There’s more to be discovered at the fringes of midcentury design. Just ask Clément Cividino, a seller out of Perpigñan in the South of France, who, after starting his career with marquee names—your Perriands and Prouvés—stumbled upon a portable prefab concept that had been left to ruin. With some elbow grease and the help of a few friends, he brought back its shimmer, discovering a new passion in the process. Now, his is a full-on fascination with 20th-century dismountable prefabricated homes.
The latest refurbishment in his line of acquisitions? The Marabout House, an elegant, tent-like aluminum structure that was originally designed for French armies in the post-war, North African colonies.
Dating from 1958, the Marabout, meaning ‘large conical tent,’ was designed by the engineer Raymond Camus, a pioneer in the field of prefab structures, and built in the workshop of Jean Prouvé. Weighing 26 kilograms per panel, quickly mounted, and featuring airy sash windows and heat deflecting aluminum walls, it was an ingenious solution for the extreme conditions of the desert and the expedient maneuvers of colonization. Cividino’s particular Marabout was commissioned by the French energy company in 1972 as temporary housing outside Paris, and he claims that it’s the only one left in Europe.
In his latest installation at Terra Remota, a winery in Catalonia, Spain, he’s deployed the prefab and styled it with his own collection of the more household names in midcentury design. We spoke with Cividino to hear more about the exhibit (on view until August 31, 2022), his process in uncovering lost work, and what role prefab can play in the modern world.
Dwell: How did you first get into design collecting?
Cividino: I was 18 years old and living in Buenos Aires, and, without knowing anything about the market, started buying things based on my personal taste. There wasn’t a criteria. I didn’t know designers’ names or anything about design history. I guess I was mostly thinking about the type of home I would eventually own when I returned to Europe, and what it might have in it. I wanted something cool.
What was the reaction of your clients when you started dealing in prefabricated houses?
People didn’t understand it all. I remember a lot of people even making fun of me, saying, "But what are you going to do with this? These little architectural houses—are you crazy?" But it became my obsession, my madness. My business went through a very difficult period because I was spending a lot of money on them. But in my head I kept on saying, One day they will understand, one day, they will see their value.
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You bought your first prefabricated house in 2007. What was it like?
It was called the Bulle 6 coques, or ‘bubbles’ house, designed by Jean Maneval. It had six elements and opened up like a flower. I found it sitting on a dirt road next to a lake. It was in a terrible state—broken, dirty, and missing glass. People had been throwing rubbish in it and using it as a toilet. Many of the homes I have found and purchased have been like that.
Tell me about the process of relocating them...
It has always been complicated. In the beginning, when I had no budget, I used to call friends and say, Hey, can you give me a hand? I’ll pay for the food and beer. They would laugh their asses off. But we went together to dismantle the structures, put all the different pieces on the roof of a car, and bring them back. But I didn’t really have a space to store them. So again I had to ask friends for a favor, and they’d let me reconstruct them in their backyards. It was a mess. But as time went by my business developed and I started earning more money. Now I have a technical manager who does everything according to my instructions. But we are improving all the time to make things easier and more organized.
How many have you sold, and who is your clientele?
I have sold three so far doing these kinds of installations. The Marabout House is my sixth installation, but it’s a little different because it’s set up like an open-air gallery. Who buys them? Well, a famous lady in fashion bought an installation from me for her own use. Then a businessman from Paris bought one, but that was more as an investment. And a very famous lawyer from Spain purchased another.
It’s a very niche market, isn’t it?
Yes, there are very few people in the world who deal in dismountable houses, let alone France. Galerie Patrick Seguin in Paris is another one I know of.
How did you first find out about the Marabout House?
I discovered it five or six years ago while searching through books. Later, I stumbled upon a blog post from a gentleman asking for advice on how to clean aluminum panels on a "1950s house." I sent him a message asking to see a photo, and I immediately recognized it as the Marabout. I went to see it in person and asked if I could buy it, but he wanted too much for it. Then time went by. At the beginning of 2022, I called him again, hoping he wasn’t dead by now. This time he agreed, mostly because he was getting old and thought I would be the best person to take custody of it.
Prefabricated and dismountable houses have become popular in many contexts today. What lessons can we learn from the design by Raymond Camus?
The first question we need to ask ourselves is where is the demand? What do we need dismountable housing for? I don’t think we need it for pleasure—to go to the mountains or visit the lake with the family on weekends. The conditions created by today’s wars, mass migration, and ecological catastrophes are the ones that call for dismountable and transportable housing.
In many places, shipping containers have stepped into the role of emergency and social housing…
Yes, but you need a crane to put them in place. Then you need a lot of furnishing because you can’t sleep in an iron box. The only good thing I see about container homes is that they are saving the shipping container from being sent to India to be disassembled.
But you also furnished the Marabout House, turning it from something very utilitarian to quite luxurious.
Yes, the idea was to convert it into a home of luxury, comfort, and modernity! I promised its previous owner I was going to dress the bride!
Do you think there are more Marabout Houses left out there in the Sahara?
There must be. About ten years ago I talked to a guy who said he saw them. He sent me pictures as well. A few days ago, I checked on Google satellite maps. I couldn’t see any. Have they been displaced? Dismantled? I don’t know. But I am going to go and find out.
Sounds like an adventure...
Yes. A complicated one.