Design Icon: Jean Prouvé

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By Patrick Sisson
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.

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Standard Chair (1934)

The French metalworker, furniture designer, and architect helped revolutionize the use of steel in architecture and prefab housing. Perhaps his most iconic piece of furniture, the Standard, is anything but—a delicate fusion of engineering and design skill. The curved steel legs, larger in the back due to Prouvé’s observation that the rear supports the brunt of a person’s weight, contrast well with two simple pieces of bent oak.

Image courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin

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.

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Cite Bed (1932)

Setting an incredibly high bar for dorm room furniture that has rarely been equaled, the Cite Bed is an elegant study in shape and mass production. These models were originally installed in the student quarters at Cite University, in Prouvé’s hometown of Nancy, France.

Image courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin

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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Potence Lamp (1950)

A collaboration with Charlotte Perriand, this space-saving lighting solution suspends an incandescent bulb above a room via a nearly seven-foot metal rod. Considering it was created for the Maison Tropicale, a prefab housing unit meant to be manufactured in France and assembled in Africa, the small profile makes sense. The lamp can be adjusted and aimed via a wooden handle.

Image courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin

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Compass Desk (1953)

The splayed leg design of this desk, made with powder-coated sheet steel, recalls the arrow of (you guessed it) a compass. Another one of his public sector design projects, these desks were originally constructed for the Cite International University in Paris. While his work for schools and other institutions had a social goal in mind, it also meant that the designer could realize economies of scale with larger orders.

Image courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin

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Bookcase Antony (1955)

Inspired by the chair of the same name, this bookshelf was one of many pieces that found a home in Cite University. It was one of many fruitful collaborations between Prouvé and Perriand from that period.

Image courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin

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Gueridon Table (1949)

Consider this the heavy metalworker’s acoustic set: Designed for Paris University, this smooth tripod table showed Prouvé stepping out of his comfort zone and experimenting with a different material: wood. Given the post-war steel shortage, it wasn’t a bad time to try something new.

Image courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin

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Antony Chair (1954)

One of the last pieces of furniture Prouvé ever designed, this chair, designed for the Cité Universitaire at Antony, was a stylish way to go out with its calligraphic curve.

Image courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin

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Metropole Aluminum House (1949)

One of Prouvé’s postwar prefab successes, this portico layout won a Ministry of Education competition to design a rural schoolhouse that could be mass produced. While the building looks spartan, small touches, such as a wood and aluminum interior and space for a glassed-in winter garden, make it more than merely livable.

Image courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin

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Total Filling Station (1969)

Recalling the work of another prefab precursor, Buckminster Fuller, Prouvé’s inspirational gas station concept, made of glass, steel, and aluminum, puts most service stations to shame.

Image courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin

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“Never design anything that cannot be made,” Prouvé once said.