Featured in our Decorative Arts catalogue are two lots which tell an important story in the history of architecture and define the aesthetic of modernity.
In 1947, the partition of India left the newly created Indian Punjab region without a capital city, the previous capital Lahore having become part of Pakistan. Then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s solution was the creation of a new city, Chandigarh, designed from the ground up as a modern regional capital that would exemplify the values of the new India. The task of planning and designing this city’s layout and architecture was ultimately entrusted to the modernist pioneer Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier.
Chandigarh is a fascinating example of the optimism, ambition and scope of the modernist project, applied on a grand scale and executed in concert with Indian craftspeople, builders and architects. A defining feature of the city was the extent to which every facet of the day-to-day environment was infused with a uniquely modern ethos, examples of which are the exquisite chairs included in this auction.
These chairs were designed by Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbusier’s younger cousin and collaborator. The younger Jeanneret was intimately involved in the Chandigarh project, designing multiple civic structures including mass housing projects and several university buildings. Jeanneret also addressed the need for an entire city’s worth of new, modern furniture by implementing clean, functional designs that could be mass-produced using local materials and labour. The chairs are made of Burma teak and wicker, hard-wearing materials well-suited to their previous life as a seat in a university or government office.
Their design is emblematic of Jeanneret’s stripped-back modernist aesthetic. The legs are formed from two sturdy inverted Vs of rounded and polished teak, giving it a profile that speaks of solidity and balance without being heavy or stodgy. The wicker seat and backrest counterpoint the dark wood with a breezy lightness, subtly referencing typical Indian furniture designs while also offering practical breathability in a hot and humid climate.
The delicacy and poise with which Jeanneret integrated local materials and craft into a quintessentially modernist and utopian project make his furniture highly sought after by connoisseurs. Sadly, many chairs and other objects of furniture designed for Chandigarh did not survive intact into the new millennium, as they were dumped in favour of more contemporary designs or scrapped for their valuable wood.
They are not only beautiful, elegant and functional pieces of furniture, but they also speak eloquently of the massive upheavals in culture, politics and art that took place in the mid-twentieth century.
By Andrew Clark