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Jean Prouvé: A Leading Designer and Architect of the 20th Century

by Hedwig Scarlett 11 Dec 2023 0 comments

Breaking Strict Domain Boundaries, Jean Prouvé Adopts a Multidisciplinary Approach, Combining Craftsmanship with Industrial Production to Create Items that Merge Design and Architecture.

Jean Prouvé, a French metalworker, is also a self-taught architect and designer, hailed by Le Corbusier as an architect who seamlessly integrates architecture and engineering.
Prouvé's major achievement lies in transferring manufacturing techniques from industry to the field of architecture while retaining the aesthetic qualities of architecture. Throughout his career, he engaged in architectural design, industrial design, structural design, and furniture design.

Jean Prouvé

Prouvé pioneered methodological innovation in the field of design, significantly influencing the development of design in the 20th century. He managed to create a new style by merging craftsmanship with industrial production, resulting in items that combine design and architecture. In these works, the pure form of design plays a secondary role, while the functionality of objects, cost-effectiveness, and rational use of materials become the primary considerations.

Jean Prouvé's Projects

Self-Taught Architect and Designer

He is one of the most influential designers and architects of the 20th century, yet he never studied architecture.

Jean Prouvé's Apprenticeship
Jean Prouvé became an apprentice in 1917. Often considered an heir to early modernist masters like Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van de Rohe, Prouvé never studied architecture. Born in Paris, France, in 1901, he had to abandon his education in 1916 due to financial difficulties in his family and apprenticed under blacksmiths Émile Robert and Paul Szabo.
Víctor Prouvé
Jean Prouvé's father, Víctor Prouvé, was a close friend of Émile Gallé, a glass master, and the founder of the Nancy School.
Jean Prouvé Working
Jean Prouvé started working at the age of 13, and due to the outbreak of World War I, his family faced economic hardships. Consequently, he became a blacksmith in the studio of his father's friend Émile Robert.

Émile Robert's Grilles

Around 1902, blacksmith Émile Robert produced "Grille Calla palustris" and "Grille Calla palustris" based on models by Víctor Prouvé.
Compared to many architects, his early experiences may seem more rugged. Perhaps that's why, instead of identifying as an "architect" or "designer," he preferred to call himself a "folder of sheet metal." However, his solid blacksmith skills allowed Jean Prouvé to revolutionize French design from the 1920s to the 1950s with lightweight industrial furniture and easily assembled "nomadic architecture," becoming a representative of French high-tech.

Movable and Disassemblable Architecture

Prouvé created movable and disassemblable architecture with the "constructive thinking" of engineering.

His construction and design theories were based on rational manufacturing, focusing on materials and processing techniques, and applying design as a "constructive thinking" in the context of large-scale production and functional logic.

Aesthetics without technique is a modernist principle, and based on this principle, in 1930, he, along with Le Corbusier, Mallet-Stevens, Pierre Jeanneret, and Pierre Chareau, co-founded the French Union of Modern Artists (UAM). UAM aimed to reform architecture by emphasizing the functional purity of forms and lines, and by exploring new experimental technologies like reinforced concrete, overcoming the decorative nature of the new art style.

Between the 1930s and 1950s, he designed prefabricated houses, office furniture, beds, tables, bicycles, chairs, desks, interior decorations, and lighting, spanning the entire 20th century. These items, full of vitality, with clean materials and lines, suggest their purpose.

Total Filling Station, 1954 Total Filling Station ▲

Demountable House, 1944 Demountable House▲


Jean Prouvé's Urban Housing, 1948▲

1950s French Flying Club▲

1950s French Flying Club▲

Prefabrication (Préfabrication)▲

Due to the concept of integrating design with the times, portable housing can be understood as one of Prouvé's most notable architectural achievements. Prefabrication (Préfabrication) was initially introduced into production in the late 1930s for military construction and as temporary shelters for refugees. In the resistance experience of World War II, Prouvé became the post-war mayor of Nancy and built projects like the "Houses for Disaster Victims" in Lorraine. Here, lightweight folding metal furniture was widely used, and its low cost and high flexibility became its advantages.

Petrol Station ▲ Originally built in other cities, later transported to the Vitra Campus, originally 3, now only 1 remains.

The Birth of the Standard Chair

Sheet metal inspired me—folding, pressing, corrugating, and then welding.

1. Prouvé Standard Chair

Prouvé designed the standard chair for the University of Nancy, with tubular steel legs and a seat and back made of wood. This openly practical standard chair, with its design placing the potential occupant face-to-face with the chair, directly showcases the engineering technology that enables the chair to bear weight. Unlike traditional four-legged chairs, the maximum pressure on the standard chair, as the name suggests, is borne by the rear two legs.

