Dec 7, 2007

Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale in New York: Update

I have been fitfully researching Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale, and now have enough new material to justify an update to my post of May 31, 2007. I have been encouraged by the recent interest of Dutch-based architects and academics who maintain the website ArchiAfrika, on which they recently republished my original post, Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale in New York. As this is an update, you’ll need to read the original post first for it to make sense. And speaking of republishing, the new online journal, Design Philosophy Politics has recently published an expanded version of my "Design for the Other 90%" review here.

Two Pères, Three Maisons

In May, I was unsure of who actually rescued the Maison from “deepest darkest” Africa: French dealer, Eric Touchaleaume, or American collector, Robert Rubin. Despite reading many more articles, I am still unsure, but this in itself may be interesting. In the official catalogue for the Christie’s sale of the Maison, Touchaleaume stated categorically that he made “arrangements in 2000 for a trip to Africa in pursuit of the prototype Maisons Tropicales, determined to salvage them from ruin and to bring them back to France. I was eventually able to buy them, dismantle them and ship them home.” (p.9) This cleared it up for me: Touchaleaume rescued all three Maisons from Africa, and then sold one to American collector, Robert Rubin. However, while at the hairdressers last week, I picked up a copy of Town and Country (October 2007) which contained an interview with Rubin in which he claimed to have rescued the three Maisons, then sold two of them to a French dealer. Now Town and Country is perhaps not the most reputable source of information but what is interesting is that, going back through the articles about the Maison, both Touchaleaume and Rubin both claim the glory for rescuing the Maisons from Africa – it depends on who the journalist interviews. Another possibly relevent aside I did find out is that Touchaleaume has been on the Prouvé trail for a lot longer than Rubin, as he co-published a catalogue in 1987, Jean Prouve Mobilier, 1924-1953, then in 1989 presented “Jean Prouve Meubles, 1924-1953” at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Bourdeaux.

However, I did clarify which Maison is which, and what has happened to each of them since the great African rescue. Of the original three Maison prototypes produced by Prouvé, the first was commissioned by Paul Herbé, architect-planner of Niger colony, to be used as his office in Niamey. His idea was to extend the industrial prefab architecture technique to later construct Niamey civic structures such as schools and other institutions (an idea which never came to fruitition). The second and third prototypes went to Brazzaville, and were similar to the first, though not exactly the same. The Brazzaville prototypes comprised a smaller one, 10 by 14 meters, and a larger one, 10 by 18 meters, originally joined together by a bridge. And here’s the interesting connection I’ll come back to below: the smaller one was originally an office for the Bureau Régional d’Information de l’Aluminum Français. The larger one was originally a residence for the commercial director of Aluminum Français, Jacques Piaget. While the smaller one was originally partitioned into Director’s office, a secretary’s office and a waiting room, the residence was originally partitioned into a master bedroom plus two smaller bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom.

More recently, Robert Rubin painstakingly restored his Maison, the smaller one from Brazzaville, exhibited it at Yale and Hammer Museum, UCLA, and then donated it to the Pompidou Center where it now rests on the roof. (Another neat connection worth mentioning here is this: Prouvé was president of the Pompidou Center selection committee which approved Rogers and Piano’s high-tech "industrial" design, a high-profile commission which continued Prouvé’s legacy). Meanwhile, Eric Touchaleaume is currently painstakingly restoring the Niamey Maison, which he intends to set up in the South of France as a study center and exhibition site dedicated to architecture and design. And the third, the larger Brazzaville Maison, after being painstakingly restored, was sold to hotelier/developer Andre Balazs in New York in June. And though I don’t usually indulge in gossip on this blog, the Maison is rumored to be destined for a life as a bar in a Balazs luxury hotel in the Bahamas, with interiors designed by Lenny Kravitz. After the Love Revolution, give it up for the Design Revolution?

Colonialism and modernism

The interesting but, in retrospect, unsurprising, connection here is between Prouvé and Aluminum Français, the state-owned company that controlled French aluminum production in the interwar period, including, of course, bauxite mining in various French colonies in Africa. The Christie’s sale catalogue contained a photo of a Prouvé Aluminum and Formica Table, c. 1950, in situ in the Bauxite Processing Plant of Aluminum Français in Edea, Cameroon. The close relationship between the interests of French industry, colonialism and modernist design that I pointed out in my previous post were further confirmed by these concrete (or should that be aluminum?) connections. In addition, in 1951, ORSTOM, the Office of Scientific and Technical Research in Overseas Territories, placed a large order with Prouvé’s workshop to equip both their colonial offices and their main office in Bondy, Paris.

So, Prouvé’s Maison clearly illustrates the postwar colonial triangle: the French colonial mining company, Aluminum Français, extracted raw materials from the African colonies which were then returned to France, refined into aluminum, designed into prefab Maisons and furniture by modernist designer Jean Prouvé, and finally returned to the colonies as finished designer commodities, proof of French technical and cultural superiority. However, the final, and somewhat touching part of the tale, is that in 1953, Prouvé’s beloved workshop near Nancy which produced these objects (including the Maisons), was taken over by none other than Aluminum Français, a fact Prouvé seemed to be most unhappy about. Prouvé’s Maxeville workshop, run under socialist principles and founded on the Arts and Crafts ideal of maintaining a close connection between the designer and craftsman, was gobbled up by the colonial system it was both dependent upon and also supporting in its promotion of all the marvellous things, from tables and chairs to complete houses, that could be designed using colonially-sourced aluminum.

