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Interview with Charlotte Perriand

From the archive: Charlotte Ellis and Martin Meade’s interview with Charlotte Perriand on her long and illustrious career from the AR’s November 1984 issue

AR: You were trained at the Ecole de I’Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs from 1920 to 1925-was it a useful training?

CP: It was a training in the decorative arts in the fullest sense, including the pejorative. The good thing about it was that the Director, Rapin, was himself a practising interior designer, not a theoretician; the training he gave us was practical. Without it, I don’t think I would have been capable of what I was able to do later, even though I changed my outlook. There was an independent course too, on Saturdays as far as I remember, run by Paul Follot, the director of Le Printemps, and Maurice Dufrene, director of the Galeries Lafayette. Dufrene had a particularly good technique, He would correct the projects he had set us collectively and then set us the next-these projects were often for things he actually needed at the Galeries Lafayette. Sometimes he would get the store to buy the best of the projects we had done and put them into production; so he put us in contact with practical matters.

Rapin didn’t do things in quite the same way - he didn’t have a department store - but he made us go in for the competitions held by ‘Art et Industrie’ (a trade journal). These were always on a set theme and the winning designs were made in prototype form; some were even bought and put into production by manufacturers. We certainly didn’t spend all our time tracing lines on paper. In my last year, I exhibited in the Paris Exhibition of 1925, under the name of the school; a number of projects had been set by the school and the best were chosen for the exhibition. Mine was for mural panels showing the nine muses, for a music room. It was chosen, quite simply, because I had been attending life classes at the Grande Ohaumiere - I did anything I could to widen my experience.

Chair

Charlotte Perriand reclining on the 1929 prototype of the Le Corbusier-Jeanneret-Perriand ‘chaise longue’

AR: After that, you worked on your own - but you wanted to work with Le Corbusier; you joined his atelier in 1927…

CP: What a lot I learned at Le Corbusier’s principally through contact with architecture. The atelier attracted students from all over the world-not just to do architecture; they were people who wanted to rebuild their epoch. But it wasn’t just the atelier I found there, nor was it only Le Corbusier - it was Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, and that is crucial. Corbu was the symbol, he had his ideology, he acted as a catalyst - but Pierre Jeanneret spent all his time at his drawing board, from morning to night. He drew out everything very precisely, in great detail - he drew like Aalto. So there were the two of them; they were complementary. Corbu was the publicist, of course, but Jeanneret was his shadow.

AR: What was your role at the atelier?

CP: I think the reason Le Corbusier took me on was because he thought I could carry through ideas; I was familiar with current technology, I knew how to use it and, what is more, I had ideas about the uses it could be put to. Le Corbusier had no time for what he called ‘le blah blah blah’; he detested it. So when I arrived, he set me to work straight away on his theme of casiers (storage systems), metal chairs and tables-the ideas he had published in his books, in the review ‘L’Esprit Nouveau’ and which he had shown in his L ‘Esprit Nouveau pavilion (at the 1925 Paris exhibition).

AR: So you made a significant contribution to the furniture and fittings designed by the atelier from the very start?

CP: From 1927 to 1937, I was responsible for everything concerning ‘l’equipement’ (furniture and fitting out) at Le Corbusier’s - here is a certificate to that effect from him. Le Corbusier always interested himself in the ‘why’ of things - the different ways of sitting, what sort of chairs we need, what pose they should cater for. His contributions to the 1929 chaise longue were sketches showing the position of a person lying with feet in the air - the relaxed pose one takes with ones feet up, as if against the trunk of a tree. For the arm-chair, he did drawings of how one flops into a chair; then he defined other physiological positions - those sketches led to the making of the arm-chair. It appears that a chair acts as a prop for the person sitting in it, whereas the customary sitting position in the Far East - on the floor - keeps the spine naturally straight.

PerriandDesk

Desk designed by Charlotte Perriand in 1938 for Jean-Richard Bloch, the editor of the newspaper Ce Soir

AR: How did the 1929 furniture come to be put into production?

CP: We made all the prototypes ourselves - that was my job. We tried them out first at the Villa Laroche and at the Maison Church (Ville d’Avray). We had no money for our exhibition at the 1929 Salon d ‘A utomne, so we tried to find an ‘editeur’ for the furniture designs.

Thonet undertook that role and thereby covered the exhibition costs. He took our prototypes after the exhibition and manufactured from them on a small scale, but as they were never put into mass production, our chairs were always relatively expensive. We got him to make a prototype of the chaise longue in bentwood, which seemed more appropriate to his production methods, but he never manufactured it.

