Photo by Gayatri Vijayan

The Chandigarh Chair: Exploring the Nuances of a Revival

The many visits I made to Bangalore’s now-closed New Government Electrical Factory (NGEF) were always preceded by a barely masked flurry of anticipation. Each time I’d convince myself, and those I’d drag along with me, of the new functional necessity demanding yet another trip. My husband and I had recently moved to Bangalore, and needed to outfit our two-bedroom apartment with a few more items than the lone bed we’d shipped from Delhi.

By the time we arrived in Bangalore in 2015, the sale was well underway. The factory had closed in 2002 due to its mounting debt, and the sale of the building’s entire movable assets had only gone through some ten years later as part of the liquidation process. Inside the complex of buildings, workers stripped raw materials from industrial parts, and business owners made deals for house-sized machinery. With its movable contents up for sale, we initially picked up a Formica topped table and some folding chairs, a desk and a ‘classic’ cantilever Godrej chair, some stools for plants, bookshelves, and even a broken sofa and armchairs.

While we filled our house with utilitarian furniture, the main reason I returned to NGEF was to walk the corridors of these empty industrial buildings, and experience a safe, but exciting dose of urban exploration. NGEF had not been abandoned, but in the ten-year period between its decommission and the public sale of its objects, the surrounding forest and its inhabitants had begun to creep in, as well as the odd human looking for something of value.

As someone who knew nothing about electrical manufacture, there was a false mystery to the spaces at NGEF: large echoing warehouses with unknown machinery, a workshop with hand-drawn signs and apprentice pieces strewn on the floor, a film lab, a printing press, and even a library.

Though NGEF had only closed some ten years previously and many employees were still demanding fairer severance compensation, its spaces felt historic and distant to me. A place where something could be discovered and given new life. In addition to the furniture for our flat, I bought a small printing press that I imagined using one day in my studio; a first aid box that became a bathroom cabinet; and a managing director sign that sat by my bedside.

My visits to NGEF happened long before I began to research modernist furniture in India. I was slow to build a sense of what ‘mid-century modern’ looked like and imagine it in my home. But the growing popularity of mid-century modern aesthetics from the 1990s had provided me just enough understanding to be excited by picking up ‘a find’ in a space like NGEF. I understood that this industrial space held a valuable collection—aesthetically, functionally and potentially, even financially. This was why, like the many friends and architects I’d bump into at NGEF, I was willing to pay for a chair that was broken and weather-beaten.

It is impossible for me now not to see the similarity between the hoards of utilitarian modernist furniture at NGEF, and the images of piles of old furniture around the city of Chandigarh. Captured by French antique dealers during their first trips to the city in the 1990s, these images show broken and seemingly discarded furniture—usually chairs—stacked haphazardly beneath the towering arches of the city’s buildings, or strewn along the road sides.

The circulation of such images play a crucial role in the popular narrative of Chandigarh’s modernist furniture, which rests on the city’s so-called underappreciation of the furniture and its subsequent appreciation in the west. As photographs, they are seemingly verifiable proof that the city didn’t want or care for the furniture, or as the New York Times put it ‘Sat on Its Treasures, but Didn’t See Them’. And, they underscore and justify the trajectory these pieces then took—sold to foreign dealers at a government auction in the 1990s, removed from Chandigarh, taken to Europe, stored, restored, exhibited and subsequently sold at auction for thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That the furniture had been neglected in and by the people of Chandigarh, that it was almost lost, is fundamental to a sense that it was revived and saved by the dealers that first ‘discovered’ them.

But this narrative raises a number of difficult questions. What exactly was being lost in the case of Chandigarh’s furniture? Who has said so? Who was saving it, and from whom? And, who exactly did this project serve?

The Chandigarh chairs—perhaps the most ubiquitous objects of modernist furniture from the city—were designed during the 1950s and 1960s by a team of architects, manufactured in workshops across Chandigarh and its surrounding areas, and installed in thousands in government buildings across the city.

