The life of a designer

Jean Prouvé and his father Victor, 1911.

Jean Prouvé and his father Victor, 1911. © Fonds Jean Scherbeck – Centre Image Lorraine.


1901 – Birth of Jean Prouvé in Paris. His father, Victor, was a painter, sculptor and engraver; his mother, Marie Duhamel was a musician. The second of seven children, Jean had as his godfather Emile Gallé, the two families being longtime friends: Gengoult, Victor’s father, was a modeler for Charles Gallé, Emile’s father. In 1903 Victor left Paris for Nancy, where he moved into the house next door to Emile Gallé’s. One of the founders of the “École de Nancy”, he took over as director when Gallé died in 1904. Jean was brought up in the distinctive atmosphere of this multi-skilled group of artists, with its aims of making art accessible to all and integrating it into industry. This warm yet demanding community spirit was doubtless the philosophical basis of Jean’s education.

PRENTICE YEARS (1917–1921)

In addition to this crucial training, Jean worked hard at primary school. To his great regret a health problem prevented him from taking out his basic studies certificate and the outbreak of war in 1914 blocked all access to the engineering studies he had hoped to undertake. Apprenticed to Emile Robert, a sculptor-blacksmith friend of his father at Enghien, near Paris, he went on to exercise his ironworking skills with the Szabo firm in the capital until 1921. By 1918 he had begun accepting personal commissions for ornamental ironwork projects.


The three concerns Jean Prouvé ran between 1923–1956 represent what he always termed his “tool of the trade”. For him these businesses, their equipment, and the training of the people working there meant fulltime creative activity linked to the opportunity to manufacture—a considerable innovation at the time.

Initially there was the ironworks on Rue du Général Custine; after finishing his military service in the cavalry, he was able to open this workshop “Jean Prouvé, wrought iron craftsman”—with financial help from Saint Just Péquart, an archeologist friend of his father. Forging was still the main way of working, and Jean Prouvé worked personally with hammer and anvil, turning out lamps, wall lamps, ceiling light fittings, iron gates, and ramps. A new tooling system arrived in 1925, with the bending machine and electrical welding instigating a major change; bent and stainless steel came onto the scene and the purely manual approach of the forge was supplanted by the latest technology. The tone of things was set: a totally personal stamp tied to perfect mastery of cutting edge machinery. The tool allowed the realization of the idea and the idea germinated according to the possibilities offered by the tool. In Paris Jean Prouvé met the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, who commissioned him in 1927 to make a large gate for the Reifenberg house in Paris. He also worked for the Martel brothers, sculptors. Via the specialist press, international exhibitions, and his friends and acquaintances, he kept tabs on trends in art and modern architecture—including that of Le Corbusier, with whom he remained in touch until the latter’s death. In 1929 came the first Jean Prouvé patent, for a movable partition. In the same year he became a founder member of the Union des artists modernes (UAM), along with Pierre Chareau, Etienne Cournault, Sonia Delaunay, Eileen Gray, René Herbst, Pierre Jeanneret, Francis Jourdain, Robert Mallet-Stevens, and Charlotte Perriand. In 1930 he designed and made a set of bent steel chairs, with a cloth seat and backrest, as a wedding present for his sister Marianne.

