A PASSION FOR PROUVÉ. Patrick Seguin is the founder of Galerie Patrick Seguin in Paris. He has a particular love for the work of the French designer Jean Prouvé. Patrick Seguin promotes and collects both Prouvé’s industrially produced furniture and his architecture of demountable houses. He has created numerous exhibitions, including those at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Venice Biennale, and the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nancy, France. The gallery has also published a series of monographic books that accompany the exhibitions.
This interview is also available as a podcast.
Patrick Seguin, what is the aim of your gallery?
My gallery has specialized for 30 years since I opened it in 1989. It is very focused on the mid-20th century French design and architecture of Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier, and Pierre Jeanneret who was the cousin of Le Corbusier. Jean Royère is also very important for me. I have published many books on Prouvé which is a big pleasure and very interesting to do.
You are neither an architect nor a designer yourself. How come you decided to dedicate your life to this?
I was born in Montpellier, South of France, where I ran a seasonal restaurant and nightclub from 1974 until 1986 when I moved to Paris and opened a nightclub called El Globo. I also owned a restaurant-bar called the Distrito in Paris, so I couldn’t go to sleep before 6 am. I had really fun with nightclubs but with the arrival of my daughter I decided to change my life and to wake up at 6am instead of going to sleep then. I was always collecting, very modestly, going to the flea markets in Montpellier and Paris, trading, buying and selling even without a gallery. I opened a gallery in the Bastille in an amazing industrial building, and when I split with my former business partner I decided to ask Jean Nouvel to rearchitect the space. I am the godfather of Jean’s daughter, and we have known each other for at least 35 years.
Are you happy to have moved from nightclubs to art and architecture?
Robert Filliou, the philosopher and artist and poet said, “L’art est ce qui rend la vie plus intéressante que l’art.” (“Art is what makes life more interesting than art”). I love art, but I love the life I have with the amazing world of art, because of the people I meet, the artists, collectors, museums, friends.
How did you decide to focus on those particular designers?
I was collecting contemporary art, and with Prouvé you immediately understand that there is no conflict with contemporary art due to the asceticism of his furniture. In fact there is a dialogue between Prouvé and contemporary art, you can have Prouvé and Matisse or Prouvé and Picasso or Prouvé and Twombly. In 1990 we were entering a big recession which lasted for a long time in France, seven or eight years. In America they always recover faster than us, but for a few years here it was very, very difficult. I was lucky. I had this idea about Chandigarh, the city that Nehru hired Le Corbusier to build for the administration of the politics of north India, the Punjab. He built this city one hour plane journey north of New Delhi and for one million person. It’s absolutely unbelievable, a complete city built from scratch.
What did luck have to do with it?
In this very difficult economic crisis I was able to knock on the door of the French administration and buy the entire collection of 454 Prouvé chairs and 87 Compas tables. Actually I made a down payment and it took me a year to find the money.
Was it very expensive?
I bought it for nothing because it was worth nothing at a time. I was lucky because I could have never built this market or my inventory in a strong economy. Nobody wanted it. If somebody wanted a Prouvé chair I could sell it for 150 dollars. You could buy one or you could buy 100. So I was lucky to open the gallery at this time, because it’s difficult to build a gallery.
How much would this same chair be worth now?
Depending on the condition, between 18,000 and 25,000 dollars.
“I think Prouvé was a genius, a humanist, a philanthropist.”
Exposition L’Ame du Métal, Pavillon Renzo Piano, Chateau La Coste, Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, 2019 / Courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin
Patrick Seguin, how come this furniture is so valuable today? People who once wanted Louis XV and Louis XVI pieces now like furniture made for workers in public offices or for schools. I don’t think Prouvé had it in mind to furnish elegant homes in New York or London or Paris. Is this just a fashion?
When people ask me why these houses that were meant to be for displaced persons after the war should end up as a guesthouse in a property, or as a pool house, the answer is that either those houses disappear or we give them a second chance by adapting them. And it is the same for the furniture.
This was at the beginning of prefabrication?
The house of Prouvé’s dreams is built in a factory – he was pro industry. Prouvé said: I prefab this panel in my factory, I send the trucks to the site and they build one floor every day with a crane. He said: I would love my architecture to leave no trace on the landscape. Every architect today in and in five centuries will say it was genius.
It’s desirable. It’s very appealing. It’s nothing really decorative. It’s just that when I look at this Prouvé table built for the Arts et Métiers I think Prouvé was a genius, a humanist, a philanthropist. He’s very touching and very pleasant to live with, and it works. And as I said before, he does this dialogue with contemporary art.
How did you bring about this big change in taste in people’s homes?
Ileana Sonnabend invited me to do the first show of design and architecture in a contemporary gallery in New York in 2000/2001. Then I had eleven collaborations with Larry Gagosian. We did two shows of Alexander Calder and Prouvé, one in his gallery and one in my gallery. And then we did John Chamberlain and Prouvé in his gallery in New York.
Do you use this furniture as furniture or is it just for collection?
I live with this furniture. Everybody and all my colleagues live with this furniture. It is a collection, but it is furniture. I have breakfast, lunch and dinner at my dining table, as do my collectors. It’s not like art deco, for example, which is very precious and you have got to be very careful. Everything is usable.
Has there been a lot of speculation around Prouvé?
There was never speculation. It is a market which came gradually and took 30 years to build. Now, if you put a Prouvé Trapèze table into auction there is little chance it will be sold for less than eight hundred thousand dollars. Probably a million or more.
People know it’s extremely rare. People know the difference between a Compas table and a Trapèze table. Today a Grand Repos armchair in great condition will not sell for less than two or three hundred thousand dollars.
“My passion is Prouvé, and he is the one for whom I have produced the most books.”
