There was a time in our evolving society when the making of things was considered not only honourable but was inextricably linked to their aesthetics. Perhaps, in retrospect, that is why we see integrity and consistency in the work of those individuals who were raised in the craft tradition.
Like Mies van der Rohe, whose knowledge of materials was rooted in his childhood in his father’s stonemason’s yard, Jean Prouvé developed, in his own words, ‘a facility for the blacksmith’s trade at the age of 10’. By the age of 15, in 1916, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith, Émile Robert, in Enghien on the outskirts of Paris. From there he graduated to the Paris studio of the Hungarian metalwork artist Adalbert Szabo. (Almost forgotten now, Szabo was celebrated in his day and produced numerous pieces for the transatlantic liner Normandie.) In 1924 he established ‘Jean Prouvé, ferronnerie d’art’ in Nancy, taking his lead from Szabo and making items such as grilles, handrails and balconies. Gradually, as Prouvé became more aware of the emergent modern movement and the work of architects such as Le Corbusier, he began to produce furniture and experiment with new materials and processes, using tensile steel and sheet aluminium, and investing in arc welding and metal-folding machines.
Nancy is known internationally for its New Town, which is on a par with cities such as Bath, Edinburgh and Bordeaux. It was also the fulcrum of the French steel industry and the birthplace of a vigorous form of art nouveau, created at the turn of the past century by a group of artists, architects, engineers and craftsmen, known as the École de Nancy. For all those reasons it seems appropriate that Nancy was also Prouvé’s home town.
I went there in the mid-Eighties to do a feasibility study for a salle de spectacles, on a site close to the 18th-century Place Stanislas, a Unesco World Heritage site. We devised a project that really paid homage to Prouvé, to Lorraine steel and to the École de Nancy. Our investigations were cut short, but I was able to spent many hours photographing some of the astonishingly richly detailed steel buildings in the town. Through that experience I believe I gained a better understanding of the atmosphere in which Prouvé grew up. I also realised that to be a blacksmith in such a society was a mark of distinction.
Prouvé regarded design, as did William Morris, as a moral issue. He ran his factory on egalitarian principles and his workers were privileged at the time in enjoying health insurance and paid holidays. He created a working environment in which designing and making were part of a seamless process and research into new procedures was a constant thread. I am reminded of Otl Aicher, whose studio at Rotis was essentially a design laboratory, where experimentation was a way of life. Everything was analysed and done with equal care and attention to detail, whether that was cutting a new typeface or determining the correct way to peel an onion. I still have Otl’s sequence of sketches for the transformation of an onion.
Prouvé believed that designers should not only understand how things are made, but should visit the workshop and talk to the people whose knowledge of materials and craftsmanship should inform the design process: ‘Drawing and redrawing is more expensive in the long run than building a prototype,’ he said. ‘A good draughtsman should have experience in the workshop before beginning with the drawings, since he may otherwise end up in despair over a blank sheet of paper.
Feet and frames Prouvé disapproved of the tubular-steel furniture produced by the Bauhaus – particularly Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair – because he objected to the way the material was used. He thought it dishonest or ‘unnatural’ because it did not express the structural forces flowing through it.
In contrast, his own furniture is based on profound knowledge of materials and their capabilities, and an instinctive understanding of how they might be shaped to create expressive forms. Prouvé believed that a well-designed object should be discreet; it should not draw attention to itself. In 1947 Le Corbusier acquired a grey metal table from Prouvé and found it ‘so perfect that I have not even noticed it’.
Prouvé also recognised the power of design to make a better world and, again like Morris, believed that inexpensive, well-designed furniture should be available to all. Where he parted from Morris was in seeking to transform furniture-making from a craft-based activity into a fully fledged industrydevelopment and production under one roof. It was here that the flat-packed tropical houses for Niger and the Republic of Congo were developed. Gradually workshop production increased, as did the scale of the building projects in which Prouvé was involved. Interestingly again, with this scale shift one begins to lose the structural link between the furniture and buildings.
By 1952 Prouvé had more than 200 employees at Maxéville. But within a year his financial backer, Aluminium Français, would take control of the business and factory. Characteristically he used his changed circumstances as an opportunity to mark out a new and fruitful creative path. No longer a ‘factory man’, he became a designer, establishing his consultancy: Les Constructions Jean Prouvé.
There are parallels here with Buckminster Fuller, with whom I was privileged to work during the last years of his life. Fuller was at his best when he could give his imagination free rein. Significantly, at almost every point in his career when he had the opportunity to ‘press the button’ and put a project into production, he used some pretext to take a step back. You see it with the Dymaxion Car and again with the Wichita House. It was as if he could sense the shackles of Fuller the industrialist and preferred the liberty of Fuller the inventor.
