I've always been fascinated by the story of design legend Pierre Jeanneret and his relationship with the city of Chandigarh, India. The iconic furniture the Franco-Swiss architect designed for the city is popular for a reason. Driven by a spirit of function-first practicality and site-specificity, it has, in many ways, managed to stand the test of time.
One of the early planned cities of post-independence India, Chandighar, which serves as the joint capital between the two neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana, was conceived in the 1950s as a utopian embodiment of modernist architectural principles. At its helm was Jeanneret's cousin, Le Corbusier, who was commissioned by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru to take over the project after one of its original architects died in a plane crash. Jeanneret's progressive architectural philosophies harmonized easily with those of his cousin, and he was invited to collaborate on the project. Le Corbusier needed furnishings to fill his burgeoning city, and Jeanneret found himself able to indulge his bold aesthetic hypotheses with minimal interference. Both believed design should reflect the concerns of everyday living, and should strive for visual and material efficiency. Indeed, for these philosophically ambitious cousins, Chandigarh would become the site of some of their most exuberant and successful experimentation.
Using inexpensive, locally-sourced insect-and humidity-resistant teak wood, Jeanneret designed with concern for local economy, ecology, and the day-to-day experience of his furniture's users. I believe his embrace of regional materials and artisanal craftsmanship, as well as his sense for practicality as a function of form has contributed to his resonating as a designer with us today.
Photo: Sarbjit Bahga
Photo: Architectural Digest
Of all the pieces Jeanneret designed in Chandigarh, one chair has had a particularly interesting fate. I think we all know the one--a seemingly ubiquitous V-legged specimen which has, in recent years, taken the Instagram world by storm. First a favorite of design heavyweights like Axel Vervoordt and Joseph Dirand, its popularity has since sieged like wildfire, and now, with innumerable reproductions flooding the market, seems delicately poised at a threshold of overdone. I do think it's a shame, though perhaps inevitable in the life-cycle of any successful piece, and not to mention one faced with the ravenous image economy of today, that so a brilliant work of design might be so readily reduced by over consumption.
Photo: Galerie Anton Meier
It all began in the the early aughts when Chandigarh, which had since undergone a number of revolutions in taste and technology, found itself piled high with discarded Jeanneret originals. At the time they were selling at auction for mere rupees, and once a certain few dealers got wind, a gold rush descended upon the city, resulting in a market swollen with unauthenticated, refurbished originals and unofficial "reproductions". It makes one wonder how Jeanneret, whose work was driven by an unpretentious spirit of everydayness, would appreciate the epic journey of his designs. For me, his point of view will always remain a classic, yet it remains to be seen whether the current mode will continue.
Photo: Architectural Digest
Photo: Eric Touchaleaume and Gérald Moreau, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret: The India Story (2011).