Jean Prouvé: The poetics of the technical object
He never formally trained as an architect; so although he did work on the design of buildings, his is not the name which tends to be associated with them. His most iconic designs are chairs. But these are chairs for university halls of residence, works canteens and classrooms, not the sort of chairs which grace Notting Hill living rooms.
Although he came from an artistic background Prouvé started out as an artisanal blacksmith in 1919. He quickly moved from wrought ironwork into steel and aluminium, but he always remained rooted in the practice of working with materials. He designed through trials and testing of concepts.
"...one should not sketch out utopian projects, because evolution can only result from practical experience."This commitment to evolution is demonstrated by a display of Standard Chairs, variations on a theme produced by Prouvé's workshop over the course of two decades. The basic shape and configuration of Chair No.305 is not markedly different from Chair No.4. There are minor tweaks, and there are variations in material: wood, steel or aluminium, plain or lacquered. The biggest adaptation was the collapsible Standard Chair.
As an artisan and then a factory owner he understood the properties of wood and metal and their appropriate usages. Designers and architects more driven by the need to appear avant garde tended to get carried away with the thrill of new materials and looking modern. Prouvé appreciated that good design had to come from functional success: no matter how striking it looks, a chair is no good if it is not comfortable to sit in. An example is the Solvay table, which is made of wood bolted together with lacquered steel. The engineering of the table is not hidden, it is part of the aesthetic, but neither is it fetishised.
Prouvé was a early adopter of the concept of design patterns. He assembled a dictionary of structures which could be reused in different situations and scales. The crutch - a asymmetric Y shape - which supports the roof of the Pump House at Evian re-appears in the design of an armchair. He devised a roof made of single curved pieces of steel. These shells were light enough for two men to slot them together. At a larger scale this shape could be rested on the ground to form vaulted halls. One favourite shape, a elongated pentagon, appears repeatedly in his work: as the back legs of the Standard Chair, as the legs of various tables, in the cross-section of a table top, even as the handles of a sideboard.
I tend to be wary of attempts to draw parallels between our industry and branches of engineering or architecture, as these strike me as attempts to lend software development a spurious sense of discipline. Just calling it "software engineering" does not make writing a program as rigourous an activity as building a motorway flyover. However, with his commitment to iteration, re-use, modification and adaptation, and his championing of practice over theory it is hard not to regard Jean Prouvé as the Godfather of Extreme Programming.
The other exhibition at the Design Museum featured lots of modern work. One of the most striking exhibits was a chair "sketched" by a Japanese design house called FRONT. Their designers have developed a mechanism for designing furniture through motion capture and then rendering the designs using extruded plastic. Unlike Prouvé's work you probably wouldn't want to sit on the chair or rest a cup of coffee on the table but the process is fascinating to watch.