Amie Siegel

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T Magazine
2 October 2013

A Curious Path to Auction for India's Modernist Furniture
by Carol Kino



The unlikely trajectory of the Modernist furniture designed for Le Corbusier’s utopian Indian city of Chandigarh.

Two years ago, the artist Amie Siegel was looking through an online auction catalog when she happened upon an image of elegant midcentury chairs and tables, and recognized them as the same ones she’d recently seen in a friend’s vacation snapshots from Chandigarh. Only in those photographs, the furniture had been stacked in piles outdoors, left to decay. Siegel did some swift associative Googling and discovered that the junked Indian furniture was a hot auction commodity, coveted by connoisseurs like Larry Gagosian and John Pawson.

Thus began the detective work that resulted in “Provenance,” an art film (one of the five editions will be sold at Christie’s in London on Oct. 19) that traces the furniture’s trade route in reverse — from the grand homes of European and American collectors to down-at-the-heels offices and classrooms throughout Chandigarh.

The first built-from-scratch city in postcolonial India, Chandigarh was conceived and designed in the early 1950s by Le Corbusier, who carefully planned every last detail of his utopian masterwork, from its roads to its legislative assembly. Chandigarh was named the new capital of Punjab, and its municipal buildings were outfitted with teak and rosewood furniture created by Pierre Jeanneret, the architect’s cousin.

However, by the 1980s, Jeanneret’s furniture had become so dilapidated that it was considered virtually worthless, frequently sold as scrap and even chopped up for firewood. Then, several years ago, a few sleekly restored chairs, tables and bookcases started turning up at auction, and were soon commanding six-figure prices. (One table went for $301,000 at Phillips de Pury in New York in 2008.)

Siegel is no stranger to following the fortunes of furniture — her 2003 film “Empathy” explored how the Eames lounge chair became a favorite of psychoanalysts — but pinning down the whereabouts of Chandigarh furniture and persuading very wealthy collectors to let her film it in their homes was more of a challenge.

Still, she filmed in the country house of the London art dealer Stuart Shave and the Long Island home of Robert M. Rubin, the Wall Street trader who restored Modernist icons like Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale and Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre. While she was shooting at the Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen’s home in Antwerp, which boasts a rosewood desk and several cane V-chairs, he described the pieces to Siegel as “strong western Modernistic design with a colonial touch.” For him, the appeal lies as much in the furniture’s story as in the timeless essence of its form.