Why do these chairs cost £26,000?
Pier Jeanneret’s Chandigarh furniture was slowly being lost to the scrap heap. Today, it’s coveted by collectors around the globe
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 judgements.) They’re the mid-century armchairs with the tapered wood legs that form a distinctive inverted-V shape. There are a number of variations — some with cane 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 Fifties and early Sixties 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 extraordinarily poetic but also a major, major project with intellectual, social, political components,” says François Laffanour, 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 was exactly right for Le Corbusier’s architecture.”
A devout pragmatist, Jeanneret emphasised 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 original in the Fifties,” says Laffanour, “but it seems very current with 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 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 website 1stdibs. co.uk turns up dozens of pieces he created for Chandigarh, from £6,000 office armchairs to £20,000 desks to £45,000 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 (£73,500). At a Wright auction in October, a pair of upholstered lounge chairs fetched $179,000 (£135,000). In December, Sotheby’s sold a daybed clad in an eye-catching brown-and-white hide for $87,500 (£64,750).
That’s serious cash for furnishings that, 15 years ago, were often treated like little more than rubbish. 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 Nineties, 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 teak is very strong and easy to restore.”
While the efforts of those dealers have been portrayed by some as unsavoury 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 Twenties.
But Jeanneret’s inclination was always toward wood. And the furnishings he created for Chandigarh, with their marriage of pareddown architectural forms and rich organic materials, are particularly well suited to contemporary interiors. It’s no wonder that architectdesigners 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,” says Van Duysen. “The open-weave, graphic treatment of rattan he often used and the V-shaped legs are a very recognisable, strong statement of timeless design.”
Or, as Laffanour puts it, “when you look at Jeanneret’s 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.
Left: architects Pierre Jeanneret (left) and his cousin Le Corbusier at the dedication of Chandigarh, India, 1955; the pair of Jeanneret chairs that sold for £26,367 at Bonhams, New York, in December
Clockwise from near right: dilapidated Jeanneret upholstered chairs in Chandigarh in the Nineties;the Gandhi Bhavan auditorium at Chandigarh’s Punjab University, designedby Jeanneret; a pile of armchairs photographed by Éric Touchaleaume on his first visit to Chandigarh in 1999; a Le Corbusier and Jeanneret‘Important Committee’ conference teak table that sold for $100,000 (£70,000)in October 2015
Clockwise from far left: the brise-soleil (sun-blocking) facade of Chandigarh’s Le Corbusierdesigned High Court; this aluminium and teak magazine rack from Punjab University was auctioned by Bonhams for $102,500 (£73,500); Jeanneret’s original sketch for his teak and leather armchairs; and two finished examples