Design Icon: Jean Prouvé

The metalworker’s elegant designs fed modern obsessions with steel and prefab construction.

During a time when his contemporaries were being recognized as icons, French metalworker Jean Prouvé would rather have been addressed as an engineer or factory worker. This modesty, and a fidelity to material and craftsmanship, may have been what allowed him to help revolutionize the use of steel in design and construction. Folding metal like some fold paper, Prouvé and his forward-thinking work effectively fed the 20th century’s obsessions with steel and prefab construction.

Born in 1901, Prouvé grew up immersed in art and craft, first at his childhood home in Nancy (his father co-founded an alliance of creatives advancing Art Nouveau ideals) and then as an apprentice to master blacksmiths in post-World War I Paris. At a time when the preference for elegant wrought iron and trained smiths was transitioning towards bold planes of steel and factory production, he straddled both worlds. It shows in his furniture designs from the 1920s, which boast gracious curves of corrugated, electrically welded metal, and collaborations with architects and contemporaries. A quick study in mass production, Prouvé formulated methods to make furniture for hospitals, schools, and offices on an industrial scale, and designed a series of prefab homes, including a steel vacation home and 'Maison des Jours Meilleurs (“a house for better days”), an emergency shelter that could be assembled in seven hours. His influence on affordable, portable, and easily assembled is so iconic, hotelier Andrew Balazs reportedly paid nearly $5 million for a model of his Maison Tropicale.

During a career filled with honors, such as a voice in selecting the winning design for the Centre Pompidou, and collaborations with legends like Charlotte Perriand and Alexander Calder, Prouvé always approached work with an engineer’s focus and rationality. He seemed single-minded about metal and material, even going by the codename “Locksmith” when serving in the French Resistance during WWII. While he’s often quoted as saying, “never design anything that cannot be made,” he managed to follow that dictum without sacrificing creativity.

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