How Modernist Heroine Charlotte Perriand Trailblazed 20th Century Living

Series of tubular steel furniture with manufacturing plans designed by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand (Centre Pompidou, Paris National Museum of Modern Art – Centre for Industrial Creation and Vitra Design Museum). Image courtesy of Design Museum.
Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand, Un equipement int rieur d’une habitation (Equipment for a dwelling), presented at the Salon d’Automne, 1929. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021 / © AChP. Image courtesy of Design Museum.
Charlotte Perriand, colour studies of various versions of the Fauteuil grand confort for the Villa Church, 1928. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021 / © AChP. Image courtesy of Design Museum.
Proposition d’une synth se des arts (Proposal for a Synthesis of the Arts), Takashimaya department store, Nihonbashi, Tokyo, 1955. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021 / © AChP. Image courtesy of Design Museum.
Chaise longue basculante (Adjustable reclining chair), 1928 in the Salon d’Automne room recreation LC4 chaise-longue by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand – Cassina I Maestri Collection. Image courtesy of Design Museum.
Place Saint-Sulpice apartment-studio room recreation with the Table extensible (Extendable table), 1927 (Centre Pompidou, Paris National Museum of Modern Art – Centre for Industrial Creation) and the Fauteuil pivotants (Swivel chairs), 1927 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London and Cassina)
LC7 swivel armchairs by Charlotte Perriand, integrated in the LC Collection by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand – Cassina I Maestri Collection. Image courtesy of Design Museum.
Double chaise longue, 1952 Charlotte Perriand (Cassina) with two Akari (light) pendant lamps, c.1958, Isamu Noguchi and them Nuage (Cloud) bookshelf, Steph Simon edition, c.1958, Charlotte Perriand (both Galerie Laffanour- Downtown, Paris). Double chaise-longue by Charlotte Perriand – reconstruction by Cassina. Image courtesy of Design Museum.
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A retrospective at London’s Design Museum puts a spotlight on French architect and designer Charlotte Perriand and her seven-decade career. From her debut with metallic furniture and futuristic interiors in 1928, her work evolved over the years to bridge the gaps between the machine aesthetic and organic forms and materials, and between the West’s determined modernist agenda and the work of artisans across cultures.

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of Design Museum

Series of tubular steel furniture with manufacturing plans designed by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand (Centre Pompidou, Paris National Museum of Modern Art – Centre for Industrial Creation and Vitra Design Museum). Image courtesy of Design Museum.

 

“We don’t embroider cushions here,” said the greatest avant-garde architect of his time, Le Corbusier. This brush-off in 1927 was to Charlotte Perriand when she applied to join his practice. That kind of endemic sexism is probably why not everyone will have heard of her, yet Perrinand is one of the great designers of the 20th century. Perriand pioneered metal tubular furniture, promoted modular and industrial design, yet also connected with nature and embraced Japanese craftsmanship, thus subverting the prevailing Western agenda to create a new utopian world for the “modern man” that dismissed design rooted in local culture and tradition. Her late work was realised high in the French mountains, in the form of a stunning architectural tour-de-force.

The story of modernist design has been a narrative written by men about men, but now that we’re re-appraising that story, Perriand is emerging as a giant amongst designers. Le Corbusier, despite his arrogance, also changed his outlook on her. He was so impressed by Perriand’s futuristic, metallic interior design, Bar sous le troit (Bar under the roof), that he invited her back the same year that he had earlier cold-shouldered her, and they collaborated for the decade following. For this exhibition, Design Museum displays replicas of a number of her interior design works, including her Paris loft apartment which included the bar. The retrospective also includes much of her furniture designs, including a copy of the iconic 1928 Chaise longue basculante (Adjustable reclining chair), one of several pieces you can sit on (or in this case lie on) which are brought together in a lounge. She vigorously defended her use of metal in furniture, even writing an article in 1929, titled Wood or Metal, rebutting English critics, in which she proclaimed metal furniture to be a “revolution”. On the other hand, wood is “bound to decay”, she wrote.

 

Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand, Un equipement int rieur d’une habitation (Equipment for a dwelling), presented at the Salon d’Automne, 1929. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021 / © AChP. Image courtesy of Design Museum.
Charlotte Perriand, colour studies of various versions of the Fauteuil grand confort for the Villa Church, 1928. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021 / © AChP. Image courtesy of Design Museum.