AR: Your name seems to have faded from the credits for the 1929 chairs…

CP: I couldn’t care less - why did it happen? It is simple - Madame Weber knew Le Corbusier, she was a great admirer of his painting and sculpture and she set up the Corbusier museum in Switzerland. She wanted to produce a new edition of the 1929 chairs and it was she who arranged the new edition with Cassina. From a commercial point of view, the name ‘Le Corbusier’ sings - three names don’t have the same resonance - but the labels on the Cassina edition do say ‘Creation 1929, Le Corbusier - Jeanneret-Perriand ‘.

Changes have been made - the 1929 edition had feathers for stuffing - the Cassina edition has foam - but in all important respects, the Cassina edition is identical to the 1929 edition. I still retain control of the designs, through the Corbusier Foundation.

AR: Much later, in 1941 during your stay in Japan, you made a version of the chaise longue in bamboo…

CP: That was something quite different; it was something I wanted to do in Japan, using local materials. The characteristic of bamboo is its elasticity - there is a wide range of things that can be done with it. What it allowed me to do was to show that materials can be changed while still creating the same forms to meet the same needs. Above all, it allowed me to demonstrate to the Japanese that bamboo could be used in Occidental forms - at that time, everything in Japan was entirely Japanese. For them, this was an entirely Western application of a very familiar material.

AR: In the late ’20s, you took a very strong position on materials-notably favouring metal…

CP: When I started out, I was working for myself; I could work in the abstract, I had no client and was not working for anybody else. At that time, there were things around which had nothing to do with what was being produced by the furniture trade - things that gleamed, cars that gleamed. They may have had nothing to do with furniture as it was then conceived, but they were of the period, of its image. Naturally, I made myself a necklace of ball-bearings, a cocktail bar in sheet aluminium with chairs of chrome tube, an extendable table with a rubber top - everything but what was being produced by the furniture trade. I was not interested in timber, I was ill at ease with it, it didn’t fit my ethic which was concerned with mechanical objects.

Stack

Stacking tables, by Charlotte Perriand and made in Jean Prouvé’s Maxeville workshops

Our contribution to the 1929 Salon d’Automne received a lot of publicity and I was interviewed by, among others, the English publication ‘The Studio’. Of course, I promoted metal; I explained its qualities - its blueishness, its potential for perfect triangulated jointing, the escape it offered from complicated joinery and fussiness, how it could give a clear, neat structure. I contrasted it with timber, which perishes, expands, contracts, dries out…and I said we should forget about timber and use metal, marble and glass instead.

AR: But you abandoned this position?

CP: Yes, I learnt that there are no unuseable materials - what matters is how they are used. In parallel with my Parisian life, I often went to the mountains - I still do. During the move to the summer pastures, I saw shepherds make small seats from odd bits of wood, anything that came to hand. And I appropriate to their environment, the ecology, their economy and it meets their needs. The value was obvious, I could not go on dismissing it. Then, when I was working on the Brussels World Fair for 1935 I saw some chairs for sale in the Boulevard St Germain - they had been made by prisoners out of wood and straw, without using any machinery. In that sense the craftsmanship was very primitive - the chairs had been made with sensitivity by men. The arms were carefully shaped with pruning knives.

Those chairs were of a quality - and a price - that could never have been produced by a factory. They were very cheap; it was exploitation - but it was possible to use straw in that context. So I did an armchair using wood and straw - and when Fernand Leger needed a comfortable armchair and came round to choose one, that is the one he took. Eventually, it was manufactured - it never went into full industrial production. But the process changed and impoverished the design so much it didn’t seem worth pursuing.

AR: You were involved with the formation of the Union des Artistes Moderne…

CP: It all started at the Salon des Artistes Decorateurs in 1928 - I was to show my dining room with the extendable table and I already knew Jean Fouquet, Francis Jourdain, Rene Herbst, Jean Puiforcat and Jean Prouve, who were all taking part. We decided to ask the committee to display all our exhibits in one area, instead of dotting them about. We were showing as individuals, but we made the selection as a group. The result was that our work got noticed, it created a little nugget completely different to everything else in the Salon. The journalists didn’t help matters by pointing out the contrast - as you can imagine, that did not please the committee.

The next year, we wanted more space-we wanted others to be included in the group and, with Le Corbusier, we wanted to show the complete fitting out of a dwelling. The committee refused-they said we would be creating a salon within a salon. I resigned from the Décorateurs and exhibited with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret at the 1929 Salon d’Automne instead - and the group went on meeting. We decided to bring everything together architecture, ‘equipement’ (furniture and fitting out), jewellery, fabrics-designers of all sorts-and that is how the UAM started. We exhibited for the first time as a group at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 1930. At the time articles were written, negative and positive, that underlined this parting of the ways with the establishment - but it made no difference to us; our objectives were already set.

