The Chandigarh Chair

This humble-looking wooden chair has become a 20th-century design classic – much revered, reproduced and replicated. But its fascinating origin story is often untold, and its designer, Eulie Chowdury, usually remains uncredited.

You might recognise these simple yet elegant chairs, made from teak and cane – traditional materials which hint at their Indian origins. Today, these chairs are often referred to as 'the Jeanneret chair', named after Pierre Jeanneret, cousin of the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. They have become iconic and desirable design objects, which fetch huge prices at auction in Europe and the USA. But they have become disconnected with Chandigarh, the city in the Punjab region of northern India, where they were first produced in the 1950s by a team of architects, including Eulie Chowdhury, the only Indian woman on Le Corbusier's team.

(left to right): V-leg officer's chair, designed by Eulie Chowdhury, 1950 – 55, Chandigarh, India. Museum no. W.29-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Library chair, designed by Eulie Chowdhury, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, 1950 – 55, Chandigarh, India. Museum no. W.30-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The chairs were manufactured from local materials in workshops surrounding Chandigarh, and installed in buildings across the city. Chandigarh was the first Modernist city in the world. It was created following India's independence from British rule in 1947, when a violent partition divided the subcontinent into Muslim-majority Pakistan and secular India. Having lost the capital city, Lahore, to Pakistan, the newly-sworn-in Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru commissioned the design of a new administrative capital, which would house the thousands of people displaced by the partition.

Relief model showing a plan of Chandigarh, made by Chandigarh College of Architecture after an original by Giani Rattan Singh, 2023, Chandigarh, India. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Nehru wanted Chandigarh to be a city "unfettered by the traditions of the past" and “a model for our glorious future growth of the country”. He engaged the British architect couple Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, impressed by their previous work in West Africa. Fry and Drew enlisted Le Corbusier, who leapt at the chance to build his ideal city from scratch. However, he focussed on the prestigious public buildings in the Capitol Complex, and worked on site for just three months of the year, while his cousin, Jeanneret, worked on the day-to-day construction of the city, with Drew, Fry and a team of Indian architects and designers. Nehru wanted the project to be a 'living school' for a new generation of Indian architects and he stipulated that the Europeans must train local architects on the job, rather than bringing their own staff with them.

Le Corbusier in Chandigarh with the plan of the city and a model of the Modular Man, his universal system of proportion, 1951. © FDL, ADAGP 2014
Portrait of model makers Rattan Singh and Dhani Ram, at work on the model for Capitol Complex, Sector 1, Chandigarh, India, circa 1960. Pierre Jeanneret fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture. Gift of Jacqueline Jeanneret. © CCA

Eulie Chowdhury (1923 – 95), a young Indian architect, joined the team in 1951. She was unusual, not just because she was a woman, but also because she was the daughter of a diplomat and, unlike her colleagues, had spent her youth travelling the world. She went to school in Japan, studied architecture in Sydney and ceramics in New Jersey. She also spoke fluent French and this gave her an instant connection with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret.

Eulie Chowdhury with Pierre Jeanneret and some of the Chandigarh architects, Chandigarh, india, 1960. Photograph courtesy Prabhinder Lall.

Chowdhury helped Le Corbusier to prepare detailed drawings of his major projects on the site – the Capitol Complex, Geometric Hill, Tower of Shadows, and the Martyrs Memorial. She also collaborated with Jeanneret on some of his projects and was in sole charge of the design and construction of the Home Science College, the Women's Polytechnic and several houses for Government Ministers. Chowdhury went on to hold a number of important offices in India including Chief Architect of Chandigarh and Chief Architect of Punjab.

The Government Home Science College at Sector 10, Chandigarh, designed by Eulie Chowdury. Photo by Sarbjit Bahga (CC BY SA 4.0)

As well as these achievements, Chowdhury designed some of the city's wooden furniture – now widely recognised and desirable. The Chandigarh architects carefully considered the wider design of the new city, designing details from street fittings to furniture tailored specifically to each building. Le Corbusier designed furniture for the major buildings, in particular the High Court, including a pair of striking spiral witness stands, or 'accused cabins'. Pierre Jeanneret designed much of the rest but the contribution of the Indian team to the design of furniture at Chandigarh is little documented or recognised. The architect’s office at Chandigarh comprised a lot of people and it is likely that many different architects contributed elements to each design. An edition of Marg Magazine from 1961 explicitly names Chowdhury as the designer of the library chair, though more recently this attribution has been lost or ignored in favour of associating it with Jeanneret.

A witness stand, or 'accused cabin', from the Chandigarh High Court, designed by Le Corbusier, on display in the Tropical Modernism exhibition at V&A South Kensington. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jeanneret's own designs used the dimensions of Le Corbusier’s modular system – a universal system of proportions based on the height of an average French man (initially 1.75 metres and later increased to 1.83 metres), which underpinned much of the planning and detailing of all his projects in Chandigarh. Eulie Chowdhury carefully reconsidered and adapted these proportions to create furniture more suitable for smaller, potentially female statures. Today the chairs are admired for their simple tapered elegance, ergonomic design and strong construction, despite being made from standard bits of timber.

Chandigarh Chairs on display in the Tropical Modernism exhibition at V&A South Kensington. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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