One of France’s best-known architects and designers, Jean Prouvé might never have become so had it not been for his family’s crippling bankruptcy, which forced him to abandon his studies at 15 and become a metalworker’s apprentice. He founded his own workshop in 1924, at the age of 23, and established his factory in 1947.
Prouvé’s designs were notable for their revolutionary approach to material, drawing upon industrial technology without compromising on aesthetic. Classic pieces include works in lightweight, folded sheet metal — such as a 1950s aluminium wardrobe originally created for hospitals and sanatoriums, balancing the needs of hygiene, strength and security with a sleek, modern style. Prouvé is also known for his chairs with triangular back legs, constructed to bear the greatest portion of their user’s weight.
A frequent collaborator with Jean Prouvé — who produced the metallic elements of her furnishings in his Nancy ateliers — Charlotte Perriand came to be recognised as one of the most significant French designers of the 20th century. Concentrating on the development of affordable, functional furniture, she was convinced of the power of good design, declaring, ‘The extension of the art of dwelling is the art of living’.
Her ascent to popularity followed a stuttering start: in 1927, Le Corbusier rejected her application to work in his studio, famously retorting, ‘We don’t embroider cushions here’. Undeterred, Perriand carried on, attracting the attention of Le Corbusier’s partner Pierre Jeanneret, who persuaded the previously scathing designer to reconsider. Perriand was hired, and her collaborations with Le Corbusier resulted in some of the era’s most iconic designs, including the LC4 chaise longue.
Sculptor Alexandre Noll (1890-1970) worked almost exclusively in wood, and his creations often blurred the line between furniture and art. He first dabbled in the material through wood engravings in his twenties. In 1920, he left his job at a bank to pursue his craft, first creating small household objects and then larger furniture, eventually retailing his designs in 1943.
While many of his contemporaries were embracing new industrial techniques and mass production, Noll personally selected his materials and handmade each unique piece. His favourite types of wood included ebony, beech, sycamore and pear. As a designer, Noll paid little attention to trends, preferring to let the material guide his designs — ‘it was the shape of the wood that inspired him,’ his daughter Odile Noll explains. Collectors of Noll’s work include the renowned courtier Wolfgang Joop, as well as institutions like the Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne in Paris.
Georges Jouve (1910–64), one of the most important French ceramicists of the 20th century, had a background in sculpture, art history and theatre design. He encountered ceramics by chance, when he was hiding out World War II in a potter’s village in the south of France. There, he became so inspired by traditional ceramic crafts and techniques that he opened his own studio in 1944, after his return to Paris.
Jouve’s creations range from functional furniture to decorative household objects and abstract sculpture. He made individual objects such as pitchers, vases and bowls, and also incorporated ceramics to other materials, such as for table tops, lamp bases and mirror frames. The designer favoured curving organic shapes over the angularm mass-produced aesthetic. His best-known pieces are in simple, bold colours such as matte black, white and bright orange, yellow or red.
Famed lighting designer Serge Mouille (1922-1988) had a passion for metal work since he was 13 years old, when he trained as a silversmith at the École des Arts Appliqués in Paris. After the Second World War, he opened his own studio making metal chandeliers, handrails and wall sconces. It was not until almost a decade later, in 1953, that Mouille began to design lighting fixtures, after receiving a commission from designer Jacques Adnet to create a floor lamp for the Compagnie des Arts Français.
The request sparked an interest in lighting design that lasted the rest of Mouille’s life. It was during this decade that he created his most iconic series of minimalist, black metal lamps — known collectively as ‘Serie Noir’. From 1962–64, he designed the short-lived ‘Totem’ series, considered among his rarest works. Thereafter, Mouille abandoned design to concentrate on his teaching career.
From 1931 to 1972, Jean Royère was one of the leading figures of French design. Countering the prevailing strict lines of the period with whimsy and colour, he developed a new and daring decorative grammar that emphasised sensuality and imagination over tradition.
In 1947, Royère designed a coffee table for his mother's Paris apartment. The first of the biomorphic pieces for which he would become famous, the Flaque design evolved over time. While early versions featured opaline and marble tops supported by perforated shield-shaped legs, Royère exhibited a more mature example of the model at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1954, sheathed in straw marquetry with inlaid celestial stars. Today the table has become a signature piece in Royère’s oeuvre, and his fresh design aesthetic continues to captivate.
Swiss-born architect and painter Charles-Édouard Jeanneret adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier in 1920, three years after moving to Paris from his hometown in northwest Switzerland. In 1922, he founded a studio with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, later hiring designer Charlotte Perriand. Together, the trio championed industrial materials, mass production and new technology, with Le Corbusier at the helm declaring, ‘a house is a machine for living in’.
Le Corbusier stopped creating ready-made furniture after 1929 to concentrate on architecture, although he continued to design pieces for his buildings. At his Cité Radieuse apartments in Marseille (1939–52), he conceived all the furniture, carpets and lighting.
Le Corbusier’s furniture enjoyed renewed appreciation in 1958, when interior designer Heidi Weber convinced the architect to let her reproduce four of his early chairs — the run was a commercial success, and the start of an enduring friendship between Weber and Le Corbusier.