In the early 1950s, when the city of Chandigarh was still in the making, Swiss architect Pierre Jeanneret, along with a team of young Indian architects he was mentoring, designed a set of furniture for use in the government offices, libraries and official residences of the new city.
With clean lines and a geometric, modular construction—making it easier to mass-produce, as was the intention—and distinct design elements like A-shaped legs and woven cane or leather seats, these Chandigarh Chairs, as this furniture came to be known, represented a fresh, distinctive style custom-made for a modern young city. “They were mass-produced, because they were needed in large numbers, and the design ethos behind them was they should be practical, easy to make and modular in approach so that carpenters and furniture manufacturers could make them quickly. They are still in common use in government offices and buildings in Chandigarh, though not so much in private homes, and the design can be replicated—Jeanneret never applied for patents or copyright,” says Deepika Gandhi, director, Le Corbusier Centre, Chandigarh Architecture Museum and Jeanneret museum in Chandigarh.
A few decades later, some of the Chandigarh Chairs that share a similar provenance as the ones Gandhi is talking about ended up elsewhere—in galleries, auction houses and museums in Europe and the US, selling for as much as $10,000 (around ₹7.2 lakh now) apiece. Take Lot 514 of a just concluded auction-sale titled Modern Design at the Rago Arts and Auction Centre in the US, for instance: The listing on the auction house’s website reads: “Pierre Jeanneret/ Easy armchairs from Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh, pair/ France/India, c. 1955/ teak, cane, upholstery…. estimate: $10,000-15,000/ result: $21,250”. In 2017, two Chandigarh Chairs were photographed in an office space in American model and socialite Kourtney Kardashian’s home in California by Architectural Digest.
The conversion of everyday, functional objects, made for a specific use-case at a location where they continue to serve a similar purpose, into collectible objects of high art and design is what millennials would call a strange flex. And now, a group of design historians is working on creating what they believe is a more accurate and just narrative of the Chandigarh Chairs.
In 2018, the three design historians—Bengaluru-based designer and independent researcher Nia Thandapani, London-based Petra Seitz, who is working on a PhD at The Bartlett School of Architecture on the intersection between politics and design, and Gregor Wittrick, assistant collections manager at The British Museum—who met while doing a history of design master’s course at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)/Royal College of Art, started deconstructing the dominant narrative around Chandigarh Chairs—that after the deaths of Le Corbusier and Jeanneret, the furniture was left to rot in godowns and warehouses till it was “rescued” by certain European art dealers who elevated them to their rightful status as luxury objects.
To be sure, this kind of narrative-building is not unusual; the design historians acknowledge that there are enough examples from Western design where common, everyday and originally affordable objects, like the furniture designed by self-taught French architect Jean Prouvé for schools and offices, have turned into highly sought-after collectibles. But they believe that in the case of Chandigarh’s modernist furniture, this process was accelerated by the continuing impact of colonialism, and is in fact a form of exploitative capitalism.
Their quasi-investigative deep dive into the “constructed narratives” of the Chandigarh Chairs started when Thandapani bought some furniture during a sale at Bengaluru’s now shuttered NGEF electrical factory, which shared similarities with the Chandigarh Chairs. Given their specific areas of expertise, when they started investigating Chandigarh’s modernist furniture from their various vantage points, they came across assertions that seemed slightly wrong or out of place. “This led to yet more questions about the design, production, consumption and resale of the pieces,” write the researchers from a common email ID, in response to questions sent by Lounge.
Though not everyone agrees with them, or their assessment of the context, they say their aim is to tell the “story of how this constructed narrative shifted the focus and understanding of these chairs from being ‘Chandigarh chairs’ to being ‘Jeanneret chairs’, from being functional pieces of furniture to luxury design commodities, from being Indian to European, and from being objects which were manufactured to being objects of high design, moving them away from normal consumers to luxury consumers with the aim of enhancing its value.”
While the covid-19 pandemic restricted their travel plans to Chandigarh for more on-ground data, they scoured the internet to build a comprehensive database of the furniture being sold through auction houses and galleries across the world, delving into the history of how this furniture was designed and manufactured and the process through which it achieved its present status. In the late 1990s, French gallery owners Eric Touchaleaume and Gérald Moreau of Galerie 54 in Paris started making frequent trips to India. On one of these trips, they “discovered” abandoned Chandigarh Chairs, an event covered globally by publications like The New York Times. The researchers argue that the process of changing the image of the furniture as essentially European started right away, and part of this process was the systematic erasure of the names and contributions of the young designers who worked with Jeanneret, like Urmila Eulie Chowdhury, Jeet Malhotra and Aditya Prakash. In most of their catalogues, even today, Jeanneret is credited with sole authorship, while in their book Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret: L’Aventure Indienne, the Indian designers have been reduced to footnotes though their contributions were more substantial, believe Seitz, Wittrick and Thandapani.
“Chowdhury might have designed the Library Chair, for instance. In a Marg magazine article from the 1960s written by Chowdhury, she unambiguously credits Malhotra with designing a lamp and herself with the Library Chair. However, if you look at a recent Instagram post by Touchaleaume and Moreau, you can see the same Library Chair meticulously tagged with Jeanneret’s name. This points to a deliberate erasure of the Indian team, and creating a closed loop of information that self-perpetuates and becomes the standard narrative,” claim the researchers. Even manufacturers could have added their own tweaks, and an unambiguous association of the now valuable pieces with only one European designer’s name is wrong, they believe.
Something Gandhi says lends credence to this assertion. “Jeanneret never filed for copyrights, and the way they all worked at that time was quite casual. He would sketch something quickly, pass it on to his juniors or even directly to furniture makers, and they would fill in the details. It was collaborative,” says Gandhi. But she does not agree that there has been an appropriation of identity with respect to this furniture. “In the art and design world, something that can be banal to one person becomes a collector’s item. Yes, it has come to light that some of the furniture we thought was designed by Jeanneret was tweaked by Chowdhury—being petite, she made some slight changes to many of the designs that would suit her. But I am not sure you can call it deliberate appropriation. In that case, the onus falls on the person who buys it to establish the correct provenance and identity of the designer,” says Gandhi.
There are those who agree with the premise put forward by Thandapani, Seitz and Wittrick. “The current focus of the international market on Chandigarh’s so-called heritage furniture has jeopardised the fundamental purpose of furniture: to be used, not idealised,” writes architect Vikramaditya Prakash, son of Aditya Prakash, in a post on the website of the Chandigarh Urban Lab, a forum to support scholars of urbanism using Chandigarh as a case study, which he runs.
“We believe quite strongly that the ‘value’ in design lies not in terms of its monetary worth, or even in its aesthetics, but rather in the use of these pieces. Use value, after all, is what frequently differentiates items of design from items of art. The ‘elevation’ of functional items of design to the sphere of high art is a problematic phenomena,” say the design historians.
The “constructed” history of Chandigarh Chairs can potentially be dismissed as a theory more than a definitive conclusion. Yet, even as the design remains in the public domain, and they continue to be manufactured in Chandigarh and elsewhere (for instance, by Bengaluru-based design studio Phantom Hands, which creates re-editions of the chairs that are then sold through their website), the belief in the Western art world that these are rare luxury objects is a story that is as much about design as it is about post-colonial politics and a somewhat cynical capitalism that should, at the very least, be examined more critically.