The Foundation Louis Vuitton is currently holding an exhibition dedicated to Charlotte Perriand: “a free woman, pioneer of modernity, a leading figure of the XX century design, who contributed to the definition of a new art de vivre.” Marking twenty years since the passing of the architect and designer, the exhibition is a tribute to her lasting and profound legacy. The retrospective links together art, architecture and design, and sheds light on the evolution of women’s roles in these fields, expressing a great degree of relevance of Perriand’s life and work in today’s society. Against the odds, Charlotte Perriand made it to the top, to stand among the great names of modernity. And Paris is once again buzzing with her spirit.
Charlotte Perriand was born into a Parisian working class family in 1903. Showing adept drawing capabilities in her early years, she was encouraged by her mother to enroll in the École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs. There, she studied furniture design. Perriand thrived at the school, with her student projects being selected for numerous exhibitions. In 1927, her career kicked off. For years she was eclipsed by her mentor, Le Corbusier, but eventually the world came to recognize the designer as a central figure of the twentieth century.
A Refusal and a Revelation
The 1927 Salon d’Automne marked the year of Perriand’s debut in the world of design. She exhibited with her design Bar sous le toit (Bar Under the Roof), which espoused the machine aesthetic, clad in aluminium and nickel. Inspired by the writings of Le Corbusier, she broke with the prevalent Art Deco style and embraced the new age. Shortly prior to the exhibition, Perriand had approached Le Corbusier about her possible employment in his studio, to which he infamously replied, “We don’t embroider cushions here”.
Contact between the budding designer and her well-established senior could have ended there, but Perriand was persistent. She invited Le Corbusier to view her work at the Salon, and, extremely impressed with her design, he hired her. The story is often told as a representation of the times Charlotte Perriand lived and worked in, fighting to make herself heard and her work seen. While Le Corbusier’s condescending dismissal would have disheartened a lesser (wo)man, Perriand took him up on his offer and began designing furniture for his studio.
Charlotte Perriand worked for Le Corbusier in the following decade, primarily tasked with designing furniture and interiors of the modern dwelling. During these years, she worked closely with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in developing three key pieces: model B301, the Grand Confort (LC2 and LC3) and Chaise Longue LC4. Designed for conversation, relaxation and sleeping respectively, each of the three pieces reflected the idea of a chair as a “machine for sitting”, and allowed different positions. They were introduced to the public at the Salon d’Automne in 1929 as part of a grander scheme completing his “machines for living” with “Equipment for Living”. It enabled people to inhabit these austere spaces in accordance with modern principles.
At this point, Charlotte Perriand believed in the superiority of metal over wood as a more resistant material which is easily mass produced and upholds better over time. Each of the chairs consists of a leather body resting on a framework of sleek tubular steel. The streamlined designs fully embody the machinist aesthetic and complement Le Corbusier’s vision for the modern home. Perriand’s critical involvement in these designs was overshadowed by Le Corbusier’s name for a long time. After all, his was the greater reputation, and the name on the door. Today, the Italian furniture manufacturer, Cassina, under which the pieces are sold, credits all three designers. This marks a significant step in re-establishing the significance of Perriand’s contribution to studio Le Corbusier and modernism.
Perriand’s Egalitarian Vision
After leaving Le Corbusier’s studio in 1937, she embarked on a journey as an independent designer. Now, her design focus shifted to incorporate a more egalitarian approach. Her newfound leftist beliefs influenced her thoughts on architecture and design. She brought attention to the housing problems and pollution brought on by industrialization in the form of a giant collage titled “The Misery of Paris”. The economic constraints of the time made her realize that “one can work honestly in any material”. She turned to nature as a source of inspiration during this period, even adopting some handcrafted techniques and using them alongside industrial methods. During this time she solidified her views of design as a tool for the transformation of daily existence and sought to create cheaper, mass-produced furniture available to a wider audience.
Not long after parting with Le Corbusier, Perriand began a collaboration with Jean Prouvé, designing several pieces of furniture with him. With the advent of the war, their focus was turned towards designing furniture for temporary housing and military use. After France surrendered, Charlotte Perriand headed for Tokyo where she worked as an official government advisor for industrial design. There, she fell in love with Japanese design and culture. Even though she was there to provide a Western influence for Japanese architects and designers, Eastern culture ended up influencing her work on a primordial level. In 1941, as Japan was about to enter the war, Perriand was forced to leave.
Unable to return to France, she was forced to live out the rest of the war in Vietnam, where she continued to study and incorporate Eastern influences in her designs. Japanese influence is evident in Perriand’s standardized shelving unit. During a visit to one of the imperial Villas Shugakuin, she wrote a simple line: “shelves resting like clouds.” Her shelving unit plays with full volumes and voids, as well as asymmetry dominant in traditional Japanese furniture. Even her famous Chaise Longue of 1928 was reinterpreted in bamboo decades later.
During her lifetime, she frequently revisited Japan, organizing an exhibition titled ‘Synthèse des Arts’, where she presented her new design approach. Her early devotion to metal had been almost eradicated at this point, with the exhibition focusing on traditional materials like wood and bamboo. Perriand’s love affair with Japan continued until the end of her career, culminating with her design of a tea house in 1993 when she was ninety years old.
In 1951, Perriand resumed her work with Prouvé, whom she deeply admired and respected, as well as Le Corbusier and Jeanneret. She designed a prototype kitchen for the famous Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, as well as commercial interiors. New connections, such as with architect Lúcio Kosta, took her to Brazil, where she experimented with local hardwood.
Perriand’s final, and often considered the greatest project, was the ski resort at Les Arcs in Savoie. It was a task of great proportions compared to the intimacy of furniture design. Les Arcs perfectly captured Perriand’s diverse skill set. On a site which was familiar and dear to the designer since childhood, Charlotte Perriand sought to adapt the architecture to the natural surroundings. The resort was positioned and shaped so that it visually impacted the landscape as little as possible, cascading down the natural curve of the mountains. Nature was the main focus of the project: with minimal rooms, guests were encouraged to spend their time outside. Perriand expertly applied her knowledge of prefabrication and standardization in improving the efficiency of the building process. Les Arcs can rightfully be called the climax of her long and successful career.
Charlotte Perriand’s greatness lies in her careful consideration of her immediate environment, whether it be France, Japan or Brazil. Everywhere she went, she sought to challenge her beliefs and ideals. Her ever-changing design philosophy, influenced by her travels and her open-mind kept her a relevant and driving force in the modern world. It was these qualities which made her a visionary.
Besides her ingenuity for design, Perriand often displayed her bold personality to the world. Photographed lying down on a chaise she had designed with her legs in the air and facing away from the camera, she draws attention to her short, bobbed hair and ball-bearing necklace. On another occasion, she was captured standing topless in the Alps, arms raised and back to the camera. She perfectly embodied the transition of society and women from the nineteenth century into the modern age of the twentieth with the way she dressed, thought and worked. She was l’esprit nouveau, the inventor of a new world.