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When structure determines design. Not the other way around.

The story of a Vitra original

The French designer, architect and engineer Jean Prouvé created the Standard Chair in 1934. This design exemplifies a fundamental aspect of Prouvé’s numerous furniture designs and architectural works: his unwavering focus on structural requirements.

The load on the back legs of a chair, where it supports the weight of the sitter’s upper body, is greater than on the front legs. This is hardly a surprising discovery, but no other seating design demonstrates this principle as clearly as the Standard Chair: while tubular steel suffices for the front legs, which bear a relatively light load, the back legs are made of voluminous hollow sections that transfer the primary stress to the floor. The profile of the back legs, formed from thin bent sheet steel, resembles an aircraft wing, with the widest measurement at the point where the leg meets the seat frame – that is, where the stress is greatest. The tapered shape of the hollow section from the seat surface upwards simultaneously defines the angle and position of the backrest.

The 1934 model was introduced as Chair No. 4, since it had been preceded by three prototypes; further versions continued to be developed under the name ‘Standard’. The chair was manufactured in Jean Prouvé’s own factory. Most models had a metal frame and legs, with a seat and backrest made of wood. Other variations were made completely of metal or – especially during wartime and the related metal shortages – entirely of wood. Some had cushions in various materials, or demountable components for ease of transport; the last models with back legs made of aluminium followed in the 1980s.

Up until the early 2000s, the work of Jean Prouvé was known outside of France to just a small circle of architects and collectors. Although re-editions of his furniture existed, his designs did not find the attention and distribution they deserve.

Vitra regards Prouvé as one of the twentieth century’s great designer-engineers, alongside such figures as Charles and Ray Eames. His furniture comprises an important part of the collection of the Vitra Design Museum, which mounted a major retrospective of his work in 2006. Since 2002, Vitra has produced Jean Prouvé’s most significant furniture designs in close cooperation with his daughter, Catherine Prouvé. These products are based on the extensive Prouvé collection in the Vitra Design Museum, as well as plans and drawings in the holdings of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Fonds Jean Prouvé des Archives Départementales de Meurthe-et-Moselle.

Why does a company like Vitra, who is committed to contemporary design, also produce furniture that was conceived long ago? The answer: because some designs from the past remain unsurpassed and have lost none of their vitality or relevance. Notable examples include the work of Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer – and likewise Jean Prouvé.

Rolf Fehlbaum, the son of Vitra founder Willi Fehlbaum and long-time Vitra Chairman, recounts: ‘In 1981, I began to collect furniture by Prouvé. I was especially fascinated by the dominant role of structure in his work, similar to the Eames’ approach. This kind of designer is not striving to create a new form – the new form results from an intensive exploration of construction and technology. And when we received the opportunity to produce designs by Prouvé, I was elated that Vitra could now present a European counterpart to the outstanding work of the Eames.’

‘I’m not an architect; I’m not an engineer – I’m a factory man.’
Jean Prouvé

It is only possible to preserve the cultural legacy of important designers, to transport their work into the present and prepare it for the future, if one continually learns about the historical background of their designs and tirelessly spreads their message around the world. Just as Vitra does.

Publication date: 20.10.2017
Images: Marc Eggiman; Jean Prouvé archive, Nancy; Fonds Prouvé

Vitra originals and their stories in the Vitra Magazine
Invest in an original, for it will always retain its worth. An imitation will never be anything but a copy, a stolen idea. Appreciate the differences – not just the quality and more obvious variances but also the sensory and emotional appeal of the authentic product. An original is a lifelong companion and may well outlive you to be gratefully received by the next generation. But that’s a story for the future.
The Original is by Vitra