There are the chairs and tables, but then there are also the demountable buildings. Many are now owned by famous collectors. Patrick Seguin, how many did you buy?
Today I have 24 houses, which is the largest collection of Jean Prouvé demountable houses. The largest one is the school of Bouqueval, and the smallest one is thirty six square metres, 6 x 6 metres, built for displaced persons in the north east of France after the war. Prouvé was a native of Nancy, which because of its proximity to Germany was harshly bombed, and he helped with the reconstruction.
And the largest, the Bouqueval school?
Bouqueval is a village outside Paris and in 1949 Prouvé won a competition held by the Education Ministry. Like rural schools everywhere parents are meant to bring kids to school, and sometimes they have to drive 45 minutes so the kids don’t go to school. Prouvé said let’s build a demountable school; we can build the school in seven days and the teacher’s house in seven hours. Amazing.
How much does a Prouvé house cost today?
Between 1,250,000 and 10 million dollars.
Who are some of the well-known collectors?
You did an exhibition in Turino in the Pinacoteca Agnelli with architecture, furniture and art?
Prouvé was in the show because he brought in the idea of building the furniture of a house applying the technology used to build a plane or a car. This was very avant garde. He had this gigantic metal press and he built furniture and architecture with the same materials and using the same techniques as the car or plane industry. He could press, bend, or corrugate a piece of steel or aluminum and would weld it from the inside to give the appearance it’s solid, but it’s not. It’s hollow, and very strong and very light.
You said at the beginning that you also collect and sell the work of Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand, Jean Royère and Le Corbusier. What about these other mid-20th Century luminaries?
I love these others. I love Pierre Jeanneret; less known than Le Corbusier, he was the forgotten cousin. I think Royère is absolutely amazing; he brought an enormous fantasy and poetry with his creation. But my passion is Prouvé, and he is the one for whom I have produced the most books.
Patrick Seguin and Alain Elkann in dialogue.
Maison démontable 6×6, Jean Prouvé, 1944 / Courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin Mobilier de Pierre Jeanneret et Jean Prouvé, luminaire de Serge Mouille
Ecole de Bouqueval, Jean Prouvé, 1949 / Courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin
Exposition Une Passion pour Jean Prouvé, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin, 2013 / Courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin
Alexander Calder, Saché, 1976 (gift from A. Calder to J. Prouvé). Jean-Michel Basquiat, Head, 1982-83. Jean Prouvé, Potence, Air France Brazzaville, 1950. Patrick Seguin
Exposition Calder-Prouvé, Gagosian Le Bourget & Galerie Patrick Seguin, 2013 / Courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin
Jean Prouvé, Station-Service Total, 1969. Alexander Calder, Untitled (maquette), c. 1972. Alexander Carlder, Les Trois Barres, c. 1970. Alexander Calder, Rouge Triomphant, 1963. Jean Prouvé, Maison démontable 6×6, 1944
Patrick & Laurence Seguin’s residence / Courtesy Galerie Patrick Seguin
Charlotte Perriand-Ateliers Jean Prouvé, Table, Air France Brazzaville, 1950. Alexander Calder, Saché, 1976 (gift from A. Calder to J. Prouvé). Richard Prince, Runaway Nurse #3, 2007-08
“I live with this furniture.”
Patrick Seguin, is this kind of furniture now bought and used everywhere in the world or are there specific countries?
It is mostly in America. Not Russia, not the Middle East, yet. But suddenly, very recently, I am doing a lot of business with Asia.
Has taste changed a lot in America?
Yes, and to be honest it’s quite scary. For example, Art Deco or 18th century furniture was very fashionable, and now it’s not anymore. But I’d say that Prouvé will be still here in a century. I don’t see an end to it. A lot of young people from the cultural world of music, design, or dance, have a passion for Prouvé. Mid-20th century, but especially Prouvé.
Are your clients young or old?
You are crazy about Prouvé but you also present Le Corbusier who was already mythical in the early 50s?
Yes, but I don’t have a crush on Le Corbusier like my crush on Prouvé.
Prouvé was esteemed to be a great architect and was the president of the jury for the selection of the architects for the new Georges Pompidou Centre which opened in January 1977?
Nobody wanted this ugly building with these plastic pipes in blue, yellow, red, built by these two young kids. Renzo Piano was 33, and Richard Rogers 37. Prouvé was the chairman of the competition jury and pushed this. It’s thanks to Prouvé, and everybody knows it’s thanks to Prouvé.
What are your own current plans?
Fairly soon, in February or March, I will have to put together art and furniture in the amazing architecture of an underground house project in the South of France that I have spent five years working on with Jean Nouvel. My wife Laurence and I have great respect for his architecture. We built it as a family house with four guest rooms for friends, and the house is a prototype. It’s a work of art. Nothing like it was ever built. Now, after five years, because we fought for two and a half years for the permit to build and had two and a half years of construction, it’s going to be ready fairly soon. I will have two of my Prouvé houses in the environment because we have 45 hectares of land around the house, including a big reservation of cork trees.
Does your wife Laurence also help you professionally?
Yes. We built the gallery together, and the fruit did not fall far from the tree because our daughter studied literature and philosophy and now she’s the personal assistant of the gallerist Gavin Brown. She lives in New York and she loves art.
Will you carry on dealing in the same way?
Thirty years ago, I was buying 500 pieces a year and selling 500 pieces a year. When I am 90 I hope I will still be working, but maybe chasing one piece a year to sell one piece a year. To be active is important, you cannot be interested in art if you are not. You cannot collect if you don’t read, if you don’t see the maximum number of shows, if you don’t exchange a lot with collectors, artists, institutions. This is my life and I love that.
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