follows the general scale and layout that he has adopted for other families. It was economical yet friendly and relaxed.

Jean Prouve: Architectural contribution

Prouve was not a qualified architect and was unable to adopt this title. He was however a significant designer and consultant and contributed with architects. The editors consider some of his most significant work to include:-

  • 1935-36         Aero Club, Airfield Pavilion
  • 1935-39         Maison du Peuple in Clichy
  • 1939-47         Maisons a portiques
  • 1949-52         Standard House, Cite “Sans Souci”,Meudon with Henri Prouve & A.Sive
  • 1949               House for the Tropics,Niamey,Niger and Brazzaville, Congo, with Henri Prouve
  •  1950              School in Vantoux with Henri Prouve and stair case and other fittings for Corbusier at unite d’   habitation ,Marseille
  • 1950-51         Grand Palais of Lille with Herbe, Gauthier, Douniaux
  • 1950-52         Maisons coques, Saloon des arts Menagers,Paris; Cite “Sans Souci”,Meudon
  • 1950-52         Shed roofs for the Mame Printing Works with Drieu-La-Rochell & B.Zehrfuss
  • 1953-54         Façade of Apartment Buildings on Mozart Square with Mirabeau Architects
  • 1953-4            Prouve Residence
  • 1955-56         House for L’Abbe Pierre; “House of Better Days”
  • 1956               Pump house for Evian Mineral Water at Cachat with Novarina and Ketoff
  • 1962               Gauthier House, Saint –Die with Bauman and Remondine
  • 1967               Youth Centre in Ermont
  • 1971               Chairman of Judging Panel for the Pompidou Centre, Paris

The editors highlight the following as they are considered worthy of greater analysis. Perhaps it ought be recorded that some design and architectural critics consider the Evian pump room a minor masterpiece and that Grand Palais of the Lille Fairground as of greater significance.Peters observes about the Grand Palais:-

“Can be seen as the forerunner of many modern buildings, for example the Centre Pompidou in Paris…. And the Lloyd’s building in London. It served as a model for many high tech buildings whose supporting structures were aesthetically engaged as expressive elements in their construction”

1949-52 Standard House at Meudon [see editors sketch plans and elevation drawings]

This example is selected for its essential sustainability [for wider and related understanding see A&R article on Minimalism].The Standard House was an extension of Prouve’s demountable barrack units and the Maisons a portique. They also integrate and link with Maisons coques, the houses for Abbe Pierre and the integrity of the Prouve residence. They were built like the British prefabs for emergency rehousing of the homeless and possibly ex-servicemen. A number were built in a parkland location in Meudon which is a suburb of Paris.

The Standard Houses were offered as a modular concept at 8m X 8m or 8m x 12m. These detached homes offered the opportunities for small families and might provide two or three bedrooms. They were constructed of steel and aluminium.ie steel floor and supporting frames for the roof with modular 1 m panels which could be interchanged for the external walls. This provided flexibility, responded to necessity and individual taste.

They were very advanced for their era and were insulated with glass wool. Care was taken in the design to prevent thermal bridge which can be a flaw in his type of construction.

Importantly once the main supports were fixed only one worker was required to assemble the home. Evidence suggests that Prouve took care to ensure that the prefabricated parts were easily transportable and their weight controlled so they could be man handled.

Peters tell us that the estate of homes are still serviceable today and some of the original occupants remain .The photographs that Peters provides shows these light airily and flexible homes offering attractive and healthy lifestyle along with examples of his furniture pieces notably the Standard chairs and “Gueridon” table. The editor notes that Prouve was a family man and his designs encourage family interaction and togetherness. Hence the private spaces like bedrooms are relatively small and the living spaces larger and reasonably open plan.

Peters suggests these homes may have been more expensive to construct than conventional design and materials but the respective prices are not given. The evidence suggests that the properties were sold to wealthy clients which implies they were beyond the means of low income families for whom they were probably intended. The prefabricated construction with the potential  for self-build seems very evident with possible cost saving.

The Standard House  is worthy of comparison with the Dymaxion  Houses designed by Buckminster Fuller [ see A&R article ] and the self-build modular construction system although in timber advocated by Walter Segal in the UK. Prouve’s Standard Homes along with the Bauhaus /Gropius designs for low cost homeownership for working people seem to be extremely honorable attempts to create affordability and quality along the lines of Henry Ford whom as we have noted provided inspiration and the evidence through technology and organizational methods [although we ought note that the dark side of Ford was less democratic].This prefabricated construction is still being advocated today amongst self –builders and IKEA offer a flat pack system. In the editors estimation it seems to possess considerable sustainable potential and perhaps in the third world where an incremental build up system could be flexible to changing circumstance and low income. Of course the down side can be the labour cost of the actual components prior to delivery.

