French architect, engineer and designer, Jean Prouvé’s importance lies not only in his pioneering work in metal prefabrication, but also – and above all – for his role as consultant and collaborator with some undisputed protagonists of modern architecture, such as and including Le Corbusier.
Working with metal
Jean Prouvé was born in Paris, in 1901. Beginning his career with the construction of wrought-iron gateways, railings and windows, from 1924 onwards Jean Prouvé created his first items of furniture. His goals were to make art and design readily accessible, to forge links between art and industry, as well as between art and social consciousness. He abandoned gradually the decorative style of the time to focus on smooth surfaces and folded metal plates. He used these materials to design storefronts, elevators and furniture lines. During this time, he became interested in making best use of the techniques and materials available, especially in the field of metallurgy.
Prouvé did not graduate in architecture or engineering, something that he took to remark – not without a certain air of pride, as even the incipit of his “myth-biography” – that he wrote – reads:
I’m not a worker . In the end, I started from there and I think that everything I did in life, I did it very simply, without asking myself deep questions.
A rough susceptibility that complemented his role as a maître-ferronnier, an iron sheet technician. In short, Prouvé was a builder par excellence, a homo faber, a blacksmith who spent most of his time in his workshop, located in Nancy, rather than around the Parisian museums or cafes. From 1957 to 1970, Prouvé lectured at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. He died in Nancy, in 1984.
Body of work
Jean Prouvé’s favourite material to work with was aluminium, usually in the form of corrugated sheet metal and molded elements. Among his major works, there are La Maison Tropicale and Vitra Petrol Station:
La Maison Tropicale, a prefabricated house, was designed by Prouvé using aluminium, in order to follow his vision of creating a low-cost housing option for French bureaucrats at the time, given its lack in the area, designed for the tropical climate. From 1949 to 1951, Prouvé designed and manufactured three prototype Maisons Tropicales for West Africa. The idea was not very successful, and as such the Tropical Maison remains the only expression of a vision of radical architecture. For making transports fast and effective, all components were designed to be lightweight and flat, so that they could be neatly packed into a cargo plane.
Vitra Petrol Station, on the other hand, was designed in 1953 with the help of his brother Henry; it represents one of the first manufactured petrol stations and is made up of angular aluminium components and perforated sheets, with bull’s eye cut-outs. The supporting structure and the wall’s frame are clearly differentiated from one another, a distinction reinforced by the color scheme. Many of Prouvé’s buildings were made with prefabricated metal components, so that they could have regular and structural qualities almost equal to his table designs, demonstrating his continued adhesion to the tectonic principles in the process.
The style of a blacksmith
Prouvé’s main achievement was transferring manufacturing technologies from industry to architecture, without losing aesthetic qualities. He is an example of committed engagement with prefabrication and industrialization, and also served as an abundant source of inspiration both for his peers and students alike. His style is different from the Bauhaus steel furniture of the time, due to his rejection of the steel tube technique: Prouvé believed in the durability and form of sheet metal. When he returned to Nancy to open his own workshop, he experimented with a simpler, less ornamental style.
Prouvé experimented with both electric welding and the application of different techniques of construction. He also resorted to sheet-steel which allowed for a structure of exceptional resistance, such as in his reclining chair. His interest in lightness and industrialization applied to architecture came from the need of affordable, modern and mass produced housing among the post-war population of Europe. Above all, his interests were driven by his engagement with technological and social advances of his time.