‘Algeria was really dangerous,” says Eric Touchaleaume, sipping Earl Grey tea by the Thames in Tate Modern’s cafe. “I had to grow a beard, dress like a local and have two bodyguards. It was a very bad place for foreigners. But I found some fantastic Jean Prouvé tables in an old French atomic research laboratory. An old guy remembered seeing one in some factory, his cousin knew where another one was, and so on. In the end, I found 15.”
Touchaleaume, an athletically built 51-year-old Parisian, has been described as the Indiana Jones of furniture collecting. Admittedly, he carries a crutch rather than a bullwhip, and wears a tweed cap rather than a fedora, but it’s certainly more exciting than being called an antiques dealer – and, like Indiana, he has spent the past decade scouring remote, often lawless regions in search of valuable relics, often at considerable personal risk.
Nearby is one of his most extraordinary acquisitions: a house designed by the brilliant French modernist Jean Prouvé. Known as the Maison Tropicale, it was fetched by Touchaleaume from war-torn Congo-Brazzaville and sold to an LA hotel magnate for $5m (£2.5m) – not bad for a 50-year-old single-room house with no mod cons. It currently stands outside Tate Modern, an outpost of the nearby Design Museum’s Prouvé show.
Prouvé’s ascent to the top table of 20th-century design has been matched by a dizzying rise in his work’s value. The exorbitant price of the Maison Tropicale reflects the fact that it is one of only three built by Prouvé, and a key work in the evolution of prefab and high-tech architecture. It is also an object of beauty – intricately detailed, lovingly crafted and now restored to look as good as new.
Touchaleaume started out as a flea-market trader, but became a Prouvé specialist in 1984 after buying 600 of his chairs from a university refectory and finding them a hit with connoisseurs. “I started to research Prouvé,” he says. “I didn’t really like furniture, but I found his chairs beautiful.” The Maisons Tropicales became to Touchaleaume what the Ark of the Covenant was to Indiana Jones: he had seen them in books, dreamed of searching for them, but thought they were a myth. It was only when Touchaleaume held a Prouvé exhibition in 1987 that he discovered they still existed: a visitor said her husband had seen two in Brazzaville. Twelve years later, the Prouvé market booming, an expedition became viable.
Prouvé’s chairs, tables and shelves had become default fixtures in France’s public buildings during the interwar years. After the second world war, the designer focused on prefabricated houses that could be mass-produced. The Maisons Tropicales were prototypes for a “flat-pack” home for France’s African territories, with ingenious natural ventilation systems and adjustable sunshades. The first was shipped to Niamey, Niger; another two went to Brazzaville. But there were no more. Prouvé’s design was too expensive and complex, and the three houses were forgotten for half a century.
Touchaleaume located the two in Brazzaville fairly quickly – they were damaged by bullet holes, corrosion and various architectural meddlings – but it took six months to get them out. Congo had been through civil war and a succession of governments; negotiations ensued between ministers, tribal factions and two families that both claimed to own the houses.
While in Brazzaville, Touchaleaume also “salvaged” the contents of the former Air France HQ, another 1950s modernist showpiece. Furnished in part by Prouvé, it was in considerable decay. “It was like an African village inside a building,” Touchaleaume recalls. Its contents had spread across the city, but when people heard about Touchaleaume, pieces gradually found their way to him. Using a combination of charm, diplomacy, whisky and cash, he eventually spirited the whole lot back to France. “We packed the pieces in banana leaves, in 15 shipping containers, and took them by rail to the port with armed guards. At the last minute, the government stopped us for one more ‘petit cadeau’.” This little gift was £23,000.
Isn’t there something unsavoury about all this? Isn’t Touchaleaume a mere looter, plundering impoverished countries just like his colonial forebears? “Don’t imagine that I cheat stupid African people,” he retorts. “People there are the same as in France, America, everywhere. I’ve found things others thought were garbage. Sure, I make a good deal, but people who bought pieces from me for €10,000 have sold them for €200,000. I don’t say, ‘You cheated me.’ That’s the game. It’s stupid, this reaction. In a perfect world, we would keep the Maisons Tropicales in situ. But in Congo, they can’t afford to maintain or restore them and they would be lost. The important thing is to protect the artwork.”
One wonders what Prouvé would think. A humanist and idealist, he was driven by the belief that good design could improve the lives of everyone. Ironically, his designs now change hands among the super-rich for exorbitant sums: Prouvé collectors reportedly include Marc Jacobs, Brad Pitt and Martha Stewart.
Touchaleaume’s next challenge is the restoration of a building by another neglected modern architect, Robert Mallet Stevens. “My main passion is to be a kind of private curator,” he says, “to make my contribution to save the heritage of the 20th century.” His adventuring days, he says, are over. “It’s time to turn the page.”
Jean Prouvé es considerado por muchos como el pionero en la prefabricación de viviendas. En 1951 (20 años antes que la Torre Nagakin de Kurokawua) realizó este modelo, la Maison Tropicale, un prototipo de vivienda ideal para las colonias francesas en África.
La casa de subastas Christie’s la pondrá a la venta en un precio que se estima entre los $4 y los $6 millones de dólares.
La casa, uno de los tres prototipos que se llegaron a construir, es propiedad de Eric Touchaleaume, un coleccionista de antigüedades quien compró ésta (y las otras dos existentes) el año 2000 y espera financiar con su venta un nuevo Museo Prouvé.
La Maison Tropicale estuvo 49 años en el Congo Belga, luego pasó por Paris donde fue restaurada para terminar frente a la Bahía de Queens, en Nueva York.
La casa se puede visitar entre el 17 de mayo y el 5 de junio.
foto via phcatfish en Flickr
– Galería de imágenes en The New York Times, aquí.
– Link a la página de la subasta de Christie’s de la Maison Tropicale, acá.