I’ve only ever stolen one book from a library. It’s a Jean Prouvé textbook that I borrowed as a student at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London (AA). I couldn’t find it when I graduated, so I had to pay a fine for it. And then I found it, and have had it with me ever since.
I don’t have many heroes. Prouvé is one of them. He was a furniture designer, an architect and an engineer. I live in a world where people want to know what are you – an architect or a designer? Because of him, I don’t have to choose.
Prouvé wanted to break away from the past. His celebration of engineering meant that he found beauty in what was normally hidden. In those days, chairs had the formality of the three-piece suite: heavy Chesterfields and traditional Louis XIV designs. In 1925, he made a chair that changed everything. The piece is fixed by its frame: the seat radiates from the centre of the frame’s semi-circle like the needle of a compass. You get it to recline by adjusting the catch in the arm, which slots into notches in the frame. There is a marriage between the curve, the semicircle of the movement, and the armrest. It is aesthetically pleasing, comfortable and ergonomic. His design wasn’t a variation on a theme. It was new. He rebelled against convention for the sake of the ideas that he had about structure. He showed that form and function don’t fight each other.
But there is something curious about the Prouvé chair. I have talked to lots of experts: Rolf Fehlbaum, the owner of Vitra and the greatest Prouvé collector; François Laffanour, of Downtown Gallery in Paris, who specialises in Prouvé; even Prouvé’s daughter. No one has ever seen it. They only know it from the sketch and photograph found in my textbook.
Some time after I graduated from the AA, I was working for an architect in Hampstead. One afternoon, I didn’t come back after lunch. I had the idea of going to a scrapyard with the mission of finding a car seat with which to make a piece of domestic furniture. I chose the seat from a Rover because of the way it was fixed to the car by floorboards. I also liked the seat mechanism: it had a handle and you adjusted the position with your back. The driver’s seat and the passenger seat were identical but symmetrical, with their handles on opposite sides. I made a frame out of key clamps designed by Gascoigne in 1932 for cow-milking parlours. All I had to do was cut them to length, and bend them into semi-circles.
I can’t remember exactly who pointed out the similarity between the Rover chair and the Prouvé chair. I mean, I could give you a whole lecture about the differences between them: in Prouvé’s, the stability is in the arm; with mine it is in the centre of the chair. And unlike Prouvé’s, mine is a found object. But when I first became aware that I had made a version of a Prouvé chair that no one has seen, I remember asking myself: did I do it knowingly or not? I still don’t know. But whatever I make, whether it’s chairs or pre-fabricated houses, Prouvé is always there.