Watching the furniture restorer tear apart a Pierre Jeanneret chair to nothing more than its wooden skeletal frame, I was left with the question of what is an original design. That this eventually restored chair was auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars as a collector’s item only made it more perplexing.
This hyper-inflation of mid-century modernist furniture is the subject of Amie Siegel’s “Provenance” (2013), a haunting 40-minute film that traces backwards the origins of a series of furniture designed by Swiss architect Jeanneret in the 1950s. Beginning from wealthy, stylish homes in the West where many of these furniture pieces now reside, Siegel takes us through the auction houses, furniture restorers, a cargo ship, and finally ends up in Chandigarh, the Indian city in which Jeanneret first conceived these utilitarian furniture for use in the modernist government buildings by his cousin, Le Corbusier. Amidst the now decaying buildings, we see these much sought after furniture pieces still being used as office furniture or even strewn in corners forgotten as they have been replaced by the generic wares of modern cubicle life.
Siegel’s cinematic journey — lingering tracking shots and without any dialogue — reveals the construction of “value” in such furniture today. Taken out of their original context, restored, glamorously photographed, and finally paraded at auction houses, these pieces of design are bestowed an aura of legitimacy and originality by what has become an industrial performance. Though beautifully shot, the film unveils an ugly truth: what do people really value in these pieces? The distance it has traveled? The restoration efforts? The myth of its origins?
A separate journey to uncover the source of a design by Thomas Thwaites for The Toaster Project (2008), however, travels an entirely different route. The proposal is equally simple: to build a cheap chain-store toaster, costing just £3.49, from scratch — starting from acquiring the necessary raw materials. It turns out be both frustrating and hilarious, and the distance an individual in London has to travel to replicate what has essentially become a global industrial process today shows the hidden gap between a designed product and the world we live in. While Thwaites succeeds in building a barely functioning toaster eventually, it costs him £1187.54 and looks like a complete meltdown — all signs of the unseen external costs and environmental consequences created by the production of cheap consumer products.
Despite the huge disparity in value between Jeanneret’s restored furniture and the chain-store toaster, they are but two endpoints on a continuum of the capitalistic global economy. Both have been designed for profit, but how they attain it differs. While auction houses play on scarcity and the original myth, big-chain stores flood the market with anonymous and cheap products. By traveling to the sources of these products, we open up what is often presented as complete and closed so as to take a critical look at the larger forces that shape and give form to these things we so easily call ‘designed’.