Jean Prouvé was born in 1901. A self-taught engineer, an architect without a
Le Corbusier said of him he is the archetypal builder. He started as a manual worker in
the 20’s, he was an apprentice to a wrought iron craftsman. Fascinated by
innovation he soon founded
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his own workshop in Nancy in
1924. In the following years he created numerous furniture designs making furniture out of sheet metal or special
metallic parts for buildings designed by avant-garde architects. ‘During
his career Jean Prouvé was involved in architectural design, industrial design, structural
design and furniture design’ (Anon., n.d.)
Prouvé working as an apprentice in 1917.
By the end of the Second World
War the workshop had become a factory with his works team proved a design
prototypes for the mass production of prefabricated detached houses. These factory-made
houses could be built by two or three people in a single day and was supposed
to be an answer to the pressing housing crisis the whole country was undergoing
after the Second World War but none of these prototypes resulted in positive
orders the France of stone and concrete found them too modern too simple and
dismissed them with disdain as machines for living in.
In 1952 a manufacturer of
aluminium an innovative material that Prouvé a was using more and more invested
in the factory. Prouvé very soon found himself put out
of the way, in 1953 he sent one of his daughters to photograph the workshops at Maxéville
in the suburbs of Nancy for the
last time. These pictures are all that remained to him of the works he had
created before the new shareholder closed the door on him.
‘Jean Prouvé was at his lowest ebb. In 1952, when he was in
his early 50s, the French designer lost control of his factory, which had once
employed more than 200 people, and was fighting to regain ownership of his
trading name and patents. Hoping to distract him, Prouvé’s family encouraged
him to start a new project: the construction of a house where he would live
with his wife, Madeleine, and the two youngest of their six children.’ (Rawsthorn,
‘In losing Maxéville
I lost everything all I saved from the disaster was my hands, a mind in shock,
no financial means and a big family to care for. To top it all it was during
this time that I had to build my house.’ (Prouvé, 1955)
The Prouvé family owned a small patch of land
which was an old vineyard in which it was supposed to be impossible to build
because of the very steep slope. The house is built on a narrow terrace on the
highest part of the plot, it can only be reached on foot. Prouvé
admitted later that it was a “youthful mistake”. It was built on poor quality
soil sandy and unstable, so the house had to be as light in weight as possible
in both in its building materials and its dimensions.
The narrowness of the sight meant building the house along
the terrace, the house backs onto the slope. The front opens southward to face
the city of Nancy. It is made to suite the minimum needs of a family house at
the time, bedrooms for children and parents, a bathroom, a water closet, a
large living room and what Prouvé
called the technical quarters, the kitchen and utility.
All the windows are
in the front except for a little opening on the west wall to light the single
corridor that serves all the rooms in the house. The buildings plan is
completely linear the bedroom, bathroom, living and kitchen spaces are set one beside the other. The corridor is lined
all the way by cupboards twenty-seven metres of storage, what would be needed
for a large family. The frame work of this house is hidden inside these
View down the long corridor. Storage is built into the frame.
Once the work of
terraforming and making the land ready was completed, the house itself was
built over a few weekends as was only to be expected of a Prouvé house,
but having lost his factory Prouvé had to forget about his original more curved
design. He had to improvise and had to make do with what he had to hand.
Placed directly onto the ground were steel beams at
intervals of two metres to form the framework of the floor. Against the slope
square brackets are bolted onto the steel beams. The beams and sheets make up
the main framework of the building a concrete slab incorporating underfloor
heating was laid over the steel beams. There are stone walls at each end of the
building to give it stability. At the rear of the building are simple wooden panels
fixed to the brackets, which also serve as the partitions for the cupboards. A
brick built toilet block provide the final element of the masonry.
site is levelled by hand. The basic framework is laid.
