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Modernism on the ash heap — and in the auction house


by Jerome Weeks 20 Mar 2008

The New York Times reported in a fascinating story yesterday about a massive, international art theft that wasn’t really art theft at all — it was public neglect. In the ’50s, modernist master architect Le Corbusier helped design the experimental city of Chandigarh in India, 150 miles north of Bombay. Fifty years later, the government […]

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Le Corbusier chair

The New York Times reported in a fascinating story yesterday about a massive, international art theft that wasn’t really art theft at all — it was public neglect. In the ’50s, modernist master architect Le Corbusier helped design the experimental city of Chandigarh in India, 150 miles north of Bombay. Fifty years later, the government officials have unknowingly tossed out hundreds of classic Corbu furniture items, thinking them fit for the junkyard.

Result: A handful of antique dealers from around the world have been visiting Chandigarh’s garbage dumps and government sales to buy up the stocks of disused chairs — and sell them overseas at auction.

It’s not illegal to take the furniture out of the country: India’s laws define antiques as more than 100 years old. The collective oversight reflected the general neglect Corbu’s work had fallen into. Now, city authorities are appealing to UNESCO for World Heritage status to protect the town before it’s completely stripped — by the art dealers and its own people.

Mr. Jeanneret, Corbu’s cousin, took over the design of Chandigarh, and was personally responsible for the ultrafunctional, ultra-sturdy furniture. He was “passionate about creating furniture that echoed the style and ethos of the surrounding buildings.”

“There were no furniture shops, no carpet shops, so the architects designed their own,” said M. N. Sharma, an architect who worked closely with Le Corbusier. “The furniture Jeanneret designed is naturally in the same spirit as the city, in the same school of thought. It is functional, and used locally available material and craftsmen.”

Mr. Jeanneret paid extraordinary attention to detail, designing lampposts, municipal light fixtures, manhole covers, even the pedal-boats in the huge artificial lake at the heart of the city. He designed several versions of the basic chairs, with modifications for more senior bureaucrats, like leather backs and armrests instead of simple cane. Local workshops were commissioned to turn them out, and thousands were made.

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