The second business was the workshop on Rue des Jardiniers, opened to mark the founding of the private company Ateliers Jean Prouvé (Jean Prouvé Workshops) in 1931. From that date until 1956 all Prouvé’s patents and registered designs bore the Ateliers Jean Prouvé trademark, which had become Prouvé’s signature. The new premises were larger, with space for thirty craftsmen and the latest bending machines; representing a real gain in power and width (4 meters) these latter allowed for larger-scale operations. As previously, but now even more so, furniture making and architectural design went hand in hand. These parallel, reciprocally reinforcing lines of research were aimed at the reproducible rather than the one-off—at structures that could be made available to all. One consequence was that the preferred target for the furniture was the public sector—schools, university dormitories, offices—without excluding constant making of prototypes and ongoing testing. The accommodation was also designed with optimal mass production in mind: huts for the military, houses for postwar refugees. Emblematic of this approach was the submission for the student dormitory furnishing competition at the Cité Universitaire in Nancy in 1930, which comprised the Cité armchair, a metal-frame bookshelf, a bed, a table and a chair. At the same period the company’s first steel building was under study. In 1936 Prouvé’s meeting with architects Beaudouin & Lods led to his working on the flying club at Buc, near Paris, and the prototype of the weekend house known as the BLPS (Beaudouin, Lods, Prouvé, Forges de Strasbourg). Their collaboration continued with the Maison du Peuple at Clichy, near Paris, a complex, multi-purpose building containing movable elements that was declared an historic monument during Prouvé’s lifetime. This represents one of the first examples—maybe the very first—of the curtain wall, with the panels made of stretched steel sheet, and was much admired by Frank Lloyd Wright when he discovered it after the War. Unconscripted in 1940–1944 because he was the father of a large family, Jean Prouvé succeeded, in spite of the lack of personnel, in keeping his workshops functioning with a range of products and ongoing research: bicycles, the Pyrobal stove which could burn anything, designs for houses (especially with “portal frames”), and furniture made mostly of wood because metal was in short supply. In 1944 he was appointed mayor of Nancy and made a member of France’s Consultative Committee out of recognition of his work in the Resistance. As Mayor he welcomed the American generals taking part in the Liberation, among them General Patton. Although politics interested him, Prouvé was not a political animal and did not stand for reelection, preferring to return to the mass-produced housing projects begun before the War. Several hundred central portal frame houses for war victims were commissioned from him by the Ministère de la Reconstruction.

MAXÉVILLE (1947–1953)
Constantly driven by the urge to mass production, Jean Prouvé, with the financial help of a certain M. Schvartz, industrialist, bought some land at Maxéville, near Nancy, with a view to enhancing his production “tool”. In many people’s minds Prouvé’s name is automatically associated with Maxéville, his time there being seen as emblematic of the trend of his work. However, the golden age only lasted seven years (1947–1953 inclusive), being followed by a more ambivalent period until 1956. Given the shortage of steel during the War, Jean Prouvé’s quest for lightness had led him towards aluminum, even if in terms of strength it left him less satisfied. This interest in aluminum as a building material did not go unnoticed by the processors, and in 1949 Aluminium Français bought into the Ateliers Jean Prouvé, allowing the concern to achieve quasi-industrial size, with a factory of 25,000 square meters, a staff of 200, and mass production equipment. In this context Jean Prouvé continued his research and held to his concept of self-management by craftsmen with a stake in the financial results. The achievements were impressive: entirely mass-produced aluminum houses were flown to Africa, and the sheds structures began to be produced. In the furniture field a more specialized structure took shape. Steph Simon became the sole marketing agent for Ateliers Jean Prouvé items as, in line with the choices made in the 1930s, Jean Prouvé pursued his projects for equipping student dormitories and public sector facilities. Curious about this new experiment, architects from France and abroad flocked to the workshops. Le Corbusier showed real interest, and young architecture students volunteered as interns, something that was hardly part of the educational spirit of the times in 1950. As had been the case for the UAM in 1930, Jean Prouvé became a founder member of the “Groupe Espace” in 1951: with him, among others, were builders Laffaille and Le Ricolais; architects André Bruyère, Guévrékian, Richard Neutra, Jean de Mailly and Bernard Zehrfuss; and artists Nicolas Schöffer and Victor Vasarely. The group advocated “for the harmonious development of all human activity, the vital presence of plasticity.” In 1952, Charlotte Perriand signed a contract with the Ateliers Jean Prouvé, and created new furniture models (notably for the Maison de la Tunisie and the Maison du Mexique at the Cité Universitaire de Paris) which were fabricated by the Ateliers. But with Jean Prouvé’s mass-production agenda attracting investors, he ultimately lost financial control of his tool of the trade. He refused to become just an ideas man in an office far from his machines: what drove him was the immediacy of feedback between thinking and making (and vice versa). Failures of comprehension and communication—especially with Studal, Péchiney’s marketing branch—ended in a parting of the ways, and in June 1953, a heavyhearted Prouvé resigned as CEO. However, he was brought back into the company—which still bore his name—as an administrator, by Aluminium Français, who rightly insisted that they could not survive without his talent. It has often been said in amusedly compassionate tones that Jean Prouvé was no manager. He was certainly not a “money man”, but for thirty years he ran a constantly expanding business fueled by fulltime innovation, and remains a precious example in his field. For Jean Prouvé the affair was not settled until January 1956, when the Ateliers Jean Prouvé became the Ateliers de constructions préfabriquées de Maxéville (Maxéville Prefabricated Constructions Workshops). Then it was that he recovered “his name, his projects, his techniques.”

