The winter of 1954 was a particularly harsh one in France. Homeless people were dying in the streets. Abbé Pierre, France’s equivalent of Mother Teresa, made an appeal for donations to build emergency housing. Then he went to see Jean Prouvé, who had proven his skill in dire situations by developing small, prefabricated homes for displaced people after the war.
For the clergyman, Prouvé designed the 'Maison des Jours Meilleurs' - a house for better days. A few men equipped with simple tools could build the house in seven hours. It measured 57 square metres, with two bedrooms and a large living area.
A steel cylindrical element painted olive green contained a kitchen on one side and a bathroom on the other, and also held up the central roof beam. Beechwood panels fitted with windows slid around the periphery to make walls. When Le Corbusier saw it, he wrote: 'Jean Prouvé has built the handsomest house I know: the most perfect object for living in, the most sparkling thing ever constructed.' But the government never approved the project, and only five were ever built.
Three years ago, art dealer Patrick Seguin saw that a Maison des Jours Meilleurs was going up for auction in Nancy, Prouvé’s birthplace, and he snapped it up, believing it to be the last one still in existence. The French dealer has pretty much cornered the market on Prouvé architecture, and now owns around 15 modular houses, most of them unique or very rare. He meticulously restores each one before exhibiting it, often alongside archival photos and explanatory films, saying 'The educational aspect is very important to me.' In the past couple of years he has mounted two for display in the Tuileries gardens - the Ferembal office and the Métropole Aluminium house - and he will show the Métropole again in Basel this June.
A team of builders specialising in Prouvé made the trip from Nancy to Paris earlier this month to assemble the Maison des Jours Meilleurs in Seguin’s lofty gallery, where it will stay until the end of September (he plans to show it at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea next spring.) Though the gallery still earns the bulk of its revenue from furniture, Seguin is passionate about the houses - and the lengthy process of reconstructing them. Says the gallerist: 'It’s more exciting than buying a chair on Monday, photographing it Tuesday and selling it on Wednesday.'