Inspired by Art Deco, the machine aesthetic, organicism, biomorphism, Art Brut and industrial prefabrication, French architect and furniture designer Charlotte Perriand deeply believed that good design should be fundamentally transformative and accessible to all
Source: Emily Forgot
She is forever draped across that chaise longue, her loose pleated skirt arranged just so, her bare arms and bobbed hair signifying a radical new modernity and femininity. She enjoyed topless callisthenics in the Alps. She once went to a party as a tube of paint while a student at the Paris Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs. She outlived Le Corbusier, had an affair with Pierre Jeanneret, hung out with Fernand Léger, and collaborated with Jean Prouvé. She was both a Communist and a Japanophile. She trained as an architect, but became famous for her furniture and interiors, while proselytising about how good design should be fundamentally transformative and accessible to all. Her oeuvre encompassed Art Deco, the machine aesthetic, organicism, biomorphism, Art Brut and industrial prefabrication. She spanned the 20th century, born three years into it and dying as it ran its course in 1999.
‘Corb’s dismissive, “We don’t embroider cushions here”, lives on in the unwritten history of condescension’
The life and opinions of Charlotte Perriand would easily translate into an art-house biopic, perhaps with Léa Seydoux as young Charlotte, famously rebuffed by Corb when she fetched up at his atelier in 1927. His dismissive, ‘We don’t embroider cushions here’, lives on in the unwritten history of condescension. Isabelle Huppert might play old Charlotte, imperiously flicking through her scrapbooks of memories. A film adaptation of Une Vie de Création, Perriand’s autobiography written when she was in her 90s, certainly couldn’t be any more toe-curling than The Price of Desire, a recent soft focus epic about Eileen Gray, with whom Perriand is often compared. Yet while Gray condemned the reductivism of the Modern Movement, Perriand embraced its rhetoric. And while both women were sucked into Le Corbusier’s predatory orbit, Perriand managed to reach escape velocity through charm, tenacity and an unerring eye for the shock of the new.
Bar Sous Le Toit
Once Corb had visited the 1927 Salon d’Automne and seen Perriand’s Bar Sous Le Toit, her famous first paean to the joys of chromed tubular steel, she was in. Wrapping newspaper around her legs to stave off the cold, she joined an international coterie in the Rue de Sèvres, who included two Japanese, Kunio Maekawa and Junzo Sakakura, the Swiss architect Alfred Roth, and Pierre Jeanneret, Corb’s cousin and incipient Perriand paramour. No one was paid, at least not regularly, and Perriand continued to work independently, while also receiving support from her first husband, Percy Scholefield, a wealthy, older Englishman. He also funded her private architecture lessons with Roth. By 1930 she had parted company with Scholefield and was living in a garret in Montparnasse. Much given to fresh air and exercise, she performed gymnastics on the rooftops, reached by crawling through her lavatory window.
‘I think the reason Le Corbusier took me on was because he thought I could carry through ideas’, she told the AR in a 1984 interview. ‘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.’ Tasked with designing l’equipement (furniture and fittings), a subject for which Corb had little appetite, she devised prototypes based on his sketch analysis of ‘seven states of sitting’, including two armchairs and the famous chaise longue. ‘Ils sont coquets’, was her employer’s approving reaction.
Charlotte Perriand in the B306 chaise longue
With a serpentine leather couch balanced lightly in a tubular steel frame, the chaise longue was derived from precedents such as bentwood lounge chairs and adjustable seats for invalids. More to the point, it is a modern appropriation of an 18th-century duchesse (a kind of fainting couch or daybed). Despite its obviously feminine and erotic overtones, Le Corbusier insisted on seeing it as mechanistic and masculine: ‘We have built it with bicycle frame tubes and we covered it with a magnificent pony skin’, he asserted. ‘It is so light that it can be pushed with the foot, it can be moved by a child. I thought of the cowboy from the Wild West, smoking his pipe, his feet in the air higher than his head, against the chimneypiece: complete rest’. However it was Perriand, a more languidly elegant cowgirl, who was to become synonymous with its supple, suggestive allure.
‘While Gray condemned the reductivism of the Modern Movement, Perriand embraced its rhetoric’
Initially regarded as an ‘impoverished’ form of design, that chaise longue, like the Eames recliner, has become visual shorthand for a certain sort of tasteful trophy furniture strewn around the gracious living rooms of those who can afford it. Over the decades, Perriand’s creations have entered a rarefied sphere of consumption, yet for her, commodification was anathema. As she became increasingly radicalised during the ’30s, in response to the decade’s attendant political and economic crises, her conception of design sought to be more overtly egalitarian and populist. She developed cheaper lines of mass-produced furniture, and actively critiqued and campaigned against what she saw as the shortcomings of contemporary architecture in its arcane detachment from social need.
Charlotte Perriand’s prototypical design for a mountain shelter
Source: Charlotte Perriand Archives
Air France travel bureau, London
Source: RIBA Collections
B306 chaise longue, 1928
Modular kitchen for the Marseille Unité, 1952
Collaboration with Jean Prouvé on modular furniture systems, 1950s Interiors of Les Arcs ski resort, Savoie, France, 1962-67
French Railways office, London, with Ernö Goldfinger, 1963
Japanese tea house for the UNESCO garden in Paris, 1993
‘The extension of the art of dwelling is the art of living’
Though not sophisticated philosophically, or even very well read, Perriand shared Lefebvre’s humanist, Marxist vision of equality synthesised with the capacity for creation and pleasure. She strove to devise spaces, objects and processes that went beyond bourgeois self-fulfilment or self-fashioning to activate a genuine transformation of daily existence. Yet inevitably, in a long career conducted over a backdrop of profound and often visceral social and political upheaval, there were tensions and contradictions in how this might be achieved.