THE PARIS PERIOD (1954-1984)

IN-BETWEEN (1954–1957)

The period between the loss of his Maxéville plant and his integration as chief building consultant into the big industrial group CIMT—constructors of, among other things, the Paris Metro—was a very fertile one for Jean Prouvé. Maybe the answer lies in the combination of the strength needed to survive, a finely honed savoir faire, and working with a very small group after having spent years finding work for a staff of 200. Whatever the case, in just a few years he was responsible for the Pavillon du Centenaire de l’Aluminium, his own house in Nancy, the famous Buvette in Évian, the schools at Villejuif, Les Jours Meilleurs house for Abbé Pierre, the Saharan house and the CNIT facades at La Défense, in Paris.

The scale was different. Jean Prouvé was in charge of the group’s architecture department and this really was mass production, although maybe without the same pioneering enthusiasm. The consultancy was in Paris, the manufacturing was done in Bordeaux and there was no productive reciprocation between the idea and its realization. Still, Jean Prouvé’s reputation was made, and he was frequently consulted. He contributed to major projects, mostly when curtain walls were involved. It was no longer a question of constructing unified ensembles, but of dealing with facades: the Nobel Tower, the Medical Faculty in Rotterdam, the UNESCO extension in Paris, all sorts of school buildings, the Orly Air Terminal, and the CIMT offices—there is no shortage of examples. But what was cruelly lacking for Jean Prouvé was his former experimenting in the furniture field. The enormous scale he was now working on excluded the possibility of the prototypes which were a crucial part of his approach, especially in furniture design. It was not until late in life, when he had a little more time, that he returned to furnishings, seeking to make with cast aluminum what he had first designed in bent steel. But the lack of his “tool” remained a major handicap.

Jean Prouvé’s time in the Chair of Art and Design, which he held in parallel with his responsibilities at the CIMT, was crucial for a host of budding architects and engineers. His lectures and drawings were backed up by practical exercises in which models embodied the thinking that was going on. The impact was undeniably significant. Teaching made enormous demands on Prouvé—much more so, no doubt, than the considerable effort involved in fine-tuning a construction solution—but it also provided a human input very necessary to someone little accustomed to being hemmed in by bureaucratic conventions.

It was on these premises in Paris that Jean Prouvé, until the end of his life, worked as an independent consultant, with the backing of three or four associates. Among the results were the facades for the Communist Party headquarters in Paris, Total filling stations, and the Exhibitions Center in Grenoble; a study for polyester panels for Matra automobiles; youth clubs, Paris bus stops, and a handful of single-family houses. The last project he worked on there was for the TV tower at Ouessant


1951 – Prize at the Milan Triennial (metal-frame table)
1962 – Reynolds Prize for the Le Havre Museum
1963 – Auguste Perret Award from the International Union of Architects
1971 – President of the Center for Architectural Studies (CEA), Paris. President of the jury for the competition for the Centre Georges Pompidou (appointed by Robert Bordaz) – Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, winners
1975 – Received into the Academy of Architecture by Le Ricolais
1980 – Refuses to apply for admission to the Order of Architects
1981 – Erasmus Prize for industrial design
1982 – City of Paris Grand Prix d’Architecture

Although Prouvé set little store by honors, the many tokens of recognition he received, and especially the Erasmus Prize in 1981, did not go unappreciated by him.

He died in Nancy on 23 March 1984.