Jean Prouvé is one of the greatest French designers of the 20th century. Working as a craftsman, designer, manufacturer, architect, teacher and engineer, his career spanned over sixty years. With remarkable elegance and economy of means, he designed prefabricated houses, building components and fa?ades, as well as furniture for the home, office and school.
From his early days, Prouvé was apprenticed as an artist blacksmith, hammering and shaping red-hot wrought iron. He progressed to running a studio and then established his own factory at Maxéville, just outside Nancy, where he worked until 1953. Driven by the constant quest for innovation in process and use of materials, his bold, reduced forms were inspired by the sparse aesthetic of aircraft and automobile design. Prouvé believed in the power of design to make a better world. He fought for the French Résistance, ran his factory on socialist principles, and saw design as a moral issue.
Born in 1901, Prouvé came from an artistic home. His father, Victor Prouvé, a painter and sculptor, was a founding member of the Art Nouveau School of Nancy. While longing to be an engineer, financial constraints meant that at the age of 15 Prouvé was apprenticed to the artisan blacksmith Emile Robert in Paris and then with the firm of Szabo. In 1923 after his military service, Prouvé set up his own workshop in Nancy and took on commissions for ornamental and wrought-iron work, such as grilles, hand-rails and balconies. Aware of the limitations of these materials and methods and keen to embrace the modern movement, Prouvé started to work with new materials and processes: steel, aluminium and arc welding. In 1926, Prouvé installed Nancy’s first electric welding machine and by 1930, he was using a metal-folding machine to make his designs. In 1931 he founded Atelier Jean Prouvé and increasingly aware of avant-garde architects such as Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens, Prouvé began to make metal furniture.
Prouvé designed sturdy but light-weight furniture from his earliest experiments in folded steel in the late 1920s. It became a core part of his business. By 1934 he had a commission for 800 pieces of office furniture for the headquarters of the Paris power company CPDE. This made Prouvé a serious contender in the market for mass-produced furniture. He avoided the domestic market, in favour of the public sector — local authorities and government bodies — in the growing areas of health, education and administration. It reflected a social ideal but, with its larger orders, also offered the economies of scale. One secondary school in Metz ordered 1000 items, including beds, chairs and desks. These successes led the company, in 1936, to produce a catalogue of standard models for hospitals, schools and offices.
The potential for mass production inspired Prouvé to develop and patent industrial products using folded sheet metal for the construction of buildings. These included movable partitioning, metal doors and lift cages. His ideas came to summation in 1937 in the Maison du Peuple, a social centre and covered market in one of Paris’ more radical suburbs.
The outbreak of World War II brought restrictions on the use of electricity and raw materials. Prouvé’s factory adapted, by producing a range of products responding to the crisis. His patent Pyrobal stoves could run on any fuel and he worked on emergency generators, bicycle frames and wooden furniture.
Prouvé was an active member of the French Résistance and after the liberation of France he was briefly appointed Mayor of Nancy. The war years and the age of austerity that followed marked a period of enforced experiment. Prouvé worked with wood when steel was in short supply, and by 1947 furniture accounted for a third of his business.
In 1947, Prouvé moved his operations to Maxéville, just outside Nancy and by 1953, the factory had over 200 employees. With its own design studio, Prouvé could combine research, prototype development and production on one site. It was at Maxéville that Prouvé set about fulfilling his ambitious plan to alter the building process from a craft-based practice to that of a mechanised industry. He not only produced houses, prefabricated huts, doors, windows, roof elements and fa?ade panels but also set up a production line for furniture based on his own designs. At the same time he was continuously upgrading the machine-tools as well as the working procedures and conditions on the factory floor. As an employer Prouvé was equally conscientious providing his employees with supplementary insurance and paid holidays.
Prouvé created an atmosphere of community at Maxéville where worker participation was encouraged and research into new procedures and design were central. It was in this creative environment that the prefabricated refugee houses of 1945 and the flat-packed, tropical houses for Niger and the Republic of Congo in 1949 and 1950 were developed.
Prouvé lost control of the factory he established at Maxéville when his financial backer, Aluminium Fran?ais, took over in 1953. The loss was a huge emotional setback for Prouvé who had called himself ‘a factory man’, but it encouraged a new and fruitful phase in his creative development. Prouvé built himself a house using components salvaged from the factory. This unique house brought an end to the experimental phase in his career. From then on he stopped being a manufacturer and instead established a new business, Construction Jean Prouvé, that turned him into a designer.
It allowed him to realise some of his more elegant and technically ambitious projects, moving away from making components to designing more complex buildings. He was commissioned to design a pavilion on the banks of the river Seine, to celebrate the centenary of aluminium. He also designed an innovative spa building in Evian, and worked on housing, youth centres and schools that reflected his social values. It was also a period of creative collaborations with designers such as Charlotte Perriand. In 1952, they were commissioned to design the furniture for the student rooms at the Maison de la Tunisie and Maison du Mexique at the Cité Universitaire.
Construction Jean Prouvé was eventually taken over by CIMT, a maker of components for railway lines. Under Prouvé’s direction it became the leading manufacturer of light-weight curtain wall fa?ades. When Prouvé left the business in 1966 he started a technical consultancy advising architecture on cladding design. This led to his work on the curtain wall fa?ades of the Tour Nobel building in Paris’ La Défense and the development of the grid frame constructions used for petrol stations. In 1971 Prouvé chaired the architectural jury that chose Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers to design the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Prouvé’s approach to design and making was systematic. Both the design process and the look of his design were of equal interest to him. He produced flow charts for the factory at Maxéville. These showed exactly how materials and elements moved from one machine to another and how one procedure followed another, from the stocking of sheet metal, rubber and neoprene sections, right up to the product’s dispatch. Tools and materials were categorised by the making process: cutting, punching, bending, plating, stamping and welding. Also his frame-by-frame photographic documentation of each experimental building project allowed him to refine the product and its construction.
The same precision was applied later to his teaching. In 1957 Prouvé was asked to give weekly lectures at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métier in Paris. Always packed to capacity, Prouvé illustrated his ideas with a succession of drawings on the blackboard and argued that the root of creativity came from the practice of theories and not academic knowledge alone. Almost a thousand pages of his lecture notes survive.
Prouvé provided a forensic analysis of the design process. He traced the history of industrial production explaining the causes and effects of the technical evolution on machines and products, moving from the railways, to aircraft and the car industry. His teaching reflected his own experience and his conviction that industrial creation does not unfold in great leaps but through gradual modifications and careful adaptations.
Prouvé has become a legendary figure since his death in 1984. Many of his landmark buildings are now national monuments and his furniture and architectural elements, fa?ades and buildings are sought by collectors.
His work, however, is not so easily categorised. He designed furniture and he also made it. He helped architects to realise their designs by designing and fabricating the fa?ade systems that made them possible. He was certainly an architect, even though he never qualified. He was an entrepreneur and an enlightened factory owner.
Delighting in all things technical, Prouvé was tirelessly driven by the desire to find solutions through trial and testing. Always the team player, his lack of ego has won him huge support with many architects and designers working today. Richard Rogers and Norman Foster as well as Jean Nouvel see in his work intelligence and an understanding of the potential of materials as both construction and form that opened the way for high tech architecture with its structurally candid expression.