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Posted in Design Stories

Jean Prouvé: Posture and Play

Jean prouve standard chair
Jean ProuvéStan­dard Chair” made in 1934

It’s not often you describe a chair as having posture, but that’s exactly how Jean Prou­vé’s Stan­dard Chair sits: with posture. The simple four limbs, seat, and back hold in a partic­u­lar way. The arrange­ment is almost insect-like, with the exoskele­ton of shaped rear limbs and fine steel-tube front legs exposed. The limbs, constructed from discrete parts, lean together, not lazily, but with the kind of energy that syner­gizes, invit­ing occu­pa­tion. The Stan­dard Chair calls out to be sat on, a poised, ready structure. 

Jean Prouve
Jean Prouvé (1901 – 1984) French metal worker, self-taught archi­tect and designer

Designed in 1934, the precise posture of the stan­dard chair comes from the marriage of form and func­tion evident across Prou­vé’s broad oeuvre. A self-taught designer, engi­neer, and archi­tect, Prouvé was born into a work­shop life. His father, Victor Prouvé, was a painter, sculp­tor, and designer who worked with many mate­ri­als, from paint and metal to leather and jewels. A member of the Art Nouveau École de Nancy, Victor Prouvé collab­o­rated with artists, archi­tects, and design­ers, cele­brat­ing the new possi­bil­i­ties of indus­trial methods and explor­ing forms and aesthet­ics arising from them.

From photographs of the time, it’s not hard to imagine Prou­vé’s child­hood as a sensory adven­ture awash with embroi­dery motifs, bronze casts, and exquis­ite tapes­tries. Exposed to the inter­sec­tion of art, archi­tec­ture, and engi­neer­ing from a young age, the work­shop spirit and the mélange of influ­ences and concerns flooded Prou­vé’s burgeon­ing prac­tice. He saw how mate­ri­als could be used in various situ­a­tions and how the world could inform design. 

Compass Desk1
Compas Direc­tion Desk created in 1953 by Jean Prouvé

Through­out his life, Prouvé gave himself up study­ing and playing mate­r­ial. After three years at a school of fine arts, he spent time appren­tic­ing as a black­smith and in a metal work­shop in Paris, devel­op­ing an inti­mate knowl­edge of metal and honing his prac­tice. Learn­ing from these work­shop scenar­ios, he grew his design think­ing through proto­typ­ing — concep­tu­al­iz­ing, fabri­cat­ing, and learn­ing from the fabri­ca­tion. In tandem with making, Prouvé also sketched exten­sively, turning the design object over, taking it apart, and putting it back together in many ways on a single page. Parts or compo­nents that weren’t quite right for one project would incor­po­rate into the next. Images would reap­pear in differ­ent guises, at differ­ent scales, and in other relationships.

But it was the work­shop that would become an ongoing motif in Prou­vé’s life. His work embod­ies the sense that the design was not about making for others but about making with others, the collec­tive skills, effort, and play that would enable a certain kind of produc­tion and life. This was a very defined, studious play. Today we might call this type of work research: a partic­u­lar type of research that takes place not by study­ing books but by study­ing mate­ri­als, forms, and processes and paying atten­tion to the world in which design plays out. We might even call it research by design or research by living. As a result, Prou­vé’s methods are resource­ful, supremely ratio­nal, and ingenious.

Mason Prouve house1
Maison de Jean Prouvé designed in 1954

Amidst his social concerns and engi­neer­ing back­ground, there’s an assump­tion that Prouvé was not concerned with aesthet­ics. Nonethe­less, his pieces have a specific aesthetic, which ties them together as a family across scales and lines of use. It’s the kind of aesthetic that is diffi­cult to pre-think. Instead, it becomes honed and defined through iter­a­tive testing and learn­ing processes. Knowl­edge of how a piece of metal bends can be shaped to carry a specific load or might be cut out to reduce weight and mate­r­ial use where it is not needed produces specific outcomes that, carried out, again and again, form a language. The Stan­dard Chair, for example, is stan­dard­ized in that it is easily fabri­cated, but aesthet­i­cally it departed from stan­dard notions of normalcy.

Compass Desk2
Compas Direc­tion Desk created in 1953 by Jean Prouvé

There’s evidence that Prouvé was cognisant of this language-making process. He was able to iden­tify it and take control and play with it. In his own house, the iconic Maison Prouvé, circu­lar cut-outs orig­i­nally gener­ated to save mate­r­ial became the form of windows. These windows then took on a port-hole-like narra­tive, turning tiny bedrooms into ship cabins and empha­siz­ing, by contrast, the expan­sive glazed view from the living room.

At the scale of furni­ture, we find the pres­ence of archi­tec­ture: struc­ture laid bare, the light­ness of bridges, the planar roof or table­top. The splayed table legs of the Compass Desk, orig­i­nally constructed en masse for the Cité Inter­na­tionale Univer­sity in Paris, were scaled up to form a veran­dah at the Sécu­rité Sociale build­ing in Le Mans, and to frame a refresh­ment bar in Evian. Bent plywood could operate at the scale of a seat or be combined to form a screen.

Jean Prouve Designs1
Petrol station designed in 1953 by Jean Prouvé and his brother Henry.

The many démount­able houses Prouvé devel­oped to be mass-produced for post-disas­ter or econom­i­cal housing scenar­ios. These houses typi­cally grew around a modular grid, with orthog­o­nal geome­tries, the bent ply compo­nents he often returned to in furni­ture eschewed arbi­trary right angles, leaving nothing square. Instead, each part was shaped not for ease of flat packing and construc­tion but to allow the mate­r­ial compo­nents to be slung together most effi­ciently, to trans­late the body’s forces through the object. Turning his back on tubular steel parts, which he consid­ered overused and inap­pro­pri­ate, Prouvé worked with simple sheet metal, cut and folder pressed, finished with car paint, and grafted together.

With posture comes pres­ence, and pieces like the Compass Desk or the Stan­dard Chair display this. Each takes on solid­ity in space, owning and orient­ing an inte­rior. When archi­tec­ture focuses on provid­ing essen­tials, as the simple, mass-produced demount­able houses were, this orient­ing rela­tion­ship between archi­tec­ture and furni­ture becomes power­ful. Jean Prouvé extended oppor­tu­ni­ties of space and making to create ways of living and working together that aren’t merely resource­ful but are also astound­ingly humane and beautiful.

Jean Prouvé, We need factor- built houses” , 1953