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

Esquire (UK) - - Culture - By Stephen Wal­lis

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

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