Nancy, the hometown of Jean Prouvé (1901-1984), the innovator and visionary or constructor as he liked to call himself, is now commemorating one of its most outstanding citizens. Two new permanent exhibitions pay tribute to the designer, who had several over-arching principles which he adhered when designing his furniture and buildings. Four special exhibitions will be dedicated to his life and work, while another will focus on his passion for design and collecting. The city is filled with Prouvé posters, and a guided tour takes visitors to a number of buildings, whose construction Prouvé was involved in, or for which he created entire architectural components. Nancy’s presentation of the life and work of this great experimental building practitioner will run until October 28.
There is now a significance Prouvé presence in the recently renovated city center, which Stanislas Leszcynski (1677–1766), the father-in-law of Ludwig XV, had planned and built in his capacity as Prince of Lorraine and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Musée des Beaux-Arts to be found on La Place Stanislas now boasts a “Salle Prouvé”, a first for the city, which holds new acquisitions, donated items and loan works, some of which even make a direct reference to Nancy, such as the furniture Prouvé designed for the University’s student residences from 1930 onwards. Besides beds, tables and chairs that draw their stability from the repurposed metal they are made with, Jean Prouvé’s studio also produced relaxing armchairs for the students.
One special exhibition is dedicated to the rediscovery of Prouvé’s “Maison Tropicale”, which was prefabricated in his factory in Maxéville in the north of Nancy and is now presented as a manifesto for mobile construction. Together with his wife, US-born Francophile Robert M. Rubin acquired one of three prototypes and subsequently bequeathed this to Paris’ Centre Pompidou. Now one half of the house has been reconstructed in the museum’s inner courtyard, while inside models, photos, details, drawings, and contemporary publications from the late 1940s taken from Nancy’s regional archives are on display.
Here, as in the city itself, visitors will encounter many other Prouvé family members: One room concentrates on the artistic and draft illustrations by Jean and his son Claude (1924-2012) also an architect and artist, as well Jean’s younger brother architect Henri (1915-2012), who he also worked with on occasion. The exhibition and catalog trace the idiosyncrasies of each designer. Just a few steps away, visitors can view paintings of Prouvé’s father Victor Prouvé (1858-1943), who symbolizes the Nancy of Art Nouveau and was the director of the École de Nancy. If you take a walk around the city, you will come across the unmissable Tour Joffre-Saint Thiébaut, which was built in 1960 following plans drawn up by Henri Prouvé. From this point you will also see a large construction site close to the train station: The former mail distribution center, designed by Jaques André and Claude Prouvé has been striped down to its Brutalist concrete structure, which according to plans by Marc Barani is to be transformed into a large congress center by next year.
While the Musée des Beaux-Arts presents the “artist of many talents”, the Museum Lorrain in the freshly refurbished Palais Ducal focuses on “building a better future”, which Prouvé not only fought for as a resistance fighter, but also as a young boss who organized food provisions for his employees in the aftermath of the war and a businessman and innovator in the period of reconstruction, conceiving and manufacturing easy-to-build homes for Lorraine’s war victims. An extensive chronicle also sheds light on his checkered family history and professional life. One particularly large blow for Prouvé was when he was ousted from his own company in Maxéville by the majority shareholders. Prouvé once said that he wasn’t the office type, not the right man for the drawing board. But in hindsight he reflected: “I lived in the workshop.” And that workshop, equipped with large press brakes amongst other things, had now disappeared from his life. From this point onwards, there were no more new furniture designs by Prouvé. As of 1956, Paris-based gallerist Steph Simon was the exclusive distributor of the existing designs.
Prouvé’s apprenticeship and early work as an ornamental blacksmith forms the focal point of a small yet detailed exhibition in the Musée de l’École de Nancy, a museum focused entirely on Art Nouveau. The museum even presents some of the family’s photo albums in digitalized form. In the Musée de l’Histoire du Fer, just outside the city to the south, visitors will find the new “Espace Jean Prouvé”, which documents the designer’s methodology and his later work on façade constructions with some impressive examples and even presents large-scale constructions in its gardens. There is also a rusty fitting to be seen there, which was originally part of a recently demolished prototype for industrialized construction forms, original made in 1972. Claude Prouvé created this piece and was also involved in the construction of the Iron History Museum itself.
The disruptions and transformations that shaped the exemplary biography of a passionate collector are presented in the “L’Emotion Design” exhibition in Galeries Poirel, which exhibits important pieces – not just design objects – and was compiled over a long period of time by Alexander von Vegesack, the founding director of the Vitra Design Museum.
During the exhibition period, Jean Prouvé’s private residence will also open its doors to the public. Just before being thrown out of his own company Prouvé had created a monument to Modernity using leftover, pre-fabricated elements from his own factory. The building was subsequently shown in the Arte series “Baukunst”. Today, the house is owned by the city, which has leased it to a very skilful architect from the department. It isn’t a museum but a vibrant, living space.
The “Week-End Jean Jean Prouvé à Nancy” organized by the Nancy Tourism Office definitely deserves a recommendation and includes an overnight stay, visits to the participating museums and a typical Lorrainese meal. On October 28, a congress on the designer Jean Prouvé with a number of French experts will conclude the Prouvé year in Nancy.