2. Antony Chair, Model 356

The Antony Chair has always been one of Jean Prouvé's most famous designs. Here, Prouvé demonstrates the flexibility of plywood, with the cleverly curved contour of the chair seat formed by plywood in the current model, supported by a metal plate frame standing on tubular metal legs.

3. "Cité" Armchair

The 1930s was a crucial period for Jean Prouvé, as he moved his studio from Rue de Custine to Rue des Jardiniers and established the iconic Les Ateliers de Jean Prouvé with engineer and brother-in-law André Schott. The Cité Armchair is a product of this period, designed for a competition for the student dormitories at the Cité Universitaire in Nancy, where Prouvé later became the mayor.

Chaise Dactylo CD 11

Jean Prouvé Rare stool


4. Jean Prouvé Chaise Dactylo CD 11

Prouvé Residence

This variant of the swivel office chair consists of a movable seat mounted on a tube attached to a horizontal metal base. The model features a backrest connected with a flat metal support running beneath the seat. It was introduced in 1947 under the name CD 11. After Prouvé left Maxéville, a suburb of Nancy in eastern France, other swivel chairs designed by Ateliers Jean Prouvé resembled more like stools for workshops than office furniture. This rare piece from 1944 is an early work; the light green color, wooden seat, and backrest are all original.

Prouvé Stool

Prouvé Stool

Prouvé Stool

5. Jean Prouvé Rare stool

Prouvé Stool

As early as 1935, Prouvé designed stools. From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, he had a particular interest in this form, creating at least ten stool prototypes—many using pressed aluminum similar to the current models. The curves of the aluminum seats reflect the designer's considerations for ergonomics and his skillful manipulation of malleable materials. Earlier three-legged iterations proved too unstable, so he added a fourth leg for stability. The current design is sold as model 307 and was exhibited at various design fairs in the early 1950s. Many were painted red and sometimes came with cushions. Current examples are particularly rare, not only due to the relative scarcity of this form but also because of the untreated aluminum seats.

Prouvé Stool

Prouvé Stool

Prouvé Stool

6. CITÉ BED NO. 456

Prouvé Stool

This design, later known as the Cité Bed, is one of the most iconic creations of Ateliers Jean Prouvé. It was designed in 1930 for student dormitories at the Cité Universitaire in Nancy. They needed both a bed and a bedside table, and Prouvé chose to combine the two into the frame; the headboard became the bedside table, offering built-in storage space. Except for a few simple variations, this asymmetrical arrangement remains unchanged. This sofa bed is in its original and untouched state; the iconic light green structure and wooden components are very delicate, and the overall condition is excellent. Prouvé (1901–1984) was a pioneer in the innovative production of furniture and architecture in the 20th century.

Cité Bed

Cité Bed

Cité Bed

Furniture and Architecture

Building a piece of furniture and constructing a building are no different.

In 1954, he, along with friends and his daughter Catherine, designed and built his own house on the hills of Nancy, known as the Prouvé Residence, which became a cultural heritage in 1987.
It is a lightweight and flexible structure, a collection of standardized elements with a simple linear layout following the principles of pure functionality. A one-meter-long module is divided into three areas: private, public, and service. Porthole-shaped perforated aluminum panels form part of the outer walls and entrance door, a detail loaded into architectural history together with the corner of the door. The residence, entirely based on Prouvé's design principles of affordability, comfort, functionality, and durability, is 27 meters long, foundationless, and perfectly embodies this approach by assembling industrial elements and manual labor.

Prouvé Residence

One of the greatest achievements of the high-tech movement initiated by Prouvé is the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This flexible, industrialized prefabricated building was designed by architects Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, and Peter Rice. When the building was completed, Jean Prouvé had nothing but appreciation, as he believed the building would create significant momentum.

Prouvé Centre Pompidou

Prouvé Centre Pompidou

As François Chaslin (1983) put it, the "great blacksmith" always acted with a utopian attitude, combining practice with theory. Throughout his career, he managed to merge functional requirements, material usage, and economic concerns with the complex demands of mass production.

Speaking of Prouvé's achievements, Rolf Fehlbaum, the honorary chairman of Vitra and owner of one of the largest product lines designed by Prouvé, said, "In the tradition of the modern movement, there is a crazy idea that you can change the world with chairs, tables, sofas, and lamps. Some might say that's absurd, but we believe it, and we are still working in that direction."

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