Jean Prouvé's pre-fab masterpieces: The mass housing that never was

Story highlights

  • Jean Prouvé was a self-taught furniture designer and architect
  • In 1947 he designed a pre-fab unit to address post-war housing needs
  • The concept failed, but his pioneering designs are now worth millions

(CNN)Franz Kafka. Galileo Galilei. Vincent van Gogh. Why is it that the true value of so many visionaries is only recognized after their death?

Though he was far from a failure -- he had a large, cutting-edge factory and won several architecture prizes during his lifetime -- the pioneering pre-fab housing of French designer Jean Prouvé has only become sought-after in the past decade.
    The same can be said of his modernist furniture. His university canteen chairs were once snapped up for a bargain at flea markets, but last year his Trapeze refectory table sold for a record $1.3 million at a Paris auction.

    Housing crisis

    After the Second World War, there was a dire need for cheap, quick-to-produce housing. Bombing had destroyed millions of homes -- in France, 1,836 municipalities were officially declared war damaged, some 18% of all buildings.
    Jean Prouvé thought he had a solution. A son of one of the founders of Ecole de Nancy -- France's Art Nouveau hub -- he grew up with the school's central ethos: to grow links between art and industry, and make art accessible to all.
    Trained as a decorative metal worker, Prouvé progressed to making utilitarian furniture out of smooth metal plates for schools, universities, canteens.
    Before long, he was experimenting with architecture. To him there was "no difference between the structure of a building and the structure of a table," his grandson told Dwell in 2014.
    In 1947, Prouvé conceived his first "demountable house," a 10-by-12 meter steel and wood unit. With no foundations, the dwelling was assembled by hand and supported by a two-legged structure he called the "axial portal frame", which he patented and used in all his subsequent modular housing.

    Phenomenal failures

    Prouvé's unit was built at the entrance of his Maxeville furniture factory near Nancy in northeastern France. The goal was to spark interest in mass-produced housing that could meet the era's housing needs.
    But that didn't happen.
    "They never liked it. They never liked it in the 60s, in the 70s, in the 80s," said French gallery owner Patrick Seguin, who has dedicated the last 25 years to promoting Prouvé.
    After a fallout with his factory's major shareholder, Prouvé left the business and all of his remaining units were destroyed or dismantled.
    Prouvé's Maison Tropicale, a modular aluminum house designed to address building shortages in French colonial West Africa, was also a flop, with only three ever constructed.
    However, in 2007, a Maison Tropicale was displayed outside galleries in Paris, London and New York, where it was described by art critics as a "modernist masterpiece" and auctioned for a record $5 million.

    Preserving Prouvé

    Twenty five years ago, Seguin began doggedly acquiring any surviving Prouvé units, which he has sold to wealthy collectors as installation art. He recently got his hands on the only remaining model in Nancy, Prouvé's design office, which was so undervalued it had been covered in an aluminum shell and converted into a swingers club.
    Seguin and his team are bringing the Lovingly restored Maxeville Design Office to this year's edition of DesignMiami/Basel.
    Long seen as cheap or poorly constructed, pre-fab housing is now considered by many to be an efficient solution to 21st century housing and climate crises, with Prouvé's innovative early examples serving as leading inspiration.
    "This is their second chance," said Seguin.