The whole of the front façade is made up of prefabricated
pieces that Prouvé had designed for other projects, and that he managed to
recover from stock at his old factory. ‘I built the house with left overs
things like these front panels that were originally designed for emergency
accommodation to shelter refugees from war zones during the second world war’ (Prouvé, 1955)
The panels fitted with sash windows and including metal
shutters are a meter wide a meter was the basic module for all of Prouvé’s
buildings. He was entirely against the thirty centimetre module called for by
building regulations at the time. ‘One metre is more practical and easier to
calculate’ (Prouvé, 1955)
Nine panels, nine metres bolted side by side through an iron
rim formed the façade of the bedrooms. Subdivided inside by wooden partitions.
The economy of space is extremely important the children had the right to two
panels which gives them a bedroom that is two metres wide by three metres long.
According to Prouvé this was enough space for a bed, a table, a chair and book
shelves and a school child should need no more. The bedroom doors have rounded
corners like on ships door this was because the doors were cut so precisely so
that Prouvé could make the doors and their frames from the same pieces of
timber this also made the building cheaper because of the economy in work and
Prouvé’s child’s bedroom. One of the doors in the house.
‘Everything I ever made was with the intention of being
immediately constructive. I never visualised or imagined what the form would
be, I had no style, I never designed shapes, I constructed things that had a
shape.’ (Prouvé, 1955)
Of all the shapes Prouvé created intentionally or not the
panel with portholes covered in aluminium is no doubt the most famous Prouvé
used it in his designs for a tropical house and for a piece in the Paris
observatory, but in Maison Prouvé these panels were used on Prouvé’s toilet
block and were used for the double front doors. They are designed on the same
one metre module.
Paris observatory Tropical House
Jean Prouvé with his
The living room in Prouvé’s house is a large space in which
the whole family can invite family and visitors. This open space is made feel
even bigger by the large glass wall which makes the space almost feel as if it
were part of the outdoors. The glass panels are each one meter and sixty
centimetres each breaking Prouvé’s one metre module rule. This glass wall is on
the same scale as the industrial buildings for which the panels were originally
Prouvé had designed and made furniture since the 1920s, according
to Prouvé there is no difference in making a piece of furniture or building a
house. Prouvé constructed the roof of his house of large one metre wide wooden
panels and were available in lengths up to 13 metres. In the living room the
roofing panels sit on the rear wall and a steel beam which lines up with the
front wall of the bedroom area. In the rear wall of the living are Prouvé went
without the cupboards of the corridor and instead in their place were open
shelving units as an open display.
‘Seated in armchairs made in the 1930s and 1950s, that our
conversations with Jean and Madeleine Prouvé took place. We were invited to eat
meals prepared by Madeleine Prouvé at the dining table made by Pierre
Jeanneret. Jean Prouvé used to meet me at Nancy station and we went up the hill
in the Renault 4. In 1994, ten years after Jean Prouvé’s death, the Ecole
d’Architecture of Nancy invited me to open a workshop in the now empty house;
the students made drawings by hand and on computers. We had the opportunity to
get to understand this extraordinary house better.’ (Sulzer, 2008)
‘After he left his Maxéville factory Jean Prouvé no longer had access to “his
tool”, his machines and his colleagues. In this unhappy situation, the
industrialist, who only believed in “in house” prefabrication, developed the
idea of building with a few components from the factory’s stock that were
destined for scrap, commercial products and a few components made to measure. Other
designs were to be based on this approach – a new “freedom” … Built on a terrace,
this long house follows the contour lines and is oriented to benefit from sunlight:
a glazed bay window on the south side of the main room, an overhang roof to provide
shade in the summer and insulating curtains against the cold of night. The north
side has no openings at all and 27 metres of cupboards that act as insulation.’ (Sulzer, 2008)
Anon., n.d. Vitra.. Online
Available at: https://www.vitra.com/en-ie/corporation/designer/details/jean-prouve
Accessed 9 January 2018.
Anon., n.d. Wikipedia.
Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Prouv%C3%A9
Accessed 19 January 2018.
A., 2012. The New York Times. Online
Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/20/arts/20iht-design20.html
Accessed 19 January 2018.
2008. Jean Prouvé Complete Works Volume 4: 1954-1984. 1st ed. Basel
Boston Berlin: Birkhäuser.