Jean Prouve: Furniture and Fittings

Prouve designed furniture in the context of schools, offices, universities, railway stations, universities , kitchens and related architectural fittings such as screens, bannisters notably for staircase at Unite d’ habitation by Le Corbusier at Marseilles and  windows .The editors consider some of his most significant pieces to be :-

  • 1929                                                               Folding chair, reclining armchair , aeronautical table
  • 1920   Electric Power Co.                           Office furniture including swivel chair
  • 1930                                                               “Fauteuil Grand Repos” armchair
  • 1931   Cite Universitaire in Nancy                        Beds, desks, bookshelves, armchairs, standard chairs, “Cite Armchair”
  • c1934                                                             Standard Chair “300”
  • 1935   Hospital                                             Bed with special features
  • 1936   Classroom                                         Table and chairs
  • 1937   UAM Pavilion                                   Garden furniture with Jacqes Andre and Childs school chair
  • 1939                                                               Granipoli Table
  • 1942                                                               Wooden  Chair, “Fauteuil visiteur” chair
  • 1945                                                               Oak and metal wardrobe, Tarrazo Table
  • 1948                                                               “Kangoutou” Armchair
  • 1949                                                               “Gueridon” Table & “Gueridon” Cafeteria Table
  • 1950                                                               Bridge Director Armchairs [ various styles] and Potence lamp
  • 1952                                                               “Trapez” Table
  • 1951   University of Aix Marseilles            Lecture hall chair
  • 1952                                                               Double fronted “Mexico” bookcase [ with C.Perriand] ,Tunisien shelves
  • 1953                                                               “Compas” Table & chair
  • 1954                                                               “Antony” Chair, and Banquette bench
  • 1956                                                               Amphitheatre Banquette
  • 1978                                                               Dangari armchair

1936 Classroom Table with Two Chairs [

The combination table and chair for two students was developed from a series initially conceived for 1935 commission received in connection with expanding and modernizing the Ecole Nationale Professionnelle [ E.N.P.] in Metz…….The connecting of the table and chair complies with Prouve’s affinity for multifunctional building parts , also visible in other designs for his furniture and construction works .Again Prouve formulated  the solution that a single structural part would assume several functions ………….Every supporting element serves the table as well as chair leg. The construction consists of welded steel sheet…………..This particular model was so successful that it was produced in large numbers in several different series………….The extremely dynamic appearance of Prouve’s combination table –and-chair design divulges his deep fascination with cars and airplanes”

Peter’s also provides a reproduction of the furniture catalogue/ brochure entitled “Le Pupitre Scolaire produced by Ateliers Jean Prouve distributed by Steph Simon.

This was significant piece considering the date and radiates an idealism and optimism with particular regard to the importance of egalitarian education and the dual seating implying friendship and companionship in learning.

The class room table although stark and functional is very practical. Its scale and construction is not intimidating or authoritarian .It combines a pleasant natural combination of materials offset against each other namely the sheet steel frame and the solid wooden top and formed plywood back rests and seat. This series was practical stable and repairable .Reasonably light it would have offered maneuverability. This school [JS1] furniture is shown in use and is complementary with the School in Vantoux designed with Henri Prouve, 1950.

1954 “Antony” Chair [see editors sketch drawings]

Peter’s notes:

Specifications for this piece are published in “Pioneers of Modern Furniture”

This item was designed for the University of Strasburg c 1950.It was manufactured by Les Ateliers Jean Prouve S.A. in Maxeville between 1950-1954.It was distributed by Steph Simon [Paris]

The construction comprised bent tubular iron and iron frame, painted black with seat in bent plywood lacqured.Assembled using aluminum screws.

Height                        87cm              34 ¼”

Width              50cm              19 5/8”

Depth             70cm              27 ½”

Seat Height   42cm              16 ½”

Some critics of Prouve claim that his furniture was over strong or engineered and that the aesthetic suffered or was compromised as a result. Prouve defended this by explaining the weight they would withstand. The editor’s assessment is that these pieces were fundamentally robust and would withstand considerable use and abuse by nature of the location and that furthermore they were essentially sustainable and repairable. Furthermore the relatively low tech construction methods are sustainable being more appropriate to craftsmen with moderate mass production assembly as opposed to ultra-high end labour intensive and skill content or robot assembled. Therefore in the editors eyes retain a practical and utilitarian aesthetic across competing criteria.They were possibly affordable in moderate volume but the tendency was that the cost was not particularly cheap and it’s unlikely they would not have been bought by low income private households. The “Antony” chair is regarded as a classic amongst design critics. However the editors would suggest that in period it might have been assembled in a jig from parts produced in volume outside i.e. subcontracted. The raw materials are likely to have been reasonably inexpensive but there was some wastage as result of the boomerang support shape; and the chair is estimated to weigh approximately 5 kg. Assembly of the components might take ½ hour i.e. welding and depending if painted. The plywood “Seat” is likely to have been fixed with rivets. This style chair might have been capable of being stacked in limited number.