AR: What became of the UAM?

CP: The UAM produced Formes Utiles after the war. There was liaison between the UAM and ClAM from the start and, in 1937, we wanted to work together onLe Corbusier’s programme for a Unite d’Habitation on the Bastion Kellerman for the 1937 Paris exhibition. In the end, Le Corbusier was not included in the official exhibition and he would not have exhibited at all if it had not been for the Ministry of Agriculture, which gave him a site for his Temps Nouveau pavilion at Porte Maillot. That was outside the exhibition area, next to the Agriculture pavilion which I did with Leger.

Even so, Le Corbusier had no budget, he only had enough money for the tent structure and nothing for the interior. We got together to see what we could do and I found a way of getting grant money. There were funds for individual artists who wanted to exhibit, provided they were grouped together in a pavilion. So we presented ourselves as a group, a fiction to get round the system-and we passed on the grant we were given in common to Le Corbusier to finance the interior of the Esprit Nouveau pavilion.

AR: After that, you were invited to make an official tour of Japan, to demonstrate Western techniques…

CP: Yes, I can show you the programme - I was taken all over the country; as you can see, the Japanese were highly organised, even then. I left for Japan in 1940 and was there until 1943 - then I was in Indo-China until 1946, where I created with my own flesh.

Kitchen

Petrol workers’ living-kitchen-dining room in the Sahara house, designed by Jean Prouvé, Lagneau Weill and Kowasky with furniture and fittings by Charlotte Perriand, as exhibited at the Salon des Arts Menagers in 1958

AR: Did you work with Le Corbusier again when you came back to France after the war?

CP: It was very different; neither Pierre Jeanneret nor I could get used to it - we had been used to paradise. By then, it was no longer an atelier - Corbu had his office in the rue de Sevres where the design was done, the realisation was handled elsewhere by engineers. My sole contribution to the Marseilles Unité was the first prototype kitchen. You could say it was a sort of continuity. Le Corbusier had wanted to do a Unite in 1937 - but he had a new team and Jeanneret wasn’t there any more.

Pierre Jeanneret got together with Corbu again at Chandigarh - but to begin with he didn’t want to go. Corbu couldn’t understand it - he telephoned me: ‘What is wrong with the so-and-so - we are the same family, he will have peace, all the architecture he wants, he can work exactly how he pleases - why doesn’t he want to go?’ In the end, of course, he went. They stayed together after that until Corbu’s death; Jeanneret died two years later.

AR: Did you continue your involvement with the UAM after the war?

CP: The UAM didn’t have the same impact after the war, and Formes Utiles was set up - it started because we wanted to carry out the idea put forward in 1937 by Francis Jourdain of holding a Bazaar, a selection of everything good produced by industry - we did it in 1949 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and it got a lot of publicity. There was a series of separate sections and, at the end, a whole gallery where there was a marriage of everything, paintings by Leger, tapestries by Le Corbusier, a mobile by Calder…a whole group of references to modernity. But that was just a one-off exhibition in a museum. We wanted it to be a regular event in a commercial setting.

In the end, the Breton brothers gave us a stand at the Arts Ménages - that is a major annual exhibition covering everything to do with the home, and it reaches a wide audience. There was a different theme for the Formes Utiles stand every year. It was good because it reached such a wide public and was done in association with manufacturers, but the trouble was that even the Formes Utiles stand was judged in terms of the quality of individual design objects and the sense of integration with architecture disappeared.

AR: You worked on your own account, of course…

CP: I did some work for Air France - and a whole programme of research for ‘Techniques et Architecture’; that formed the basis of my special issue, ‘L’Art d’Habiter’, published in 1950. But I was not based permanently in France by any means after the war; I went back to Japan and visited Brazil.

AR: About this time you did some work in England…

CP: That was in the early ’60s - I did the fitting out for Air France in Bond Street and, with Erno Goldfinger, the SNCF French tourist office premises in Piccadilly.

AR: Both have been changed out of all recognition.

CP: Shopfitting is ephemeral by its nature; I know things have to change, but what they have done with the Air France interior is a step backwards - it no longer represents ‘Air France and the point of progress’, their slogan at the time. Luckily, I have my photographs…The coloured glass I used there was of a superb quality, but I don’t suppose anybody took the trouble to save any of it.

AR: Meanwhile in France, you were working with Jean Prouvé…

CP: When I came back after the war, I often visited Jean Prouvé’s workshops at Maxeville. We worked on a number of projects together. Prouvé and I exhibited regularly at the Galerie Steph Simon between 1955-74. During that period, the gallery had exclusive rights over our designs - we showed editions we had made together and I made selections of work by others, I introduced work from Japan, for instance. We were aiming to show new ideas, work which met needs. The exhibitions made a great impact with architects and with the public - although they never really solved the dilemma of putting designs into large-scale production; from that point of view, I suppose they were marginal. But they had an image quite distinct from the ordinary furniture trade.

