Jean Prouvé

Design Constructor

Jean Prouvé devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to achieve the perfection of his designs. Believing that the challenge of making furniture was just as complex as constructing a building, Prouvé considered himself first and foremost an engineer or “constructor.” This title underscores Prouvé’s commitment to never sacrifice function to form in his designs. Applying his engineering skills to furniture, and creating every piece with the utmost care, Prouvé first sketched a design, which became a prototype subject to extensive testing for stability, durability, and comfort. In his work, Prouvé retained the creative process of an artist, and was always open to revising his own designs. Checking every piece by hand, Prouvé would approve or reject design elements, and only then was a sketch drawn up for production. This practice explains the fluidity of his furniture designs, which still look contemporary over sixty years later.

Steph Simon worksheet featuring Jean Prouvé's bahut, c. 1950.

Materials were tantamount to Prouvé, and craftsman recall that when he sat down to design, he often asked himself “what is the material thinking?” Prouvé was one of the first designers to pioneer the use of industrial materials like enameled and sheet steel, and he had an innate sense for the strength of materials. Prouvé discovered that the more stress he placed on a metal, the thinner and stronger it would become, allowing him to create sleek furniture that cut through space. Not satisfied with the industrial method of making sheet steel, Prouvé acquired machines to manufacture folded steel in-house. During World War II, Prouvé became a master of wood when metal was scarce. Prouvé transformed wood into a modern material by using it innovatively in both his furniture and building designs.

These two cabinets show evidence of the exhaustive design forethought of Prouvé, as he wanted the true nature of the material to take center stage in his furniture; Prouvé complemented the sumptuous honey color of the oak with simple yet elegant lines, enhancing the overall beauty of the design. The doors of this cabinet highlight the strong and natural splendor of the oak tree rings, which adds to the power of the form. Prouvé designed his furniture with a total lack of superfluous details, so even the simplest elements like handles are imbued with the greatest refinement. The harmony created by Prouvé with the two contrasting materials of metal and wood is astounding, as he managed to meld the flat planes into a single whole. The deep, lush color of the enameled steel perfectly flows into the plane of wood, creating a fascinating dichotomy between natural and industrial.  Combining purity of material with an elegance of form, Prouvé created a tour de force of modern design.

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

—Jean Prouvé

Jean Prouvé 1901–1984

Jean Prouvé was born in Nancy, France, in 1901. Prouvé‘s father Victor founded the École de Nancy, an Art Nouveau school that focused on hand-made objects. Apprenticing with an ironsmith as a teenager, he learned the value of simple forms and metalworking techniques. Prouvé founded his studio, Ateliers Jean Prouvé in 1923 and created restrained metal objects that rejected excess decoration. Within his workshop, he favored industrial materials like sheet steel, stainless steel, and aluminum. Engineers employed these materials in the emerging aircraft industry, and these materials inspired Prouvé to design a pre-fabricated houses with Le Corbusier in 1923 that was reminiscent of aircraft design. Working with Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand, Prouvé created breathtaking furniture that forged the process of prefabrication. Prouvé tirelessly focused on finding creative and useful solutions to design problems throughout his career, crafting everything from aluminum vacation homes to university bookcases, living by his words that one should “never design anything that cannot be made.”

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