The editors estimate [see annotated sketch diagram] that the Antony chair was comprised of the following components:-

Plywood “seat” possibly performed and subcontracted and lacquered before delivery [A]

4    Fixing rivets to frame [B]

2    End caps knocked onto tube ends [C]

2    Boomerang shape steel supports for “seat”possibly subcontracted and drilled to marry with cross tube [D]

1     Heavy duty steel cross tube support drilled to accept tube leg [E]

2     Bent tube lengths threaded through cross support forming legs [F]

4     “Feet” welded to ends of legs [G]

Modern reproductions are produced under license by Vitra. On line the following modern prices apply to reproductions:-

  • Antony chair             £249
  • Standard chair          £179
  • Potence lamp           £119
  • Gueridon table         £99

Patents

Jean Prouve is believed to have held at least two significant patents. These include:

  • 1929               Moveable partition wall
  • 1939               Portable / demountable house
  • 1950               Prefabricated roof elements [ see architecture list above] Mame Printing Works
  •                     Window systems?

The Proposed CCM&EC

The proposed museum believes that commercial considerations are both necessary and complementary with its educational objectives.

For these reasons our Business Plan includes provision for promoting products and services which share Chapman’s ideals of mechanical efficiency and sustainability. In addition we propose merchandising that explain and interprets the social and cultural context of Chapman’s designs in period. It’s suggested there will be catalogue for on line purchasing.

In particular through a series of exhibitions showcasing the designs of leading Industrial Designers is possible to extract and educate in design awareness and literacy.

This provides for exciting and dramatic counterpoise and juxtaposition to challenge comprehension and conceptualization focusing on the relationship between design and problem solving. With exhibits available for examination the “proof [JS2] is in the pudding”.

All the Design Heroes including Chapman were practical problem solvers and manufactures of products. All had a design methodology, concepts of the market place and aesthetic sensitivities. Chapman’s we know were well developed.

In the contact of the museum with interactive exhibitions and exhibits ensures the fullest appreciation can be extracted .Furthermore such exhibitions are inseparable and totally integrated with educational / learning and business skills and opportunities.

The proposed museum provides the opportunity and means to stage interpretation of the design process using hands on experience, elementary model making, and access to CAD and laser systems with multi-layered forms of participation. Through the declared aims of uniting education with entertainment learning is provided by intellectual challenge and problem solving through creativity and innovation.

Furthermore such exhibitions have considerable marketing and merchandising opportunities above and beyond the conventional. Creativity in linking, uniting and challenging comprehension permits a fusion of multi directional linkages and connectivity. It also serves to prevent restrictive vision and foremost serves the Chapman philosophy of lateral thinking. Such exhibitions are perceived to appeal across a wide gender and generational base increasing overall participation and attracting the maximum visitor attendance.

Conclusion

By studying Design Heroes we examine how practical problems are tackled, designed and solutions manufactured. We are able to assess and compare both approaches and outcomes and judge their success whilst drawing inspiration from the best available.

The great Industrial Designers were not exclusive or restricted in their topics. They focused their creativity and entrepreneurship into diverse fields but invariable brought experience, knowledge and experimentation. Both Prouve and Chapman sought design and manufacturing solutions by importing and extrapolating materials and technologies e.g. aluminum .Both enjoyed considerable success. It is evident that both explored and borrowed from aviation and motor car technologies and pushed the envelope in their determination to bring fresh solutions and products to the market place. Both designed well engineered equipment however we ought to note this was not necessarily cheap. The construction methods required relatively costly labour and procedures. Therefore despite some intentions of accessibility they often remained the preserve of the enthusiast.

However the editors would comment that Prouve’s prefabricated and demountable house and the component car of Chapman have much in common. They share the concept of building up from standard components into a totality of operating machine. Both are capable of customization to individual needs, both might be financed according to budget with inbuilt capacity for upgrades on an incremental basis and perhaps significantly both involve the owner directly in the assembly and act as a learning opportunity. The skill the owner acquires permitting an ability to understand and maintain and this with serviceability is a basis for sustainability.

But nothing can detract from the aesthetic and inspiration they continue to provide and how they drive aspiration towards designed solutions

In contrasting the styles, methodology and achievements of the Design Heroes the A&R invites debate and challenges a re-evaluation of Chapman as an Industrial Designer. The editors consider that objective critical comparative analysis is a rewarding and demanding means to achieve benchmarking and that Chapman emerges with an improved status in the process.

Reference:

Prouve. Nils Peters.Taschen.2013. [Contains an excellent bibliography]

ISBN: 9783836545433

Jean Prouve.Penelope Rowlands. Chronicle Books.2002

ISBN: 0811832600

Design-Intelligence Made Visible.Bayley and Conran.Firefly.20007

ISBN: 9781554073108

Chairs.C&P.Fiell.Taschen.2002.

ISBN: 3822855073

The A-Z of Modern Design.Polster, Neumann, Schuler, Leven Merrell.2009

ISBN: 9781858945026

Pioneers of Modern Furniture. Fischer Fine Art.1991.

ISBN: 0853315922

Internet references:

www.infurn/Jean-Prouve-Potence

www.Bonluxat.com

Please note the editors of the A&R attempt to give the broadest spectrum of references but not all are available for consultation in an article. However by noting their existence it may assist students in their research.

*Items in italics non A&R library books.

1.   JEAN PROUVE MUSEUM: MUSEUM ABOUT THE WORKS OF 

www.jeanprouve.com/

Le musee de Jean Prouve; (1901-1984) contains information about the works of French Designer Jean Prouve; French Industrial- and Furniture Designer and 

 

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