AR: The question of production must have been all the more difficult to solve after Jean Prouvé’s workshops were taken over by French Aluminium in the mid-’50s.

Chairs

Extendable table and swivel chairs designed by Charlotte Perriand and exhibited at the 1928 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, shown here at her home in hte same year

CP: For him, that was horrific - you can’t imagine. He lost his real work. When he became a consultant, he felt himself pushed aside. He was infuriated beyond words to be thought of only as someone who knew about curtain walling - that isn’t what he was at all. Jean Prouvé was a man who knew the production process through and through - he learnt it as a craftsman when he was younger and it was the tool of his trade; he used it with the greatest precision. I once asked him why he used sheet metal rather than metal tube and he said it was much more economic; he could calculate the exact amount of stiffening necessary and provide precisely what was needed. There is an enormous difference between ‘designers’ who work at a drawing board - in offices or at home - and people like Jean Prouvé. As soon as he had an idea, he would make it a reality.

He died before his time, for that is how the creative process should be. Intellectualisation may be all very well, but if it sets up barriers between conception and realisation, it cannot be the way forward. Jean Prouve was a great friend; I should have liked to have talked to him for two or three days, to reconsider the first four-fifths of our century, to ask him where we have got to today. These are questions I should have been asking myself at the same time, but we could have approached them as a dialogue. We had worked together, we had followed the same path-but now he has gone. It is a terrible loss for me. I am left to face myself; now I can hardly bear to ask the questions I wanted to discuss with him.

AR: It certainly seems that many of the hopes of the immediate post-war period have been dashed.

CP: That is one of the things I should dearly have liked to discuss with Jean Prouvé. Today, we are reaching a point of rupture with large-scale industrialisation, but we are not yet aware of the implications. After the war, we entered a period of gigantism- it is coming to an end, but we are still stuck with its habits and its ways of thought. My generation thought it was restructuring a period for mechanisation once and for all, but technical change has accelerated to a rate we never envisaged. I think our aproach was right - the situation must be reassessed again, from scratch, using the same approach.

Desk

Desk designed by Charlotte Perriand in 1938

AR: And now there is to be a major retrospective exhibition of your work, an exhibition you have designed yourself.

CP: I can’t tell you how much this exhibition has got me down. It has made me go backwards when I want to go forwards, it brings out things I left behind long ago, it makes me introspective when that is not how I am, it makes me uncomfortable…and to make matters worse, it is dragging on. It was supposed to open in October, now it has been postponed until January - it takes up so much of my time.

AR: How would you have preferred to have spent the time taken by the exhibition?

CP: Very differently - perhaps I could have looked very closely at the needs of the present and the future, using the same methods and techniques as I used for ‘L ‘Art d ‘Habiter ‘. Or I might have plunged into the question of leisure in China - I was there in December; that was something I was drawn into when I got back from the mountains last winter. The discussions I had with architects and engineers in China renewed my desire to make things happen on a human scale. I have been working in the context of leisure over here since 1962, and I am in favour of leisure centres planned on a reasonable scale -but not with the destruction of nature reserves by a useless and harmful mass approach; vast car parks at the entrances, enormous housing developments and the provision of access roads to every site of natural interest, bringing crowds, sanitary problems and out-of-scale facilities, to say nothing of the loss of the very qualities people have come to enjoy. These are good intentions misdirected. We have been overtaken by the evolution of the machine but, as yet, we have not devised ways of dealing with the changes that are taking place - the questions are not being posed, not even in architecture where current preoccupations are with form, not need.

AR: Recently you presided over the jury in a French government-run international competition for office furniture design - where do the results of that competition fit in with what you are saying?

CP: They were of the twentieth century; I am talking about the twenty-first century. I think we can anticipate a return to a more primitive form of craftsmanship-not in the sense of going back to the techniques of the past, but a return to much smaller scales of operation, making use of all the potential offered by present and future technology. There may still be a need for manufacture on a large scale to meet some needs, but more and more will be produced by individuals, by artisans. The impact on creativity could be enormous, each individual could diversify. It is obvious that there will be great upheavals - we must prepare for them, programmes of retraining must be planned. If we continue to patch things up as we go along, there will be a catastrophe. If I said I was swimming in happiness today, it would be far from the truth. I have swum in happiness, but I am not swimming in it any longer. But I am ready to begin the reassessment process all over again.

Charlotte Perriand

1903 - 1999

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