Following Partition, this new capital for the Indian Punjab fulfilled not just the need for an administrative capital, but was representative of a new modernist direction for independent India’s architecture. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s oft-repeated intention for a city ‘unfettered by the traditions of the past’ encapsulates the sense of a modernist dream city that drove the eventual commission of the doyen of European modernism, Le Corbusier. While Corbusier acted as town planner and designed some of the core administrative buildings, a large team of predominantly Indian architects worked in Chandigarh, designing a city of buildings and the modernist furniture which sat within them.

Despite being designed within an office of many architects, and despite documentation pointing towards shared, if not Indian authorship, the Chandigarh furniture is now almost exclusively attributed to a single one of the city’s employees: Swiss/French architect Pierre Jeanneret. Capitalising on his familial relation to Corbusier, Jeanneret’s attribution has allowed the furniture to be rooted in the European modernist canon by the international art market, featuring in sales such as ‘Swiss Made’ in 2009. With their maxim as ‘Jeanneret pieces’, the furniture has skyrocketed in financial value since the mid-2000s with a Punjab University Library table selling for $300,000 in 2008 and chairs selling for upwards of $10,000.

These sales sit within a larger shift towards featuring more design objects on the art market from around the 1990s. A new desire for minimalist and utilitarian aesthetics in domestic settings saw the owners of Egyptian antiquity and contemporary art now desiring a piece of old university dormitory furniture installed in their living room too, and collectors celebrating the notion of a ‘patina’ that a scratched public library desk brought into their homes.

Lauded for their geometric, ‘sculptural’ aesthetic, the Chandigarh chairs are a favourite of interior designers, with many architectural and interior design magazines featuring Chandigarh designs in rich people’s minimalist spaces. What were once utilitarian chairs for government employees and the general public are now art pieces and ‘design classics’. But they’re also returning slowly to a more everyday position as manufacturers across the world have begun to make Chandigarh chairs for the mass market again.

Chandigarh chairs in use in Chandigarh. Photo by Eashan Chaufla. The chair design in the foreground is typically credited to Pierre Jeanneret. Fellow architect Eulie Urmila Choudhury also credits the chair design to herself in a contemporary MARG article, demonstrating the problematics of the existing Jeanneret narrative.

Design and architecture revivalism have historically been characterised by a renewed interest in the styles, and approaches of the past, often resulting in the creation of new objects and buildings with ‘echoes’ of previous eras. In this sense, the renewed interest in mid-century modern design from the 1990s follows from previous design revivals. In its more colloquial usage, a revival depends on  renewed interest in something of the past, ‘reviving’ or making active, something which is seemingly now inactive.

The popular narrative of the Chandigarh chairs rests on this colloquial sense of revival while the renewed interest in mid-century modern by the market provided the environment and incentive for the furniture’s successful trajectory from Chandigarh to the west. But what happened to Chandigarh’s furniture complicates and problematises standard notions of revival, highlighting connections between narratives of revival and colonial extractive capitalism.

The vast majority of objects on the art market are rare, and this rarity gives them value, their uniqueness and preciousness haunting them with a risk of total loss. In contrast, mass-manufactured modernist objects like the Chandigarh furniture are not rare. One of the things which distinguishes the Chandigarh furniture, from other objects at auction, is the volume of furniture which still existed when it hit the market and the volume which is still active in Chandigarh itself. The scale on which pieces of Chandigarh furniture still exist across the world, but also in Chandigarh, in places like public offices, calls into question what exactly was being lost in the case of Chandigarh.

The furniture hit the market slowly in the early 2000s, making the scale of total furniture still in existence unclear. It also did so with a certain distance from a contemporary Indian everyday context in which the furniture was still being used. While archival images appear to have been used to communicate a historic context to the pieces, it was not clear that many pieces were still present in Chandigarh, used within spaces such as the public library. This active reality disappeared in the sale of the furniture, with crucial ‘provenance’ listings in auction brochures often only vaguely pointing towards original use in Chandigarh.

