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The Historic Chandigarh Furniture of Pierre Jeanneret

by Lisanne Dickson, Senior Specialist, Modern DesignLisanne Dickson Senior Specialist Modern Design

In the Art & Design auction on June 24, 2018, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers offered a pair of unrestored Pierre Jeanneret Committee Armchairs, model PJ-SI-30-A, from the architectural city of Chandigarh, India. Rarely do completely original examples come to market; most Jeanneret furniture from Chandigarh is fully restored prior to being sold in the United States.

To understand the appeal of these Jeanneret chairs, some historical context is necessary. The planned city of Chandigarh was conceived by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who looked for large-scale projects to express what he called “the nation’s faith in the future.”

Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Le Corbusier. Photo courtesy of ADAGP

In his 1947 speech, “Tryst With Destiny,” delivered on the eve of India’s Independence, Nehru said, “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new” (Nehru). Visiting Chandigarh in 1952, Nehru declared publicly that the city would “be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past.”

Pierre Jeanneret (1896-1967)
Scissor chairs, pair, by Knoll, c.1950
birch frame with metal discs to sides, original finish, original wool cushions with black cotton strap connectors
24″w x 29″d x 31″h
Treadway Toomey Auctions
20th Century Art & Design
December 6, 2009, Lot 1090
Estimate $2,500-3,000
Sold for $3,240

Nehru and the Chandigarh government hired Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, to create a master plan for the city. Named for Chandi, Hindu goddess of power, Chandigarh was Le Corbusier’s largest and most ambitious project, involving residential, commercial, and industrial areas, parks, and a complex of government buildings.

An undated photo of Le Corbusier standing before the plan of Chandigarh. Photo courtesy of AFP

In turn, Le Corbusier insisted on hiring his cousin Pierre Jeanneret to design the city’s furniture. Jeanneret designed furniture for the entire complex, using inexpensive, locally-sourced teak, which was bug- and humidity-resistant.

Jeanneret’s simple and functional designs, which were also robust and sturdy, were executed by local craftsmen, and included bamboo, iron rod, rope, caning, cotton, and upholstery. The V-leg construction of the Committee chairs — first developed in the earlier Scissor chairs, designed for Knoll, Inc. — was an element used extensively in his Chandigarh designs.

Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in India, c. 1960. Photo courtesy of Studio Indiano, Chandigarh / Archives Eric Touchaleaume, Paris

Pierre Jeanneret at home in Chandigarh, 1965. Photo courtesy of Studio Indiano, Chandigarh / Archives Eric Touchaleaume, Paris

For Pierre Jeanneret, the Chandigarh project was the pinnacle of his work as an architect and designer. The project affected him profoundly; he remained in Chandigarh after the city’s construction was complete, rarely returning to Europe. Upon Jeanneret’s death, his ashes were scattered in Chandigarh’s Sukhna Lake. Before he passed, however, Jeanneret explained candidly what the Chandigarh project meant to him personally and professionally:

The working methods that I discovered in India finally taught me self-esteem after so many failures in France. Chandigarh was for both of us a kind of glade in the human jungle. Le Corbusier’s works brought us up against nearly unsurmountable execution problems in terms of the technical and ethnic considerations of the country. I’ve thought long and hard. […] Finally, when all is said and done, I’m sure that Le Corbusier was right — subsistence solutions are not solutions for fighting for a state of civilization. (Touchaleaume and Moreau 49)

The city of Chandigarh was completed by the mid 1950s. Yet it had already begun to deteriorate by the 1980s, with much of the furniture succumbing to heavy use, high temperatures, and extreme humidity. As the furniture fell into disrepair, it was put into storage, auctioned, or left out in the elements to rot.

Unrestored Jeanneret chairs in Chandigarh. Video still courtesy of artist Amie Siegel and Simon Preston Gallery, New York, 2013

“No-one knew what to do with this scrapped furniture and the scrap dealers, carpenters and other small businesses were buying them for a few rupees to recover the wood for other productions … or they ended up as fuel for heating and cooking. […] Nobody had the slightest interest in this furniture and huge quantities had been destroyed in this manner” (Touchaleaume and Moreau 13).

Unrestored Jeanneret chairs in Chandigarh. Photo courtesy of Studio Indiano, Chandigarh / Archives Eric Touchaleaume, Paris

While much of Jeanneret’s Chandigarh furniture was abandoned or destroyed, the surviving examples that were featured in Toomey & Co.’s Art & Design auction on June 24, 2018 are completely original. To view the detail pages for the unrestored Committee Armchairs and two other Jeanneret lots from the auction, click on the individual images below.

Pierre Jeanneret (1896-1967)
a pair of unrestored Committee Armchairs, model PJ-SI-30-A
France, India, c. 1953
teak, original upholstery, foam, burlap
one chair with painted number “10” at side
21 1/2″w x 25″d x 33″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 115 Lot 440
June 24, 2018
Estimate $8,000-10,000
Sold for $8,750

Pierre Jeanneret (1896-1967)
Armchairs, pair, model PJ-SI-28-A
France, India, c. 1953-54
teak, caning, new upholstery (cushions not shown)
each with original painted inventory codes
19 1/2″w x 18″d x 31″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 115 Lot 439
June 24, 2018
Estimate $5,000-7,000
Sold for $11,250

Pierre Jeanneret (1896-1967)
two-seat Theater Bench
Chandigarh, India, c. 1961
teak, caning, brass
numbered 25 and 26
folding seats
43 1/5″w x 20″d x 33 1/5″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 115 Lot 437
June 24, 2018
Estimate $4,000-5,000
Sold for $3,625

References

Nehru, Jawaharlal. “Speech on the Granting of Indian Independence,” 14 August 1947, Internet Modern History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1947nehru1.asp?Speech. Accessed 19 June 2018.

Touchaleaume, Eric, and Gerald Moreau. Le Corbusier Pierre Jeanneret: The Indian Adventure, Design-Art-Architecture. Paris: Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2010

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