Jean Prouve was a French designer, architect, builder, and engineer. He was best known for his use of industrial manufacturing technology and blending it into his architectural and design works. During his lifetime, Jean Prouve had worked as a metal worker and had been involved in architectural, industrial, and structural design. On top of all that, he also designed furniture.
Childhood and Education
Jean Prouve was born in Nancy, France on April 8, 1901. He came from an artistic family. His father, Victor Prouve, was an artist while his mother, Marie Duhamel, was a pianist. Growing up, Prouve was exposed to a lot of artists and designers because his parents were part of an artistic group known as the “I’Ecole de Nancy.” This art collective believed that art should be available to everybody. They also believed that there should be a link between art and industry, and between art and social consciousness. This early exposure to the group would prove influential to his career later on.
From 1914 to 1917, Prouve studied at the School of Fine Arts in Nancy. Afterward, he apprenticed with a blacksmith, and then at a metal workshop.
Starting His Own Business
In 1923, he opened his own workshop. This would be the first of several workshops and studios that he would establish during his career. In his workshop, he produced products such as wrought iron lamps, handrails, and chandeliers. In 1924, he started designing furniture. One of his first designs was the ‘chaise inclinable,’ a reclining chair made from steel sheets.
During this time, Prouve collaborated with some local artists. In these collaborations, he took commissions for projects and used his talents and skills in crafting wrought iron. From 1923 to 1939, he contributed to art deco projects. However, he later abandoned this style for a more minimalist style involving folded metal plates. He also produced railings and gates all around Paris for other designers such as Robert Mallet-Stevens.
In 1931, he opened the company Ateliers Jean Prouve.
The War Years
In the years leading up to World War II, Prouve’s Atelier enjoyed brisk business manufacturing bicycles and ‘Pyrobals,’ stoves that can use any kind of fuel. He also designed and produced prefabricated steel vacation houses. These houses are relatively lightweight and can be built or taken down within four to five hours by five workers. He also designed portable barracks for the French Army. Seeing the potential for mass production, Prouve was inspired to develop and patent industrial products that can be used in the construction of buildings. These products were made from folded metal sheets and can be used as movable partitions and metal doors.
During the war, Jean Prouve became politically active and joined the French Resistance. This led to his election as mayor of Nancy after the war.
After the war, Prouve’s Ateliers was commissioned by the Reconstruction Ministry to design frame houses that could be mass produced for refugees. This made Prouve a leader in the field of mass-produced housing.
The years after the war saw the introduction of new materials and new methods for mass production to answer the need for new furniture. Materials like plywood, aluminium, and steel were being used in new and economical ways. Not to be left behind, Prouve opened a furniture factory in 1947. He also embarked on extensive research into the use of aluminium in architectural design. His research allowed him to win commissions and contracts for his aluminium-based houses and buildings. This included the Ferembal Demountable House, the houses he designed and built for the Ministry of Reconstruction, and the aluminium sheds he designed that were sent to Africa.
Unfortunately, he did not fare as well in his furniture factory. In 1952, Prouve lost control of it to his business partners and was forced to resign. However, the clients he made during his tenure with the company would still consult with him afterward.
In 1953, he started a construction company, the “Constructions Jean Prouve.” With this new company, he undertook a number of projects including the creation of emergency housing for homeless people in 1957 and the facade of the restaurant of the Hotel de France. In 1956, he got commissioned to create a schoolhouse that can be dismantled.
In 1957, Prouve started the Industrial Transport Equipment Company. Under said company, he built such projects as the Rotterdam Medical School and the façade of the Orly Airways Terminal. He also collaborated with other designers such as Jean Dimitrijevic and Alexander Calder on various structures.
His Later Years
Starting from 1957, Prouve lectured at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris. He did so until 1970. It was also in 1970 that he designed his most ambitious project in his later years, the building for the Ministere de l’Education Nationale. It was a metal skyscraper with a vast internal patio.
Jean Prouve passed away in Nancy on March 23, 1984, at the age of 82.
Prouve’s Design Philosophy
Prouve always incorporated industrial and engineering elements into his designs. This was manifested, for example, in the way he created housing that can be mass produced and built in a matter of hours. As to furniture design, Prouve was inclined to use folded sheet metal as opposed to the Bauhaus preferred design of using bent steel tubing. He had more faith in the durability and strength of folded metal and used it constantly in his furniture designs. This can be seen in his designs for the Standard Chair, his Compass Desk, and his Biblioteque. Architecturally, his bias leaned towards the use of steel and aluminium in his creations including the interiors.
Jean Prouve left a diverse body of work: designs and creations ranging from lamps, door and window fittings, and furniture to houses and buildings. His use of industrial production methods in his projects was groundbreaking. There are collections of Prouve’s work in both public and private hands. Viewing and exhibits of the public collections can be found around the world. The people owning the private collections would sometimes also arrange for their collections to be exhibited. In Nancy, France, the house that he lived in is now owned by the city and it is rented out on the condition that the public can visit it during certain times.
Jean Prouve may not be as popular as some of his contemporaries, but many modern designers such as Renzo Plano and Norman Foster cite him as an influence in their careers. Furthermore, the furniture he designed is sought after by collectors and connoisseurs of vintage modern design.