All photographs courtesy of Galerie Patrick Seguin
As with the UK and much of Europe, there was something of a design renaissance in France in the 1950s, due to developments in materials and technology after the war. In France, designers were often also architects, whose focus on functionality and mass production led to innovations in steel, aluminum, and bent and tubular metal – helped along by the French government, who set out to promote French creativity on an international level.
Highly coveted among mid-century furniture enthusiasts, the works of French designers like Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé have soared in value over the last decade. We called upon the expertise of Patrick Seguin at the prestigious Galerie Patrick Seguin in Paris to learn more about the French mid-century aesthetic, and its popularity with collectors.
What first drew you to Prouvé and the French Modernist designers?
I discovered the work of Jean Prouvé in the late 1980s. It was his pioneering spirit and humanitarian concern that drew me in. Prouvé considered the design of a piece of furniture to be akin to designing a house and created pure, sleek forms that were free from artifice or decoration.
Other than Prouvé, who else can be considered a French Modernist?
Prouve’s ideas were shared by other French designers of the time, like Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Jean Royère and Charlotte Perriand, and with them he became a founding member of the Union des Artistes Modernes. The innate beauty of their work is obvious, and yet their creators never set out with that intention. Rather, this came about as a consequence of perfectly marrying form with function.
What influenced designers like Le Corbusier and Prouvé?
Le Corbusier’s influences went back much further than you might expect. His design philosophy was based on systems of harmony and proportion and his belief in the mathematical order of the universe was closely bound to the ‘golden ratio’, a constructional ratio used for 2,500 years. He saw this system as a continuation of the work of the likes of Vitruvius, Leonardo da Vinci and Leon Battista Alberti, who used the proportions of the human body to improve the appearance and function of architecture. Jean Prouvé looked to automotive and aeroplane manufacturing processes, in that he aimed to produce standard elements that could be assembled easily at the end. He said, “I am ready to mass-produce houses, just like Citroën began with cars in 1919.”
Can you identify a couple of pieces by Prouvé and the French Modernists that are most popular with collectors today?
The ‘Standard’ chair by Prouvé is a must for collectors of French Modernist furniture, as it best illustrates Prouvé’s ideals for a chair for mass production. Today it has become an icon and consequently licenced reproductions are widely available. The ‘Polar Bear’ sofa by Jean Royère is the greatest example of Royère’s aesthetic, it shows the taste for wrap-around shapes and his ongoing eulogy to lightness. Resembling a giant bear’s paw, the design balances comfort with elegance.
What considerations and potential pitfalls should a buyer look out for when buying French Modernist furniture?
Buyers should look out for generic copies; pieces should be certified and authenticated and bought from a respected source. The traceability of the piece is important, knowing where it comes from and who owned it previously. The more complete the provenance, the higher the value. Condition is also key. These pieces were designed for daily use, so it’s best to seek out an example in the best possible condition. Galleries like ours do a meticulous job of restoration but it’s important to check that the original colours have not been adulterated or the materials altered.
How easy is it to find these pieces today?
Original pieces are very hard to find. The work of designers like Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé were produced in very limited numbers, sometimes complete one-offs and therefore they rarely come on the market. When they do, they fetch premium prices.
Prouvé: licenced reproductions by Vitra
French modern furniture is rightly considered a highlight of the 20th century design canon and consequently prices are high. Deep pockets are required to secure original works from any of the designers featured here. Their rarity means that the best pieces usually become available via specialist galleries or international auction houses. For instance in 2012, one of Jean Prouve’s ‘Tropic 506’ dining tables was sold for €217,000 in Christie’s Paris. In 2010, a Prouvé sideboard in steel and oak fetched $110,500 in Christie’s New York, while a set of four original standard chairs went for $45,000 at the same auction.
If your budget won’t stretch this far, you’ll be pleased to know there is a more affordable route to owning a genuine Prouvé piece, courtesy of Vitra. Since 2002 Vitra has been licenced to reproduce the original designs in high quality materials. There are currently 13 pieces in their catalogue and you could for instance be the proud owner of a Prouvé ‘Standard’ chair for just over £500. While it won’t have the patina of the original, the design remains just as beautiful.
Visit Galerie Patrick Seguin for original pieces
Buy licenced reproduction Prouvé designs from Vitra
The full Buyer’s Guide to French Modernist furniture was published in MidCentury issue 06
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