Pioneering prefabrication architecture, Jean Prouvé was a French designer and engineer who invented easy-to-assemble prototypes for everything from tables, chairs and beds to houses, schools and petrol stations. Fabricated with parts made of bent, corrugated or perforated sheet metal, these structures could be assembled by small teams of builders in just a day, presenting avant-garde solutions to the sorts of housing crises that followed times of war in the early 20th century. Prouvé’s factory closed many years ago — while he was still alive — and his designs were never realized on a mass scale, as he had planned. However, a long legacy of works has survived him, some of which have been given second lives thanks to dedicated gallery owner Patrick Seguin.
Now in his 60s, Seguin has dedicated his life and collection talents to preserving, exhibiting and finding new purposes for Jean Prouvé’s work, purchasing his first Prouvé house in 1990. Along with his wife and business partner Laurence, Seguin holds a gallery in Paris and opened another in London in October 2015. Active at fairs like Design Miami/, Art Basel Miami and FIAC Design as well as in special representations with the Gagosian Gallery, Séguin has successfully presented the work of designers like Jean Prouvé — collected alongside French Modernists Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbusier and Jean Royere — to an international audience of collectors, buyers and curious amateurs.
Architizer presents an exclusive conversation with Patrick Seguin in which he discusses the beginnings of his collection, passion and gallery dedicated to Jean Prouvé and his practical building philosophies.
Chloé Vadot: What drew you to opening a gallery dedicated to modern design?
Patrick Seguin: When I discovered Prouvé’s work in the late 80s, I was immediately drawn to it. Laurence and I first purchased a Jean Prouvé Compas table as well as his Standard Chairs, and even though he wasn’t very well known at the time, we could see that his work was going to go far. In 1990, we bought our first Prouvé house, a 6×6 meter from 1944, and today we have the largest collection of Prouvé architecture, with 23 houses ranging from 6×6 meters to 24×8 meters.
Do you have a background in architecture or industrial design?
Design and architecture are my passions, and I’ve been working in this business for nearly 30 years. Since opening the gallery in 1989, I have worked strenuously to promote Jean Prouvé’s work as well as the work of Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbusier and Jean Royere. In addition to gaining international recognition for their designs, we have developed an editorial line of publications dedicated to Jean Prouvé’s furniture and architecture as well as publications on Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Jean Royère.
What do you appreciate most about Jean Prouvé’s designs?
There is something timeless about the work of Jean Prouvé. There is a striking balance between the shapes of the object, their innovative character and the way in which they exemplify the era in which they were created. They are equally as functional as they are beautiful even though he never sought out to create aesthetically pleasing pieces. This is due to the perfect match of form and function. He was conscious of the political and social environment, which is consistently reflected in his oeuvre.
Jean Prouvé’s system of prefabricated parts offered solutions for inexpensive and easy-to-assemble structures that were useful in times of crises and emergencies. Do you feel a responsibility toward recreating or adapting those systems to the modern issues of refugee and low-income housing, for example?
Jean Prouvé was so ahead of his time by using prefabricated architecture as a quick, reliable solution to urgent housing problems after World War II. Prouvé saw it as the optimal technical and economic solution by using mass production of metal components and was continually perfecting his technique over the years. He was truly a genius, but his work did not see the success that he had hoped for it.
Today, we resurrect these pieces of architecture by restoring and readapting them for contemporary use. As Jean Nouvel states, “Either these architectures die, or their use[s] change and they are granted a new function, a new life.”
Can you talk a little bit about the other designers that you represent and the similarities and differences that can be drawn between them?
Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret and Le Corbusier all worked on large-scale projects, for schools and government buildings, among other projects. As for Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand, for instance, their creations stem from global thoughts on social, political and economical issues, and they approached their work with a rational and honest perspective.
Do you continue to look for new talents, and if you do, how do you approach new collaborations?
I have narrowed my expertise to five designers: Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbusier and Jean Royère. They are some of the most important names in 20th-century French furniture and architecture, with their rightful place in the history of art.
As for collaborations, we began to show furniture with contemporary art very early on, and we are the first to have shown this type of architectural furniture in contemporary art galleries. There is a real synergy between design and contemporary art. In 2003 we had a show at the Ileana Sonnabend Gallery in New York, and then in 2004 we had a show at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. Since then we have collaborated with Gagosian nine times, including last year in 2015 in New York for the exhibition “Chamberlain Prouvé,” and most recently this May for the Jean Nouvel exhibit in Athens.
Has anything changed since the opening of your London gallery? Has it brought forth any opportunities to represent British designers?
London has a very important international scene, with a number of our international clients living there. We do not plan on expanding the roster of designers we represent, but we are very pleased to have a presence among the British collectors.
Where are some of Prouvé’s models that you have sold over the years, and what are they used for?
As I previously said, we currently have 23 Prouvé houses in our collection. The collectors who have purchased them have worked with architects to adapt them for present-day use. Because the houses have no foundation and can be adapted to any weather climate, they can be used anywhere.
Some examples of current owners include Korean collectors who use one as a teahouse in Seoul, Patrick McKillen, who uses his as an art, architecture and design library in the South of France at the “Chateau La Coste,” and Richard Prince, who uses one in his “body shop” in Upstate New York. Azzedine Alaia sleeps inside one in his Paris loft, and Enrico Navarra uses two as guesthouses in the South of France. Similarly, Miuccia Prada and Maja Hoffmann are collectors of Prouvé houses. We also have two American collectors currently in the process of readapting them, with one in the Hamptons and the other in Utah.
One of the houses in our collection, the 24×8 meter Bouqueval School will be shown in the Tuileries Garden during the FIAC, starting October 18th. After making temporary and demountable houses for war victims in Lorraine at the end of the War, the Ateliers Jean Prouvé committed to the French government’s reconstruction program, involving not only housing, but also schools. The 24×8 meter school prototype as well as the 8×12 Maison Metropole, the teacher’s house, won the competition hosted by the Ministry of Education in 1949.
To learn more about Jean Prouvé’s philosophy and design legacy, read our piece on his home in Nancy.