LUXURYCULTURE.COM - Prouvé's Tropical Masterwork


A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain one of Jean Prouvé's famed Maisons Tropicales is at the center of an unprecedented Christie's sale celebrating the great designer's work.

A Christie's sale of great 20th century design throws up one of the crowning achievements of Jean Prouvé's career – an intact and restored, full-size Maison Tropicale.

On June 5th, Christie's in New York is holding a sale entirely devoted to the output of Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. The works come from the vast and inexpressibly important collection of Eric Touchaleaume, a Paris-based dealer and collector specializing in 20th century design and architecture.

Along with Jeanneret's furniture for the monolithic city of Chandigarh, a handful of Le Corbusier works, and a greater amount of pieces by Perriand, some the result of collaborations with Prouvé in Brazzaville, the sale belongs, in effect, to Jean Prouvé. For not only is there a wide-ranging selection of work to illustrate why the recently repatriated reputation (aided, in no small part, by the tireless work of Touchaleaume at his Paris Galerie 54) of this Modernist designer is so notable, but the sale includes a lot of huge significance in the realms of 20th century design and architecture – an entire Maison Tropicale, one of only three Prouvé prototypes ever made, all three saved from oblivion by Touchaleaume, and a landmark reference in prefabricated construction.

The Maison Tropicale that's up for grabs (with a high estimate of $6 million) was constructed in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, in 1951, as the 180 square meter home of the commercial director of the Bureau Régional d'Information de l'Aluminium Français (another adjoining Maison Tropical of 140 square meters, now in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, provided office space). One more house, at Niamey in Niger, is being restored by Touchaleaume and will be reconstructed in the south of France for educational and exhibition purposes. (In order to concentrate fully on these projects, Touchaleaume shuttered his gallery at the start of the year and will reopen in spring 2008 in Hôtel Particulier Martel, a major work by French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens.)

Prouvé's idea of creating well-designed prefabricated housing proved too costly, and his aesthetics were not widely shared, so there were never any further Maisons Tropicales built past the prototype stage. And a project that was almost lost to the passing of time has been rescued in the nick of time. Which gives an idea just how special Lot 311 in an already-special sale is. For curious buyers, or just the plain curious, the house, having been erected on the banks of the Seine in Paris during the fall/winter of 2006-7, is currently standing under the Queensboro Bridge, opposite the towering magnificence of the Manhattan skyline.

Prouvé was born into creativity in the French city of Nancy in 1901. His father was a painter and sculptor and the founder of an art collective, L'Ecole de Nancy, which included Emile Gallé among its members. Practically fated to do work that required him to use his hands, the young Prouvé moved into metalwork, setting up his own workshop in 1923. Travels to Paris introduced him to a world of design and architecture, and it wasn't long before he found himself collaborating with some of the foremost Modernist pioneers of the day. Le Corbusier, Mallet-Stevens, Tony Garnier, and Perriand all became part of Prouvé's circle, and in 1930 he was a founding member of the Union des Artistes Modernes.

Prouvé's star was on the rise, and his talented mind turned from household and institutional furniture and products to commercial buildings and residential projects. Prouvé was guided by a principle of practicality, an update of the Bauhaus dictum of form following function, and this is one of the reasons why his work makes such sense today. While he always strove to produce work that could be easily reproduced in order to reach a wide audience – pioneering the use of folded sheet metal in the design and construction of furniture and prefabricated building parts – that wide audience proved frequently unresponsive to the flights of earthy fancy from a man whom Le Corbusier described as a "constructeur".

Eric Touchaleaume, who has been instrumental in bringing Prouvé back into the public eye, explains what makes the Maison Tropicale so exciting when he says of Prouvé's work, "He turned his inspired ideas on the application of new technologies – including those associated with aeronautical engineering – to the construction of buildings using prefabricated modules."

In 1947, he moved his workshop Les Ateliers Jean Prouvé to large premises in Maxéville, a suburb of Nancy, where, until 1953, he produced many of his most important works, including his three prototype Maisons Tropicales.

The three Maisons Tropicales were not the first prototypes of prefabricated housing produced by Prouvé. He'd been experimenting throughout the '30s and '40s, and this commission came about as a solution for standardized, easy-to-assemble housing for French colonial interests in western Africa. Prouvé's means to deal with ventilation and heat reduction were strikingly effective and were incorporated as integral parts of the overall aesthetic.

However, fifty years of equatorial climate, neglect and civil war damage had taken a heavy toll on the Maisons Tropicales by the time a group of Parisians, led by Eric Touchaleaume, traveled to West Africa in 2001 to dismantle the three constructions and bring them back to France for urgent care and maintenance. The process proved to be more difficult than a simple clean-down and brush-up, requiring new drawings and the rehabilitation of old machinery, not least to get rid of the bullet holes. The restored result is a building that is as much a work of design as it is architecture, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to acquire one of the most important works by one of the 20th century's most important designers at the top of his game.

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