Her preoccupation with the ‘art of living’ – what she came to describe as l’art de vivre – was intrinsically related to her sensibility and experience as a woman, despite her own reservations about making and articulating such a connection. When she first burst on the scene, Perriand’s sportif silhouette reflected wider structural changes, in which a more relaxed form of female dress and comportment became synonymous with social progress. As Art et Décoration noted in 1927, ‘Women, for psychological reasons, are by nature in love with the new, while men in general grimace at change and impede as much as they can variations in fashions’. Corb put it more explicitly in ‘The Furniture Adventure’, a lecture delivered in Buenos Aires in 1929. ‘Woman has got there before us’, he opined. ‘She has brought about reform of her dress. She has cut off her hair and her skirts and her sleeves. She goes around bare-headed, bare-armed, with her legs free, and she can dress in five minutes. Moreover, she is beautiful; she enchants us with the grace of her figure …’
Despite such scarcely concealed yearning, at a professional level, the relationship between Corb and Perriand was one of mutual intellectual exchange. He introduced her to the ideas of standardisation and generic solutions, while she inculcated in him a deeper understanding of how these concepts could be applied to the home and be emblematic of new ways of living. The modular kitchen she went on to design for the Marseille Unité remains a domestic tour-de-force. The pair also enjoyed winding up the Bauhaus Functionalists, exhibiting their seminal chaise longue at the 1931 Internationale Raumausstellung in Cologne on a tastelessly garish carpet of fake leopard skins, in what Perriand mischievously described as ‘un tapis-manifeste’.
Perriand’s modular kitchen units designed for Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation
Perriand left the Rue de Sèvres in 1937 and, as war in Europe broke out, was offered a contract with the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry. Jumping on the Hakusan Maru, one of the last ships to leave France before the Nazis arrived, she steamed out of Marseille for Tokyo in June 1940. Her brief was to advise the government on which Japanese copies of Western products would play best for export. Instead, she became besotted with Japanese aesthetics and design culture, an affair ignited by Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, which she first read on the advice of her Corbusian confrère Junzo Sakakura. This attraction underscored much of her postwar work, and culminated in the design of a Japanese tea house for the Unesco garden in Paris when she was 90.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor scuppered her plans to return to France via the US, and in 1942 she was repatriated to Vietnam. While there she married her second husband, Jacques Martin, gave birth to their daughter Pernette and endured American bombings, Viet Minh raids and Japanese repression. Despite her Communist sympathies, she remained surprisingly uncritical of Japanese imperialism, making no reference to it in either her contemporary writings or subsequent autobiography.
Mexique cabinet, 1953
Source: ukartpics / Alamy
French Railways office, London, 1963
Source: Architectural Press / RIBA Collections
In the France of the ’50s and ’60s, riven by Fordist consumption, the collapse of Communist ideals, social unrest and the post-colonial crisis of Algeria, Perriand’s cherished notion of ‘l’art de vivre’ came under assault. Within this ferment, she judged it time for a more pragmatic engagement with industrial production and the commercial market. Aiming to overcome the impasse caused by Modernism’s repeated failure to get prototypes beyond the atelier and into the factory, she collaborated with Jean Prouvé on a series of modular furniture systems. She also worked on the interiors of French ski resorts and tourist offices, including a headquarters for French Railways in London’s Piccadilly with Ernö Goldfinger. Lamentably, in a depressing indictment of Anglo-Saxon attitudes, her elegantly arcaded shopfront has since been obliterated to accommodate an outlet for Cath Kidston, Britain’s middlebrow queen of nauseous chintz tat.
While contending with the dispassionate demands of the market, Perriand was perpetually drawn to nature and the outdoor life, swimming, hiking and pottering around Normandy beaches with Pierre Jeanneret, looking for comely pebbles and flotsam with which to make Art Brut. Her photographic tableaux of objets trouvés have the potency of abstraction, yet unlike Breton and the Surrealists, she conjures up a world without imaginative overlay or ‘disturbing strangeness’, revealing nothing beyond the essential structural and plastic conception of nature. However, her relaxed affinity for the discarded or ordinary challenged fine art perfectionism, and by approaching everything as a creative endeavour, she connected art to the minutiae of everyday life, rather like the Eameses went on to do with photographs of their breakfast grapefruits.
Bûches de Robinier, 1933
Source: Charlotte Perriand Archives
Perriand’s chalet in Meribel,1960
Source: Lucien Hervé / Artmedia/VIEW
As part of her 1934 project for a low-budget weekend house, she suggested that future residents make ‘private museums’ filled with ‘natural sculptures’ on their terraces – plants, bricolage, etc. ‘It is a direct means of self-expression’, she wrote in a slightly evangelical tone. And though she was not the first or last to do so, she was also apt to romanticise the lives of the French peasantry in their apparently simple, rustic fulfilment. She was especially fond of Alpine Savoie, yomping around its peaks and communing with locals, and the house she designed for herself there in 1960 is perhaps her most poetic and astute foray into a transplanted Japanese l’art de vivre.
‘The house she designed for herself in the Alps is perhaps her most poetic and astute foray into a transplanted Japanese l’art de vivre’
When Perriand first made inroads into the male-dominated milieu of design, ‘charmante’ was the throwaway epithet regularly employed by critics and commentators. But from that initial encounter with Corb, she was clearly more than that, cultivating a certain steeliness beneath the perpetually poised exterior. Portraits of Perriand in old age show a cackling high priestess in the manner of Louise Bourgeois, moving seamlessly into the untouchable realm of national treasure. But who could begrudge her? Over time, she held her nerve and held her own within a diverse retinue of collaborators, suitors and co-conspirators, somehow always managing to make space for herself.
Charlotte perriand janvier 1991
This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to get a copy.