Modernist Design: From Chandigarh to Christies’
Petra Seitz, Nia Thandapani, Gregor Wittrick | UCL
Regularly featured within the pages of lifestyle magazines, on design and interiors blogs, Instagram influencers’ accounts and inside the homes of the rich and famous, modernist furniture from the city of Chandigarh, India, has taken the world by storm. This furniture’s simple, angular forms, created with thick, straight cuts of solid hardwood, upholstered in leather or woven cane have become an almost inescapable design icon. However, despite the current status of these chairs as objects of haute design, their recent celebrity conceals a much more utilitarian, down-to-earth history.
With construction beginning in 1952, the city of Chandigarh was designed and built as the new capital for the Indian Punjab following Partition in 1947. Chandigarh was to be, in prime minister Nehru’s words, “a new town symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past” and “an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.”
Initially planned and designed by American architect and planner Albert Mayer and Polish-American architect Matthew Nowicki, the project was eventually handed to Swiss/French modernist architect Le Corbusier after Nowicki’s untimely death. While the plan for the new city and the buildings of Chandigarh’s central Capitol Complex was designed by Le Corbusier primarily from his studio in Paris, the development of residential districts and housing fell to Le Corbusier’s cousin, Pierre Jeanneret. Jeanneret, as well as British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, and a team of Indian architects including Aditya Prakash, Urmila Eulie Chowdhury and Jeet Malhotra, among many others, formed a core team working within Chandigarh itself. In addition to housing, hospitals, and cinemas, the architects in India designed an impressive range of furniture for use in the various university departments, its library, dormitories, as well as the government offices, the assembly, secretariat and a select few private homes.
Before knowledge of Chandigarh’s modernist furniture became widespread outside of India, two French antiques dealers, Eric Touchaleaume and Gérald Moreau, embarked on an enterprise from 1999 to buy, transport, restore, promote and finally re-sell this furniture to a Western audience. Over the course of the following decade, these dealers purchased an undisclosed number of pieces of furniture at municipal auctions in Chandigarh for undisclosed sums. These pieces were then removed to France where they were professionally restored, before being exhibited at gallery shows put on in part by Touchaleaume’s own Galeries 54, and sold at top auction houses including Christie’s and Sotheby’s for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars.
Such lofty auction prices were and are driven in part by the emphasis on the furniture's position within the canon of European modern design. When exhibited in galleries and museums, discussed in articles, or sold at auction, this furniture is almost always referred to as being the exclusive work of Pierre Jeanneret, or occasionally, as a collaborative project between Le Corbusier and Jeanneret. Despite the furniture’s Indian origins, it is very often referred to as being French or Swiss-French, alluding to the nationality of these two designers.
Throughout its promotion in the West, at exhibitions in Paris, New York, London, Miami and Monte Carlo, Pierre Jeanneret was, and continues to be, positioned and celebrated as the furniture's exclusive designer. Prakash, Chowdhury, Malhotra and the rest of the Indian design team are rarely, if ever, mentioned, and as a result, have functionally been erased from the history and popular narrative of these pieces of design.
As public awareness of Chandigarh’s furniture grew following initial gallery displays, subsequent exhibitions, auctions, publications and media surrounding the furniture also adopted and propagated a Jeanneret- and Western-centric narrative, creating and upholding Eurocentricity in the story of these objects. Erasure of Indian architects and designers from the story of Chandigarh chairs in these exhibits accompanied a parallel dearth of information on the piece’s larger history in India – their construction from Indian materials, manufacture in the hands of Indian craftspeople, and their 40+ years of use by Indian residents within Chandigarh’s government institutions, workplaces, and schools.
One particular publication was foundational in the elaboration of this now-popular narrative. Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret: L'AventureIndienne: Design, Art, Architecture (The Indian Adventure: Design, Art, Architecture) (2010), by Eric Touchaleaume and Gérald Moreau, the very dealers who initially removed much of the furniture from Chandigarh, has become the principal text of reference for dealers, auction houses and collectors alike. Alongside biographies of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret and black and white archival images of both men at work, this large and expensive book recounts the dealers’ own travels to India, positioning themselves as the saviours of the furniture, depicting scenes of disused stacks of chairs in inconsistently captioned photographs.
