Why Does This Chair Cost USD$30,000?
Pierre Jeanneret's Chandigarh furniture was slowly being lost to the scrap heap. Today, it's coveted by collectors around the globe.
BY STEPHEN WALLIS | Apr 16, 2018 | Design
You know the chairs. You’ve seen them in trendspotting style magazines and on cool design sites. Maybe you’ve even spied them arrayed around Kourtney’s dining table on Keeping Up with the Kardashians. (Hey, no judgments.) They’re the midcentury armchairs with the tapered wood legs that form a distinctive inverted-V shape. There are a number of variations—some with caned seats and backs, others with upholstered cushions—but all are marked by an unmistakable, sublimely simple presence. Still not clicking? Well, it’s definitely clicking with design enthusiasts, who shell out thousands, even tens of thousands, for the iconic chairs that the Swiss-born architect Pierre Jeanneret created in the 1950s and early ’60s for Chandigarh, the new, built-from-scratch capital of India’s Punjab region.
Jeanneret didn’t just design chairs, of course. His cousin and collaborator was Le Corbusier, the legendary architect behind the overall plan for Chandigarh, envisioned as the crown jewel of Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s post-independence initiative to build a series of progressive, forward-looking cities as symbols of the new modern nation. While Le Corbusier based himself in Paris, Jeanneret relocated to India for a decade and a half, during which he served as the man on the ground, overseeing all aspects of the massive Chandigarh project as well as designing a number of buildings himself. But arguably his most tangible legacy is the remarkable array of furnishings he masterminded for the complex.
“Chandigarh was such an extraordinarily poetic but also major, major project with intellectual, social, political components,” says François Laffanour, the owner of Galerie Downtown in Paris and a leading dealer of Jeanneret’s and Le Corbusier’s works. “It was something completely new in terms of urbanism. And Jeanneret’s furniture, which is a little bit rustic and simple, was exactly right for Le Corbusier’s architecture.”
A devout pragmatist, Jeanneret emphasized functionality and practical materials, using teak and Indian rosewood for their durability and moisture resistance and incorporating traditional, inexpensive rattan caning into many pieces. Adamant about involving the local community, he enlisted Chandigarh craftsmen to produce chairs, sofas, benches, stools, tables, desks, bookshelves, cabinets, and more. In today’s parlance, you might almost call it woke. “The thinking behind the furniture was totally original in the 1950s,” says Laffanour, “but it seems very current with where we are today—socially conscious, ecological, made with simple materials but also strong and comfortable. It was made in the country, by Indians, with the wood of the country, and not something imported from Europe.”
Everything Jeanneret created was conceived to complement the spirit and ideals of the architecture. “References to the facades of different buildings can be seen in desks and bookcases,” notes Patrick Seguin, another top Paris dealer, “cleverly reinforcing the harmony and the relationship between the two.” Much of the seating features legs in the signature inverted-V form that calls to mind an architect’s drawing compass.
These days, a search for Pierre Jeanneret on the high-end decorative-arts site 1stdibs turns up dozens of pieces he created for Chandigarh, from $5,000 office armchairs to $25,000 desks to $60,000 pairs of the so-called Kangaroo chairs, strikingly angled low seats designed for ergonomically stylish lounging in government officials’ private residences. The furnishings have also become staples of blue-chip design auctions. Last summer at Bonhams, a periodicals rack went for $102,500. At a Wright auction in October, a pair of upholstered lounge chairs fetched $179,000. In December, Sotheby’s sold a daybed clad in an eye-catching brown-and-white hide for $87,500.
That’s serious cash for furnishings that, 15 years ago, were often treated like little more than trash. In Chandigarh, Jeanneret’s aging pieces were routinely discarded, sold to cabinetmakers as scrap for a few rupees, or even burned as firewood. Literal heaps of the now-treasured V-leg chairs could be found on the grounds of the university and on the roof of the High Court. The turnaround can be largely credited to a group of enterprising Paris dealers who began making trips to Chandigarh in the late ’90s, buying up cast-off pieces, mostly from government-sanctioned sales, to restore, exhibit, and place with clients in Europe and America. “We acquired furniture that was in disrepair and not being used,” says Éric Touchaleaume, the first of those early pioneers, who was joined by Laffanour, Seguin, and Philippe Jousse. “The pieces were often in bad condition, but fortunately teak is very strong and easy to restore.”
While the efforts of those dealers have been portrayed by some as unsavory opportunism, there is no denying the crucial role they played in preserving an important, imperiled chapter in modern design. They staged some of the first exhibitions and published some of the first books on the furniture of Chandigarh. In the process, they made Jeanneret a star, drawing him out from the long shadow cast by Le Corbusier and into the 21st century. Previously, most collectors had known Jeanneret mainly for the suite of tubular steel furniture he created with Charlotte Perriand (who was for a time his lover) and Le Corbusier in the 1920s.
But Jeanneret’s inclination was always toward wood. And the furnishings he created for Chandigarh, with their marriage of pared-down architectural forms and rich organic materials, are particularly well suited to contemporary interiors. It’s no wonder that architect-designers like Joseph Dirand and Vincent Van Duysen, two of today’s top masters of luxurious, supremely minimalist spaces, are avid collectors of Jeanneret’s work and frequently deploy it in projects for clients. “Pierre Jeanneret’s chairs express a sense of craft through the materials and a sense of intuition through their form,” remarks Van Duysen. “The open-weave, graphic treatment of rattan he often used and the V-shaped legs are a very recognizable, strong statement of timeless design.”
Or, as Laffanour puts it, “when you look at Pierre Jeanneret’s wood furniture, you can see the patina, you can see the time on it, and there is something romantic in the way that it’s not totally perfect. In a minimal, very clean, very white environment, pieces by Jeanneret look like works of art, and they bring an element of human touch that breaks up the pristine perfection.”
Naturally, Jeanneret’s meteoric rise in the global design scene did not escape the notice of Indian officials, and thanks to local efforts to protect and preserve his Chandigarh furniture, buying opportunities in India essentially ended a decade ago. With demand high and supply limited, fakes and overly restored pieces have muddied the market. Fortunately, scholarship and standards of connoisseurship continue to improve, and the market remains strong. “Good things always sell for good prices,” says Laffanour. The only question is how much higher they can climb.
This article first appeared in Big Black Book US, Spring/Summer 2018.