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OUT OF AFRICA


 BY Simon Hewitt | June 30, 2008

That dealer was Eric Touchaleaume, a specialist in French design. He had dreamed of tracking down the midcentury steel-and-aluminum constructions since 1987, when he organized the first Paris exhibition of Prouve’s work at his former gallery near Place de la Bastille.


In the course of putting together that show, he recalls, he came across archival photographs of “mysterious Tropical Houses, of which virtually nothing was known.” But he says it was not until the late 1990s, when market prices for the creations of Prouve and his contemporaries “climbed steeply and it became difficult to find stock in France,” that he decided to search for the structures.

Heirs to a prefab tradition that dates back to the Bauhaus and the 1920s, Prouve’s houses—no component of which is longer than 13 feet or weighs more than 220 pounds—were designed to be easily transportable and to withstand tropical hazards, like termites and searing temperatures. The designer embarked on the project with a view to gaining commissions in France’s African colonies. But these never materialized, and only three houses were produced in 1951 and transported to Africa.

 In 2000, Touchaleaume retrieved one from Niamey, the capital of Niger, relatively uneventfully. The real adventure that year came in recovering the two in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, where they were originally used by the local branch of Aluminum Francais, a commercial agency established to promote the use of the metal in construction and furniture. One, about 1,500 square feet in area, housed offices; the other, about 1,900 square feet, was the director’s home.

 

 

In all, Touchaleaume spent almost six months locating the structures, negotiating their sale, dismantling them and spiriting them from Brazzaville through rebel territory to the coast. After a $3 million restoration, the dealer unveiled the larger of the two on the banks of the Seine last September, during the Paris Biennale; he is putting it up for sale at Christie’s New York on the fifth of this month.

The burly, balding and bestubbled Touchaleaume roars around Paris on a 1973 Kawasaki motorcycle. “His appearance matches his personality,” says Art Deco expert and longtime acquaintance Jean-Marcel Camard. “Strong, massive, robust, reliable—no diplomat, but a friend you can trust. Eric’s not afraid of making investments and taking risks. He’s a great dealer,” Camard continues, “and he has really exploded on the scene over the last four or five years.”

Touchaleaume appreciates Prouve’s creations for their streamlined elegance and use of metal. “Furniture bores me,” he says, referring to traditional pieces. “But Prouve’s work is more like sculpture. And I’ve always been passionate about metal. I like the industrial aesthetic, the rigor with a hint of folly.”

The son of Victor Prouve, a founder of the Ecole de Nancy, Jean Prouve was born in that eastern French city in 1901 and trained as an ironworker before founding his own workshop there, in 1929. He practiced as both an architect and furniture designer, often collaborating with Le CorbusierPierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand who, along with Prouve, Touchaleaume likes to call the “four musketeers of Design.”

 

In 1947 Prouve opened a factory in Maxeville, just outside Nancy, to develop the Tropical Houses, lightweight buildings made of folded aluminum, a technique that he pioneered. They were a “domesticized version of aeronautical engineering,” says Philippe Garner, Christie’s international department head of 20th-century decorative art and design. “People couldn’t get their heads around living in that kind of machine.”

Locals in Africa must have thought the houses had landed from outer space, not on a cargo plane from Paris. With their sharp outlines, bright colors, inclinable sunshades in exposed aluminum and small porthole windows of deep blue glass, they look futuristic even today. “The idea that these could become kit houses for the workers, like many visionary projects,” says Garner, “was ahead of its time.”

Prouve was forced from his Maxeville workshop by angry shareholders. Although he enjoyed a highly successful career as a designer and teacher until his death in Nancy in 1984, he never fully recovered from this setback. “I died in 1952,” he once said.

When Touchaleaume traveled to Brazzaville, a highly urbanized city situated on the Congo River about 300 miles inland from the Atlantic coast, he took a small team with him to help search for the houses. At the time, the Republic of the Congo was emerging from 15 years of civil war. Touchaleaume knew from French volunteer workers that the Prouve structures had been standing in the late 1980s—whether they still survived was another matter.

 

He got lucky: The first taxi driver he hired recognized the buildings from an old photo the dealer showed him and drove straight to their location near the post office. Touchaleaume found them “run-down, rusty and riddled with bullet holes but virtually intact,” he says. “It was a very emotional moment, like finding Sleeping Beauty waiting to be woken up.”