 

By this time, she was working with Le Corbusier and his more agreeable cousin Pierre Jeanneret, with whom Perriand became friends. They spent time exploring the beaches of Normandy, France, and she took photographs and collected found objects—some of which are seen in the main room of the exhibition, including washed up lumps of wood. Perriand recognised the beauty of nature and saw beyond modernism’s machine aesthetic. In the 1930s, wood became a material for her furniture, and tables with organic shapes emerged. She also spent time in the mountains, and designed a mountain shelter that she intended to have an absolutely minimal impact on natural surroundings, a concept that was decades ahead of its time.

 

Proposition d’une synth se des arts (Proposal for a Synthesis of the Arts), Takashimaya department store, Nihonbashi, Tokyo, 1955. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021 / © AChP. Image courtesy of Design Museum.

 

An invitation to Japan in 1940 again shifted her perspective. During a two-year stay, she realised the value of minimalist interiors and local craftsmanship. Like an epiphany, Perriand saw that Western ideas should not to be imposed on local cultures, but they could nevertheless be synthesised in interior design. Wall shelving that she saw in an imperial villa in Kyoto would go on to inspire modular wood and metal bookshelves and cabinets for the next two decades, including the Nuage range for Cassini. In 1941 she mounted an exhibition in Tokyo that showed interiors where her furniture co-existed with that of local craftspeople. When she returned to Tokyo in 1955, her second exhibition, “Proposition d’une synthèse des arts (Proposal for a Synthesis of the Arts)”, carried the message that art, architecture and industrial design should work in unison to create the modern home. That show included not just her wooden furniture and storage, but artworks including a big wool tapestry called Les huits (The Eights) created by Le Corbusier in 1951—also on display in Design Museum.

 

Chaise longue basculante (Adjustable reclining chair), 1928 in the Salon d’Automne room recreation LC4 chaise-longue by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand – Cassina I Maestri Collection. Image courtesy of Design Museum.
Place Saint-Sulpice apartment-studio room recreation with the Table extensible (Extendable table), 1927 (Centre Pompidou, Paris National Museum of Modern Art – Centre for Industrial Creation) and the Fauteuil pivotants (Swivel chairs), 1927 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London and Cassina)
LC7 swivel armchairs by Charlotte Perriand, integrated in the LC Collection by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand – Cassina I Maestri Collection. Image courtesy of Design Museum.
Double chaise longue, 1952 Charlotte Perriand (Cassina) with two Akari (light) pendant lamps, c.1958, Isamu Noguchi and them Nuage (Cloud) bookshelf, Steph Simon edition, c.1958, Charlotte Perriand (both Galerie Laffanour- Downtown, Paris). Double chaise-longue by Charlotte Perriand – reconstruction by Cassina. Image courtesy of Design Museum.

 

Back in Europe after World War II, Perriand continued to evangelise collaboration between designers and industrial manufacturers, and also delivered distinctly warm but modernist interior designs in collaborations with great architects. In 1952, she worked with Jean Prouvé, the master of robust, engineering-based architecture, on a Mexican student dormitory in Paris, and with leading brutalist Ernö Goldfinger she created the London offices for Air France in 1957 and French Railways in the 1960s.

Her work from 1967 to 1989 involved designing a French ski resort, Les Arcs. Her furniture and interior design continued, but here it was within her own architecture. And it was on a grand scale. She led teams of young architects on a number of massive holiday apartment blocks, often with dynamic, sculptural shapes. The first was La Cascade (1969), a huge tilting wood-clad structure that follows the slope. Even bigger “reclining buildings”—as Perriand called them—followed, and an entire neighbourhood of modernist wooden chalets. Unfortunately, the Design Museum doesn’t quite convey the surprising power of this architecture, although pictures are projected over a large-scale model mountain in which the buildings light up, but they are dwarfed by the topography. However, we do see her full-scale prefabricated fibreglass bathroom-kitchen unit, designed to be crane-lifted into the buildings and fabricated by shipbuilders.

Perriand died in 1999, by which time her furniture such as the chaise longue and often-colourful storage units were well on their way to recognition as design classics. “The Modern Life” at Design Museum shows that there is much more to her work. She expressed concepts and concerns that distinguish her from the male counterparts of her time, and anticipate today’s agenda—”harmonious balance” for wellbeing, cultural sensitivity, and not least, respect for nature.

 

Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life
19 June–5 September 2021
Design Museum, London

 

 

 
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