Written by Deepika Gandhi
“A CHAIR is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier,” observed Mies van der Rohe, who like other master architects of the Modern Movement created some fine pieces of furniture that reached as iconic a status as the pathbreaking buildings they designed.
Here in Chandigarh, Pierre Jeanneret continued the tradition by designing a number of furniture items like chairs, tables, stools, cabinets and light fixtures as a natural extension of the design and detailing of his architecture. Before Jeanneret came to Chandigarh, he had already created a unique range of much-feted minimalist furniture using industrial materials. But here he seamlessly changed his style and palette to create a distinct vocabulary within the limitations of local materials, skill and techniques much like the Chandigarh style of buildings.
His experiments lead to a reinvention of local materials and many innovative chairs were made using bamboo sections, rope, cane and even wooden seats suspended by iron chains! The furniture designed by Jeanneret and his team became the identity of most government institutes and departments. The mass-producible furniture was not just easy to use and durable but also climate-friendly.
The cane and jute backs and seats ensured comfort and circulation of air in our hot and humid climate. In a way, the furniture of Jeanneret, much like his architecture, combined the austerity and honesty advocated by Mahatma Gandhi with the modern and progressive vision of Jawahar Lal Nehru. And that is the reason that Jeanneret’s furniture is still famous worldwide as a true manifestation of the spirit of Modern Architecture showcasing his sensitivity to context and creativity in the most tangible manner. It is amazing that these humble items designed and mass produced 50-60 years back are still in such demand that illegal auctions are still rampant.
Rather than mulling over how it is worth exploring why, most people don’t realise the aesthetic and technical merit of these deceptively simple creations that represented a culmination of the unique conditions they were made under. The stylised cross legs, neat angular lines and a fine play of planes characterize a typical Jeanneret design — a style that still enhances many a contemporary interior space all over the world.
“Jeanneret chairs are my favourite dining-room chair.” One would assume these to be the nostalgia-steeped words of an artist or architect hung up on the heritage of Modern Architecture. But the unlikely fan who made this confession is Kanye West, the multiple platinum album spinning singer who along with his celebrity wife Kim and her sister Kourtney Kardashian boast of over a dozen Jeanneret chairs and more! Kanye went on to credit the concrete light fixtures at Sukhna Lake as his muse when he was creating the 2013 album Yeezus, saying “this one Corbusier lamp was like my greatest inspiration”.
The renewed global interest in what is just ordinary office furniture to us has escalated the frequency and value of the auction of Jeanneret’s furniture abroad and recently in India. In the late 1990s, many pieces of such furniture were auctioned off by various institutes at their own level without realising the value of the same. Auction houses abroad have been putting up these items on sale in spite of the official request of the Chandigarh Administration against the same. The guidelines of Archaeological Survey of India do not recognise any object less than 100 years old as heritage, making it very hard to give legal protection to these items.
Sensitising users to the value of the furniture, restoration of damaged furniture as per best practices and their reuse is the most viable option to ensure their safety. Jeanneret believed in and tirelessly strove towards enriching the lives of the masses through a judicious blend of aesthetics and technology, bringing high-quality design in architecture and interiors to even the lowest strata of society. And each time I watch a peon nestled comfortably in a chair that sells for 20,000 dollars in an auction, I know that he succeeded. As we commemorate his 51st death anniversary, let us rediscover the beauty of everything Jeanneret designed from the furniture to the manhole covers dotting the city and the sculptural pump house in the Sukhna Lake — gently kissed by waters speckled with Jeanneret’s ashes.