Prouvé was perhaps unlike Fuller in that the evidence suggests he was devastated by the loss of the factory the potential for mass production, commenting later: ‘Sachez: Que je suis mort en 1952’. [‘Please note: I died in 1952’]. Nonetheless, one finds in both an essential restlessness, which manifests itself in an endless desire to invent, refine and meet new challenges.
It was in his role as constructeur that I met Prouvé for the first time, in 1972. We were developing a frameless suspended glass wall for the Willis Faber & Dumas building in Ipswich, and had reached a point where we thought we had it right. But I am a great believer in the idea that there is almost always a way to improve something, no matter how well resolved you think it is, so I thought we should talk to Prouvé.
From Paris to London:
I went to Paris to meet him and suggested that he might like to become a consultant for the project, to which he agreed immediately. Over lunch we discovered that we had much in common, including a passion for gliding. We talked about cars and how the automotive industry was able to achieve manufacturing standards and production runs unimaginable in the building industry. Why was it, we asked, that Citroën could make a 2CV – using the pressed-panel technology familiar to Prouvé – build millions of units, and sell it for less than £1,000, when the housing industry still struggled with even the basic concept of serial production?
The outcome of that first meeting was a date for Prouvé to come to London to give us a ‘crit’. Our studio was still in Fitzroy Street. I showed him the project and we went through all the details of the glazing suspension system – something that no one had ever attempted on this scale. He reviewed the drawings in silence. then said, simply: ‘You don’t need me – it’s perfect as it is.’
Our second point of intersection is only clear in retrospect. Prouvé was a key figure in the detailed design of the new Free University of Berlin, conceived in 1963 by the architecture practice Candilis Josic Woods Schiedhelm. When the first phase was completed in 1974, the mat-like campus was hailed as a milestone in university design, and it would become a model for others around the world. There are also parallels with Corb’s Venice Hospital, which it predates by a year.
Prouvé and Shadrach Woods recognised the need for industrial manufacture in a building of this scale – with the building site organised ‘like a car factory’ – and sought a corresponding architectural expression. Shadrach Woods, coincidentally, was at the time one of my visiting tutors at Yale, so there is another thread to this story.
Prouvé developed a flexible, stool-like, load-bearing structure for the Free University of Berlin known as the systeme tabouret, which can be erected in a variety of configurations. Wrapping it was a cladding system that followed Le Corbusier’s ‘Modulor’ proportional system and consisted of frames and infill panels, all made from Corten steel. Corten was a little-used material in Europe at that time but Woods, the American, would certainly have been familiar with it, and he may even have prompted its use. The rusty appearance of these early buildings led to the affectionate nickname die rostlaube – the ‘rust-bucket’.
Deployed in the appropriate thickness, Corten steel has self-protecting corrosive characteristics. However, in the elegant sections used by Prouvé the Corten steel was prone to decay, which by the late Nineties had become extensive. Forced cost savings during the course of the project also led to other, deep-seated technical problems. In 1997 we won a limited competition for the building’s comprehensive refurbishment, which involved replacing the entire cladding system.
While the new cladding is essentially faithful to Prouvé’s intentions, some details had to be altered discreetly to meet contemporary technical requirements and energy-saving standards. Our approach from the start was not to ask ‘How can we match what Prouvé did?’, but to try to imagine how he would have responded, given the same challenge. So instead we asked: ‘How can we do what Prouvé would do now?’
We could have used Corten steel in much thicker sections, which technically would have been correct. But if Prouvé had known that the material needed to be sized differently, and that was his starting point, then the result would have been very different too. Most likely he would have looked at the alternatives and chosen a material that could be detailed finely and would stand the test of time; and so that’s what we did. We replaced the corroded panels and framing with new elements made from bronze, which as it weathers and acquires a patina is gradually taking on the colour tones of the original.
How would Prouvé judge what we’ve done? In the spirit of something he famously said in a lecture – ‘the more one simplifies a construction, the more it acquires character’ – I believe he would approve.
In June this year, in the design area of Art Basel, I witnessed the erection and dismantling of a 6m x 6m demountable house designed by Prouvé in 1944-1945 to house war victims of Lorraine and the Vosges. During an eight-hour period a team of three completed the entire erection sequence.As soon as they had finished, a second team moved in to take it down and crate up all the components –the portalframe and ridge beam, the metal floor structure, the wooden facade panels – ready for the construction team to begin again the following morning.
It was a very powerful demonstration of how, utilising the most basic materials and resources – reflecting the era of austerity in which it was conceived – one could realise almost instantly a perfectly serviceable family dwelling. Importantly, it was also a reminder of the challenges that face us today – when in many parts of the world large sections of the population lack the basic provision of shelter.
This text was written to accompany the Ivorypress exhibition Jean Prouve 1901-1984: Industrial beauty, which runs until 12 November in Madrid. ivorypress.com