Updated: Jun 13, 2021
As I’m writing this the pandemic is raging in India like nowhere in the world. India has a special place in my heart; I have so many dear memories and warm friendships from India. It is therefore I feel obliged to write you about the fascinating history of the Chandigarh chair - the simple, everyday chair originating from the same name city of India. The chair with a true Cinderella story: designed in the early 1950s out of necessity, humbly fulfilling its duties unnoticed for nearly 40 years, until discovered in late 1990s. And since then establishing its place among true design icons and must-have collectibles around the world, its originals currently auctioning for several thousands of US dollars. Yes, the same chair that is so often called also as the “Jeanneret chair” and which now pops-up in almost every design magazine and celebrity home. So, what is the story behind this humble looking chair? And why India of all places?
The utopian city
The story begins in 1950 when the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted to create a new Punjabi capital, Chandigarh (“stronghold of the goddess Chandi”), that would showcase India as a modern, advanced society filled with modern architecture and design. He commissioned the renowned Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) to do the job. The project would end up being the most ambitious project of Le Corbusier’s career. By mid 1950s Le Corbusier and his team (British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Dew, his Swiss architect cousin Pierre Jeanneret (1896-1967), and nine Indian architects: Urmila Eulie Chowdhury, Jeet Malhotra and Aditya Prakash among others) had created a grid-like city divided by boulevards and public parks, and designed many of Chandigarh’s administrative headquarters (The Capitol Complex) which were later added into UNESCO World Heritage List.
Le Corbusier, unlike his cousin Jeanneret, never lived or spent much time in India during the project. After the city’s completion, Pierre Jeanneret decided to stay in Chandigarh where he worked as the city’s chief architect until 1965. During his stay he mentored many Indian architects, who would later become renowned architects of their own. Jeanneret embraced India, its culture, and people wholeheartedly. He lived a modest life in Chandigarh, where he designed furniture for his home from local materials. He became great friends with many of the locals and was described by them as being humble, kind and patient person. In his spare time he built boats and sailed them on Sukhna lake. After his death in 1967, his ashes were scattered to the same lake. For the rather shy and reserved Pierre Jeanneret the time in India gave possibility to step out of his famous cousin’s shadow.
From commodity to high-end collectible
It was Pierre Jeanneret and his team of Indian architects who were responsible of designing the furniture for all new buildings of Chandigarh. For this purpose they needed lots of practical, durable and modular furniture that could be easily mass-produced, and which would endure heavy use and local climate. To ensure best quality they collaborated with numerous local craftsmen and used readily available local materials like teak, rosewood, and rattan caning. The furniture consisted of benches, tables, cabinets, desks, bookshelves, and numerous chairs - including the now so famous inverted V-legged Chandigarh chair.
By 1980s the survival of the Chandigarh furniture was put to test as much of the original furniture was already beyond repair state due to heavy use, heat, and humidity. Also, to the contemporary residents of Chandigarh the furniture did not hold the same symbolic meaning as it did for Jeanneret and his team 30 years earlier. As a result, much of the original furniture was either discarded or destroyed during this time. It was common to find the furniture piled up on roof tops and balconies of administrative buildings, or simply being tossed aside of streets. Many were sold as scrap or used as firewood.
In the late 1990s, Parisian antique dealers and gallerists Eric Touchaleaume (Galerie 54), Francois Laffanour (Galerie Downtown), Philippe Jousse (Jousse Enterprise), and Patrick Seguin (Galerie Patrick Seguin) began purchasing the discarded furniture to restore and resell them at lucrative prices. It was not until years later that the local citizens of Chandigarh realized that the furniture originating from their city was selling abroad at auctions in record prices. Since 2011 the Chandigarh furniture – and especially the chairs - has attracted such a steady demand, that a regulation was put in place preventing the original pieces still in the city to leave India without approval from the country’s Ministry of Culture. Today, there are still many original furniture pieces in use in the government offices and buildings in Chandigarh. The early dealers who managed to purchase the Chandigarh furniture in large quantities still control much of today’s markets in the West, while the prices of these furniture pieces continue to soar.
The Chandigarh Chair with its clean, modernist shapes, modular construction, and distinct design elements (V-shaped legs, woven cane or leather seats), represents a fresh, distinctive style. Today the chair is often used by many of the A-list designers in their high-end projects, but the simplistic and sculptural look of Chandigarh chair appeals also to more ordinary home owners. It is no wonder both refurbished originals, as well as official (e.g. Cassina ‘Homage à Pierre Jeanneret’ collection) and unofficial reproductions of the chair are now available in the market. Unfortunately, there are also many copies sold as originals with high prices. Everyone wants to own their “Jeanneret design” and be part of its fascinating history.
Whose design is it anyway?
Jeanneret or his team never filed any patents or copyrights for the Chandigarh furniture. The way Jeanneret worked with his team was always very casual and practical; he would sketch something quickly, pass it on to his team members or even directly to furniture makers, and they would often finalise the details. The design process was intuitive and co-creative.
In recent years, there is an increased understanding that number of the furniture originally thought to be designed by Jeanneret only, were tweaked by some of the Indian architects in his team, especially by Urmila Eulie Chowdhury - the first female Indian architect, and the only female architect in Le Corbusier’s core team. It is now believed she made slight changes to many of the Jeanneret’s original furniture sketches - especially the chairs - and readapted their proportions for them to be better suitable for the use of average Indian, especially Indian woman. Although not acknowledged at the time, it is now easy to see how her gender sensitive design thinking was revolutionary in the 1950s. During the design process Chowdhury was also often the one communicating with the local furniture makers and likely also influenced considerably to the final material selections. In recent years, some further evidence has also emerged, that Chowdhury might actually have been the main designer of the famous Library chair.
Although we might never know the exact amount of contribution of Chowdhury and other Indian architects in the design of each piece of the Chandigarh furniture, it is clear their contribution was much more than just assisting Jeanneret. Taking into account Jeanneret’s co-creative working style, humble, kind personality and his love for India, I truly believe that if he would be here today witnessing all the surging popularity of Chandigarh designs around the world, he would surely smile to the idea of these furniture to be called “Jeanneret furniture” and insist us to give credit from these designs to their right owners. Hopefully in the future we will learn more about the silent talents behind the iconic Chandigarh pieces!
(Sources: World of Architecture, Dezeen, Designboom, Arhitectural Digest, Jai-pur)
I'm an interior designer who writes stories about interior design inspirations, ideas, furniture and architecture from around the world. My mission is to entertain you during your morning coffee - to show you how the world is full of interesting design stories - and to make you look your own surroundings differently. You are part of a story! I also run an interior design studio Onni Interiors. Welcome to be part of Design Stories!