Friday, 8 July 2016

A marvellous display of Corbusier furniture from Chandigarh and Paris

A beautifully curated display in a small Mayfair gallery

I learnt of an exhibition of furniture by Le Corbusier through a Facebook post from my friend Sally Patrick, owner of the superb Haylett’s Gallery in Maldon (which I would urge you to visit). Yesterday, I managed to get the time to visit the Galerie Patrick Seguin in London, where the exhibition was held. The display area in the gallery consists of a single room, divided into two spaces. On the right side was furniture from Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. The background and context are explained in this caption:

The various items of furniture from Chandigarh were arranged around the reception area, with a large desk used for the gallery reception and admin.

Some items had been altered during refurbishment, like these armchairs which had originally been upholstered in leather, and which were now covered in black hide.

The back wall behind the desk was covered with a large black-and white photograph of one of the buildings in Chandigarh. Set into it was an enormous aerofoil-sectioned fin, mounted on vertical hinges. This was a ventilator panel from one o the buildings in the city which also served as a brise-soleil or sunbreak, one of Le Corbusier’s innovations.

Here are pictures from the gallery's own website:

The other half of the room consisted of a mock-up of a student room in the Masion du Brésil, a hostel for Brazilian students in the Cité Universitaire in Paris.

Another poster from the exhibition describes this project:

The furniture for the Maison du Brésil was designed by Corb and Charlotte Perriand. This was low-cost furniture, but elegant and beautifully proportioned. The bed is a simple platform on legs.

The free-standing wooden unit behind the bed incorporates a wardrobe with simple sliding fibreglass doors, shelving units holding trays, and a bookcase, while also serving as a room divider.

The wall-mounted reading light over the bed is made from a sheet of steel, with perforations that cast a beautiful pattern of light onto the wall above.

And here are a few other items:

As you can see from the website of the Maison du Bresil, the mock-up at the gallery is pretty similar to the way it is in the hostel today, which is heartening.

Might you be wondering how these items of furniture came to be on sale? After all, these buildings designed by Corb are still in use. I don't know about the Brazilian house, but the case of Chandigarh, the locals did not appreciate the value of the furniture, and vast quantities of them were abandoned, discarded, left in warehouses, or sold off, as described in an article from Wallpaper.

One of the early collectors was in fact Patrick Seguin, who bought up unwanted and often broken furniture from Panjab University in 2000, as reported in the Hindustan Times. The value of these works is now appreciated in India, and it has been illegal to remove furniture from the city without official permission, but the government of India is at present unable to prevent their sale abroad.

I appreciate that the market has its own logic, but I can’t help feeing that there is something unsettling and discordant about the way in which these items of furniture which were designed for a mass market have become luxury items. A competent carpenter could easily copy any of the items of wooden furniture on display, although might be protected by copyright laws in your country, in case you are tempted.

On that subject, copyright protection for furniture was recently extended in the UK from the original 25 years after the designer’s death, to 75 years, in conformity with EU legislation. As the owner of several items of replica furniture, I’m ambivalent about this. I can see both sides of the argument (and voted for Britain to remain in the EU, by the way), but I think that 25 years’ protection was perfectly adequate. I’m inclined to agree with Stephen Bayley:
“The essential, defining proposition of modern design is – or rather, was – that an idea can be limitlessly reproduced at low cost,” he says. “Clearly, the legislation may protect the auteur, but it seems to me at odds with the principles of widely available democratised luxury which make design such an interesting subject. The danger as I see it is that too costive a view of copyright protection might bring the subject into the ancient realms of rarity, preciousness, attribution, provenance and all the other antique stuff that attends fine art."
(from Why the UK replica furniture market is about to be hit by new copyright laws. Tim Willis. Monday 15 February 2016. The Independent).

Getting back to the furniture on display at the exhibition, it's beautiful, and beautifully displayed in a thoughtful manner that illustrates the context for which the items were made. Some writers have expressed unhappiness about the way in which India's heritage has been sent overseas, but all these items were bought legally, or salvaged from rubbish dumps. I'm delighted that some people from Europe saw the value of the furniture in Chandigarh and rescued it from neglect or worse. From my experiences in Singapore from the 1970s to the late 1980s, (or rather those of my father, a keen conservationist), I'm pretty certain that it would have been futile back then to convince the locals in Chandigarh of the value of their heritage. It's just the way things were back then.

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