Jean Prouvé (1901–1984)

French architect, engineer and designer, Jean Prouvé was an important figure not only for the pioneering work in metal prefabrication but also and above all for the role of consultant and collaborator for some undisputed protagonists, including Le Corbusier.

Jean Prouvé, 1981

Who was Jean Prouvé?

Jean Prouvé was born in Paris in 1901. Beginning 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 readily accessible, to forge links between art and industry, as well as between art and social consciousness. He abandoned gradually the decorative style of that time to prefer smooth surfaces of folded metal plates. He used this material to design storefronts, elevators or furniture. During his career, he was interested to make the maximum use of techniques and materials available, especially in the field of metal.

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Jean Prouvé © Centre Pompidou-Mnam-Bibliothèque Kandinsky-Véra Cardot

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Prouvé did not graduate in architecture or engineering, which he did not fail to remark with a certain pride, just read the incipit of that little masterpiece of myth-biography that he wrote: “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 is well suited to a maître-ferronnier, an iron sheet technician. In short, Prouvé was a builder par excellence, a homo faber, indeed literally a blacksmith who spends most of his time in his workshop in his 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.

Jean Prouvé photographed in his factory in Maxéville, 1946

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What Were His Major Works?

Jean Prouvé frequently employed aluminium in the form of corrugated sheet metal and molded elements. Among his major works, there are La Maison Tropicale and Vitra Petrol Station:

  1.  La Maison Tropicale: this prefabricated house was designed by Prouvé by using aluminium to create low-cost houses for French bureaucrats, given the lack of housing in the area, designed for the tropical climate. From 1949 and 1951, Prouvé designed and manufactured three prototype Maisons Tropicales for West Africa. The idea was not very successful, so the Tropical Maison remains the only expression of a vision of radical architecture. For making transports fast and effective, all components were lightweight and flat and could be neatly packed into a cargo plane.

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La Maison Tropicale, Brazzaville (Congo)

2. Vitra Petrol Station: it 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 structure of the wall are clearly differentiated from one another, a distinction reinforced by the color scheme. Many of Prouvé’s buildings built with prefabricated metal components have regular and structural qualities almost equal to his table designs and demonstrate his continued adhesion to the tectonic principles in the design process.

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Vitra Petrol Station, 1953

How Can We Identify Prouvé’s Style?

Prouvé’s main achievement was transferring manufacturing technology from industry to architecture, without losing aesthetic qualities. He is an example of committed engagement with prefabrication and industrialization, and also serves as a bottomless source of inspiration. His style is different from the Bauhaus steel furniture of the time by 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.

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Reclining chair, 1930

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Prouvé discovered 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. Jean Prouvé often employed aluminium in the form of corrugated sheet metal and molded elements. He was interested in lightness and industrialization in architecture in the postwar years of greatest need among the population especially of Europe. Its interest was driven by his engagement with technological and social advances of his time.

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