In 2007, a small house that once stood in Brazzaville, Congo, was erected on the banks of New York’s East River. Assembled from prefabricated aluminum parts and panels, some of which resembled giant calipers and others the components of an enormous Erector Set, the Maison Tropicale was created in 1951 by French architect-engineer Jean Prouvé for deployment in the West African colonies. Only three were ever produced and, with the wear of five tumultuous decades removed from its now-gleaming surface, one would be the highlight of a Christie’s New York design auction, selling to hotelier André Balazs for nearly $5 million.
The Maison Tropicale is an exceptional example of Prouvé design, for which there is, in general, an exceptionally strong market. Interest in Prouvé has grown steadily since the 1990s, when he was rediscovered and championed by dealers Patrick Seguin and Philippe Jousse. According to Michael Jefferson, Senior Vice President of Wright, the Prouvé market remains robust—at a Paris auction in May, a Prouvé table drew just over $1,700,000, a record for his furniture—and prices are climbing as the availability of items becomes more limited; once purchased, Prouvé designs rarely reappear at auction. “Collectors are holding onto what they have,” says Jefferson, “They will always find a place for their Prouvé chairs.”
At The Salon: Art + Design, alongside Prouvé offerings by Jousse Entreprise and Galerie Downtown François Laffanour, are pieces by Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier, and Jean Royère, designers whose sales are almost as vigorous (in recent years, early examples of Royère’s luxe fauteuils and canapés have sold for a quarter of a million dollars or more) and whose followings are nearly as fanatical. Celebrities are joining the ranks of collectors focusing on mid-century French design. At last year’s Design Miami/, Kanye West opened a set with a shout-out to his favourite designers, Prouvé and Perriand. In its November 2014 issue, Vogue accompanies Ellen DeGeneres on a shopping trip to Paris featuring a stop at Galerie Patrick Seguin, where Ellen lists the Prouvé pieces she already owns (several) and gets on the phone to retrieve one she let go.
So where to invest in a market that increasingly excludes all but Kanye, Ellen, and André? Jefferson notes a broadening of interest in Italian and Scandinavian design, and a willingness to curate more eclectic interiors. For French design purists, Simon Andrews, International Specialist in 20th-century decorative art and design at Christie’s London, suggests looking to prominent designers of the 1960s and early ’70s, such as Pierre Paulin. Though it plateaued 15 years ago, the market for Paulin is now accelerating. “Every new generation of collectors wants to discover what their parents have overlooked,” Andrews explains. Jefferson points to Pierre Jeanneret’s furnishings for Chandigarh, India. Produced in large series and for now available at more accessible prices than Prouvé, Jeanneret’s furniture is making its way out of the administrative offices of the Punjab capital and into well-appointed homes in Europe, America, and Japan. Besides the draw of good design, these pieces have a history, something Jefferson and Andrews agree is part of the essential appeal of Prouvé furniture, much of which was mass-produced for France’s academic institutions, civic offices, even a nuclear power station. “These things have lived a life,” says Jefferson, “and they’re survivors.”