Notably, the last 76 pages of The Indian Adventure contain an inventory of Chandigarh’s furniture compiled by the dealers, listing many different forms of chairs, tables, and lamps divided into categories, devised by the dealers. The Indian Adventure contains only a short bibliography, with few references tying particular claims within the text or the inventory to specific and/or accessible primary evidence. Even before its publication, The Indian Adventure and particularly its inventory served as the sole reference and proof of claims made about Chandigarh furniture within auction listings.
Aside from issues regarding the accuracy of the popular narrative of Chandigarh’s modernist furniture arising from The Indian Adventure’s sparse citations and referencing, the narrative of Chandigarh’s furniture also raises significant moral and political problems and questions.
Historiographically, the way in which the history of these pieces has been reconstructed in the popular imagination is troubling for two particular reasons. Overall, it is concerning that facts and details of the design and production of Chandigarh’s modernist furniture have been determined without a substantial level of proof. There is only one sourcebook, The Indian Adventure, for many of the claims made and, as mentioned previously, this book does not contain robust citations and precise references for its claims. Equally troubling is the questionable ethical position of the author/publicists of the Chandigarh chairs. While academics and journalists are ethically and/or contractually obligated to both disclose potential conflicts of interest and potentially recuse themselves from research projects, this is not the case for the antiques dealers who, quite literally, wrote the book on Chandigarh’s furniture. The popular historical narrative has, therefore, been crafted by the very people who stand to make the greatest profit from the sale of these objects. While this does not prove that the narrative of Jeanneret as the chairs’ genius designer is false, or that other information has been deliberately omitted, such a charged relationship between the constructors and beneficiaries of a history is questionable and should be subject to further scrutiny.
Additionally, through its emphasis on the Euro-American aspects of the furniture’s history, the writing on Chandigarh’s furniture to date has seemingly separated these pieces from conceptions of ‘Indian’ design and the Indian design canon. The voices and experiences of India and Indian people have seemingly been cut out of the story of Chandigarh chairs at every turn; their Indian designers are rarely acknowledged, their manufacture on the subcontinent is not discussed in any detail, and their use within Chandigarh for over forty years is omitted. This erasure has a dual impact. First, it erases India and Indian designers from the history and understanding of modernist design. Second, and related, the erasure of India and Indians from the design of Chandigarh’s modernist furniture solidifies a still-dominant narrative of Designed Modernism as a solely Western venture.
The marginalization of India in the story and life cycle of these pieces of Indian design is exacerbated by the financial element of their rise to fame; despite being sold at auction for prices reaching well into six figures, very little of the profit from these sales, and the fame of the pieces, seems to be returning to Chandigarh. The culmination of the extractively low prices, for which Chandigarh’s modernist furniture seems to have been bought within India, and the production and control of knowledge around these objects in order to line the pockets of dealers, auction houses, and collectors, is a continuation of imperialism within India and the subcontinent.
Underneath such issues with the current popular narrative of these pieces of modernist furniture lies a rich and nuanced history. One which is more just, more accurate, and more interesting and can further our understanding of modernist design globally. The details of this story remain to be unearthed and shared.
Chandigarh: The Modernist Utopia, Curbed, Avrey Trufelman and Vikramaditya Prakash
Provenance Research Today, ed. Arthur Tompkins (London: Lund Humphries, 2020)
Full bibliography available on our website: chandigarhchairs.com
Petra Seitz is a PhD student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Her dissertation explores the history and evolution of commercial office interiors through a Marxist Labor Process lens. She holds a MA in History of Design from the Victoria & Albert Museum/Royal College of Art and a BA in Politics from Oberlin College. Current research interests include the modernist furniture of Chandigarh, India, modernist furniture in science fiction television, and the intersection between politics and design.
Twitter: @pooski_pie Nia Thandapani is a graphic designer and design historian based in Bangalore. Her historic and design interests cover late nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century South Asian material culture and decolonisation within design and museum spaces. Nia holds an MA in History of Design from the Victoria & Albert Museum and Royal College of Art and a BA in Graphic Design from Central Saint Martins.
Instagram: nia.thandapani Gregor Wittrick is an independent design historian, Assistant Collections Manager at The British Museum, and former Assistant Curator in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s furniture department. He holds an MA in History of Design from the Victoria & Albert Museum and Royal College of Art, and a BA in Ceramics from Gray’s School of Art. His research interests include eighteenth and twentieth-century furniture design and manufacture, and the role of craft skills in mass production.