Locating the houses proved to be the easy part. “People were incredibly suspicious,” he says. “No one could believe we had only come for ‘old scrap iron.’ We were followed permanently.” The most dramatic of his encounters occurred on a trip to the nearby Congo rapids. After he snapped a few innocent photos, “50 soldiers with machine guns suddenly appeared and took us in,” he recalls. “It was terrifying. They thought we were mercenaries planning an invasion from Zaire, across the river.”

While in Brazzaville, Touchaleaume also tracked down furniture designed by Perriand and Prouve for Air France’s former Central Africa headquarters. The building had become residential, but many of the 250 original aluminum cupboards were still in situ. He paid the government and then the individual apartment owners to acquire them. Other items were harder to find. Most of the airline’s chairs had been stolen during the civil war, and he hunted for them in a 20-mile radius around the city.

 

After several trips back to Africa and, says Touchaleaume, “six months of betrayals and dirty tricks” by local officials and the two families who disputed ownership, he finally clinched the deal for the houses. Getting the structures to France was the next challenge. He hired 15 locals to assist his four-man team in dismantling and packing them into 14 containers. With roads in a catastrophic state and no planes available, rail and sea were the only options. The 320-mile Congo-Ocean railroad—constructed between 1921 and 1934 at a cost of 17,000 lives—ran through tropical forest and mountainous terrain, including the Massif du Mayombe area. This was a rebel stronghold, and Touchaleaume had to hire an escort of 20 armed guards. Even so, the train was halted for three days in Dolisie until the dealer gained its release by greasing rebel palms. When the convoy finally reached the coast, it took three more days in Pointe-Noire to find a ship.

Once in Paris, the houses underwent a yearlong restoration by a team of 10 under the supervision of coachwork specialist Gerard Pannetrat. A dozen layers of paint were removed to uncover the original color scheme—sandy yellow and peacock blue on the outside; green and pale beige on the inside. The machine tools used to create the houses no longer existed, making the bending of sheet metal a particular challenge. Special awls were built to manufacture replacement elements. Touchaleaume likens the arduous process to restoring a vintage car to its pristine glory.

The dealer sold the smaller of the two Brazzaville houses for a reported $1 million to retired New York commodities trader Robert Rubin, who donated it to the Centre Pompidou. The one being offered at Christie’s this month, gleaming and meticulously restored, has an estimate of $4 million to $6 million, a price that includes transport and assembly within North America by Touchaleaume’s well-honed cadre of workers.

 

The dealer is auctioning off the house to cover the costs he incurred in its restoration and installation at the Paris Biennale—not to mention the expense of fixing up the Niamey house for himself. He chose Christie’s because of his long friendship with Garner: In 1985, the specialist, then at Sotheby’s, sold Touchaleaume his first major Prouve piece—a dramatically angular armchair. The Paris dealer settled on New York for the sale because, he explains, “my market is 90 percent there.” Christie’s senior international specialist Sonja Ganne, who anticipates at least a dozen bidders, concurs: “The American market is much more mature for this type of architecture than the European market.”

Garner calls the Tropical House a “fabulous, industrial-style, intellectual, 20th-century folly.” It’s an “adaptable space with various possibilities,” he says, likely to be acquired by someone “who can set it up in their garden rather than live in it.” In advance of the auction, Touchaleaume and his crew reconstructed the house on the Queens side of the East River, where it is currently on public view.

 

Touchaleaume is also selling 150 lots from his gallery’s stock and from his personal collection (total est. $5.5 million), including some of the Prouve and Perriand collaborations he found in the Congo—from cupboards (est. $10-25,000) and chairs (est. $10,000) to a dining table and coffee table (est. $40,000 each). The auction also features work by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret that Touchaleaume tracked down in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad, India.

Last year the dealer turned 50 and decided on a fresh start. He is closing his Left Bank space, Galerie 54, and will instead work from his Paris home, which was designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens. “He is a reluctant dealer,” observes Garner. “Sales don’t excite him.” Touchaleaume plans to write a book on Prouve and tour the restored Niamey house—fully furnished—worldwide, including stops in Japan and California, before installing it permanently outside his home in rural Provence.

“The Tropical House was an extraordinary stylistic exercise,” he says. “It was among Prouve’s most striking architectural achievements, yet also perhaps the most utopian.”

“Out of Africa” was originally published in the June 2007 issue of Art & Auction magazine.

 

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