Designer Treasure Hunters

An interesting point about the Christie’s New York sale in June that I overlooked was the sheer volume of modernist designer loot “rescued” from countries in the developing world. While the star of the sale was the Maison, the sale also contained a range of additional French modernist designer loot by not only Prouvé, but also Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. It included furniture produced by Prouvé from the 1930s and 40s, ranging from single armchairs to a steel dining table (ranging from $20 000 - $40 000). The sale also featured a range of other salvaged French modernist design and architectural details, including loot from Le Corbusier’s postwar government complex at Chandigarh, India. Here it seems, Touchaleaume (or Rubin?) rescued library tables, chairs from government offices, shelving, stools, lighting fixtures – anything portable and designed by French modernists, including a Cast-Iron Manhole Cover designed by Pierre Jeanneret (asking $20 000)! It seems the 21st century market for design is hot enough to justify just about anything connected to the hand of a certified modernist great – if design isn’t art, it sure sells like it!

A further valuable source of colonial loot for sale was an Air France Unité d’Habitation in Brazzaville, designed by French modernists Jean Hébrard, Louis Lefevre, Jean Létu and Pierre Bienvenue. In 1950, Air France commissioned Charlotte Perriand to outfit their Brazzaville Unité, comprising 60 apartments designed to house French airline personnel on stopovers. Completed in 1952, it was a showcase of Modernist French design and must have been considered successful, as Air France commissioned subsequent projects by Perriand, including a similar building in Dakar, Senegal. For the interiors, Perriand used both her own designs and those of Jean Prouvé, as well as some in collaboration, such as the “Brazza” storage units which combined local tropical woods with Prouvé’s steel parts. Unlike Prouvé, Perriand went to Brazzaville to oversee the project and produce work there. Again, the building was stripped of its goodies some time in the past few years by Touchaleaume (or Rubin?). Presumably it was impractical or uneconomical to ship the entire five story concrete building to New York for the auction. Finally, there was similar loot from the Perriand-designed Air France building in Dakar also auctioned in New York – tables, lamps, cabinets, a Brazza storage unit, drying racks, even molded concrete paving stones from the rooftop terrace garden.

Constructing a Design Master, Constructing a Design Market

Finally, a comment on the reissue and rediscovery of Prouvé. In a
previous post on Design Within Reach and Vitra, I discussed the phenomenon of “fully licensed classics”. These are not “original” Modernist classics like you might have picked up at the Christie’s auction for tens of thousands of dollars, but “authentic” design classics available for only two or three thousand dollars. Let’s look at a concrete (er, steel?) example: Jean Prouvé’s Citie armchair, steel and leather, c.1930. One of these chairs sold at Christies in June 2007 for $102 000 – this is the “original” version. In comparison, the “fully licensed classic” or “authentic” version is currently available in the US at Design Within Reach for $3265. While the original version may have been reconditioned or at least cleaned up a little, it was manufactured in 1930 at Prouvé’s workshop. In the contemporary reissues of Prouvé’s furniture, laser cutting, computer-driven machinery and new epoxy finishes have replaced Prouvé’s pioneering interwar methods and materials.

It is worth briefly unpackaging the various levels at work here, as they are inter-dependent: on on the one level, at the Christie’s auction of “originals”, we witness the fetishization of a design object as art – the original product of the certified master, rescued from Chandargarh or deepest darkest Africa, brought back to the safety of Western private collections and museums, stripped of its functionality and destined to a life on display on a pedestal. On the second level, that of the “authentic” version, we engage with the Prouvé chair as a 21st century simulacra, a virtual Prouvé, created with contemporary production processes and technologies. What is ultimately important is the chair’s modernist design, and design here is exclusively understood as aesthetic – it looks like the original, even if the production processes and technologies are quite different (and in fact, the new “authentic” chair may well be more perfect, more durable, and more "functional" than a well-worn “original”). I noted in the last post the vested interest that a company such as Vitra has in such a system – they not only reissue “authentic” Prouvé furniture, but also have a design museum containing “original” Prouvé furniture - so they operate on both levels. But the marketing doesn’t stop there. Vitra currently have a touring exhibition entitled “
Jean Prouvé: The Poetics of the Technical Object”, which began touring various museums in Japan in 2005, and since then has been touring around various European museums (due to end in 2008 at the Design Museum in London). Finally, all this is not necessarily just about Jean Prouvé, but ultimately about the gap between what modernist design was and how it is perceived in the 21st century. Beyond this, what really interests me about modernism and its contemporary reception are two things: how to extricate it from contemporary market-driven design, and, following this, what its future possibilities might be.

All photos of the Maison Tropicale in New York, May 2007, by D.J. Huppatz

This will be my last blog entry for this year, I'll be back in the new year with more. Thanks for your interest.