Distanced from an active reality in India, and bolstered by a false sense of rarity as only small numbers of pieces hit the market slowly, a further sense of inactivity and loss was cemented through a narrative of its underappreciation in India. Images of piles of broken chairs were published, and narratives of discovery were written. With a strong sense of loss and destruction, a core component of the furniture’s story was the opportunity for it to be saved, helping to further justify the removal of the furniture from India by foreign antique dealers who positioned themselves as preservers of modernist heritage.

A contemporary reproduction of a Chandigarh chair produced by a local carpenter in Mumbai. Photo by Gayatri Vijayan.

This ability to monetise preservation within a narrative of design heritage benevolence, while at the same time removing items identified as valuable from India, has historically provided, and still provides, a role for foreign buyers, auction houses and dealers that positions them as conservators and design benefactors. Colonial officers in the early twentieth century lamented the destruction of traditional craft in India, while simultaneously positioning themselves as preservers of ancient traditions and patrons of the arts, organising grand and commercially focused exhibitions in India and abroad.

The urgency of design heritage ‘disappearing’ is palpable in the laments of these 19th and early 20th-century British design enthusiasts, and while some did point out the role Britain played in this narrative of destruction, most were content to see important objects of design preserved in London’s museums, seeking out further exemplars of Indian design for their collections at the likes of Paris auction houses.

This impulse for colonial discovery in far-away lands, encapsulated by the title of the first dealers’ book on Chandigarh – The Indian Adventure – demonstrates that India continues to be, ‘a playground for preservationist fantasies’. Likening the Chandigarh project to their previous endeavors, the dealers invoke both a necessary sense of loss and the potential to revive that is at the heart of revival: their role, they suggest, was to ‘save from destruction’ that which was ‘rotting away in indifference’.

The mid-century modernist revival, and the trajectory of Chandigarh’s furniture alongside this, shows us the ways in which this dependency opens up roles rooted in histories of preservation and white saviorism. Where one can establish loss, underappreciation, indifference, and destruction, there is potential to play the saviour, preserver, conservator, and benevolent connoisseur. This is a positive position to be in when you otherwise stand to make huge amounts of money from the extraction of what the same people regard as valuable heritage objects in their country of origin.

A criticality towards narratives of revival is therefore deeply important: who is creating these narratives, where and what are they supposedly saving, what are the mechanisms of their work, and who does it serve?

NGEF, 2016. Photography by Nia Thandapani

I have friends who did not like the NGEF items, who did not ‘see’ mid-century modern objects, or a modern utilitarian aesthetic. Instead, they associated these objects with the Indian government, and the familiar, still-present aesthetics of grandparents and ancestral homes, more old-fashioned than old. To put these objects in their domestic spaces seemed incongruous with the purpose of these spaces for leisure and comfort. I often think about these comments and the connections to actual use they point towards.

As we buy into the revival that has encouraged a renewed taste for modernist aesthetics, we often use industrial and utilitarian metaphorically, disconnected from the realities and history of industry and utility that link our ownership of these objects to their actual provenance: their previous owners and users. Our ability to make invisible, ‘to not see’ use, is hugely problematic. The invisibility of use in the narrative of Chandigarh’s chair—be that as a chair to sit on, or raw material for reuse—has created overwhelming space for a popular narrative that rests on the hierarchy of taste and appreciation for modernist aesthetics, and an inflated narrative of one man’s modernist vision.

This essay is part of the Chandigarh Chairs research project, conducted by Petra Seitz, Gregor Wittrick and Nia Thandapani.

About the author

Nia Thandapani is a design historian and graphic designer based in Bangalore. Her research interests include late 19th century to mid 20th century South Asian design, with a focus on book and furniture objects. 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.

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