Jean Prouvé: Master of Modernist Metals

“If people understand, there’s no need to explain. If they don’t, there’s no use explaining.”
Jean Prouvé

Rejecting the elegant tubular steel of Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer’s furniture, Jean Prouvé became the first designer to adapt for domestic purposes the industrial machines that folded, bent, and stamped sheet metal. His career spanned more than sixty years as an architect, designer, teacher, and craftsman, and he was particularly well known for his role in the prefabricated housing movement.

Jean Prouvé was born in Paris in 1901 to painter Victor Prouvé and pianist Marie Duhamel. He grew up in a creative environment with surrounding ideals of the art school L’École de Nancy, where his father was a member. The school stressed the importance of utilizing industrial technologies in the creation of designs, as well as spreading its products to the masses, and treating art as an industry. Prouvé went on to study at the school, and subsequently was apprenticed to both a blacksmith and a metalworking shop in Paris.

Jean Prouvé Standard Chair
Image courtesy of Not Another Room

Prouvé gained an intimate knowledge of metals during his training, and by the age of 22 had opened his first studio to the public, presenting his first piece of furniture, La Chaise Inclinable. The reclining chair used the technique of flat steel tubes, which allowed the chair to be folded and stacked. Aware of the limitations of ornamental work and keen to embrace the modern movement, Prouvé moved on to steel and arc-welding. In 1931, he established the Atelier Jean Prouvé, where he began to produce light-weight metal furniture of his own design, along with highly industrialized pieces for the building industry.

This period saw the invention of many of Prouvé’s most notable furniture pieces such as the Cité set, which consisted of furniture for university students. By 1936, Prouvé had standard outfittings for hospitals, offices, and schools. He also collaborated with famous architect Le Corbusier to design a bathroom unit, along with releasing his first standalone prefabricated structure.

During World War II, Prouvé’s studio was commissioned to elaborate on the designs and create prefabricated barracks for the French Army. This allowed him to develop his signature structural system, key to his later architectural designs. Prouvé pioneered new techniques that would permit the efficient and inexpensive construction of buildings with prefabricated components, while retaining architectural quality and individuality.

Despite his modesty as a self-proclaimed metal worker and creator of nomadic designs, Prouvé is now considered one of the most influential designers of the 20th Century. Today, his pieces are in demand by collectors around the world, and highly sought after at auction. A set of his ‘semi metal chairs’ sell for a cool 40,000 US dollars, the last thing Prouvé would have ever envisaged when designing the cost-effective industrial furniture.

Anna Grassham / Head of Modern Design

May 2021

Banner Image: Jean Prouvé Guéridon Bas Coffee Table. Image courtesy of Not Another Room