Charlotte Perriand on Chaise Longue

Dons of Design

Charlotte Perriand

We look at the life and work of the French designer and architect, whose career was recently celebrated with a major retrospective at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, marking 20 years since her death.

When assessing Charlotte Perriand’s impact on design, it should be acknowledged that until recently her achievements and influence had largely been overshadowed, or perhaps more accurately stated, partially obscured, by the bombastic, self-aggrandising generation of men she worked with. Indeed, one of her more famous quotes (from her short manifesto entitled “Wood or Metal” published in 1929 while working at Le Corbusier’s studio) specifically concerns itself with the idea of the “new man”. So here, in the 21st century, let’s redress that quote. The “new woman” is “the type of individual,” Perriand wrote, “who keeps pace with scientific thought, who understands her age and lives it: the Aeroplane, the Ocean Liner and the Motor are at her service; Sport gives her health; her house is her resting place.” There can be little doubt that Perriand understood her age and lived it. Born in Paris in 1904, her life and ideas spanned the 20th Century. Her work, strongly rooted in the moment, is full of humanity, a sensitive approach to materials and is based on egalitarian principles. Her focus was on the “art of living”.

Dining room design, Charlotte Perriand, 1927.
Ball Bearing Necklace, Charlotte Perriand, 1927

The Art of Living

After showing a flair for drawing as a child, Perriand trained at the Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Soon after she finished her studies Le Corbusier saw the Bar Sous Le Toit that Perriand had designed for the 1927 Salon d’Automne in Paris, and she went to work as an associate in his studio. At Le Corbusier’s studio, on and off for the next ten years, she was responsible for the interiors on all projects and worked on a range of seminal furniture designs alongside Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. The pieces, particularly the Grand Confort armchair and sofa, the Revolving armchair and the iconic Chaise Longue, became staples of Le Corbusier interiors from then on. They also became motifs, in the form of furniture, for the Modernist movement in general. All of these designs are still in production today by Italian manufacturer Cassina. Unsurprisingly, for many years the designs were often incorrectly attributed to Le Corbusier alone, which probably quite suited him. When discussing the issue of credit, Perriand’s daughter, Pernette, in an interview published in the Journal that accompanied the recent retrospective, stated “In fact, she couldn’t care less about glory: what she wanted was to make her projects happen.”

'She couldn’t care less about glory: what she wanted was to make her projects happen.'

Pernette Perriand

After her early passion for all things associated with the machine age, by the early 1930s Perriand’s views on design had developed far greater breadth. She had also become political engaged, joining the AEAR (Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists), making two exploratory trips to Moscow and forging links with a number of different left-wing thinkers who were united in their fight against the rise of Fascism in Europe. In 1936, she presented a large political photomontage entitled “La grande misère de Paris” (The Great Poverty of Paris) in which she denounced the standard of housing and living conditions that many Parisians still endured. After travelling widely around Europe during the 1930s, she also became more interest in vernacular forms of architecture and design, while simultaneously cultivating her interest in everyday things and naturally eroded objects, which she called “art brut” (raw art).

One of Charlotte Perriand's photographs of 'art brut' from 1935, a piece of Sandstone from the Bourron quarry in the Fontainebleau forest.
Fish bone photograph, Charlotte Perriand, 1933

She left Le Corbusier’s studio in 1937, possibly on political grounds, but certainly her increasingly collaborative and humanist approach seemed slightly out of step with Le Corbusier, who was more of an authoritarian in style. In 1938, perhaps with a foreboding sense of the great upheaval Europe’s citizens were about to experience, Perriand, who was now working as an independent architect, collaborated again with Jeanneret to design the Refuge Tonneau; a temporary mountain shelter intended to house either skiers or mountaineers for a night or so. It was one of a number of prefabricated architecture projects she worked on in this period and is particularly cherished for its clever use of geometry, which makes the interior seem relatively spacious. Perriand was a lover of the great outdoors, particularly of the mountains, where she would enjoy both mountaineering and skiing from the mid-1920s onwards. Professing her love of the mountains, she said, “I love them because they are vital to my well-being. They have always been the barometer of my physical and moral equilibrium.” Soon, Europe was in flames and its physical and moral equilibrium was in a state of total crisis.

"I have a profound love of the mountains. I love them because they are vital to my well-being. They have always been the barometer of my physical and moral equilibrium."

Charlotte Perriand
Refuge Tonneau model, Pierre Jeanneret & Charlotte Perriand, 1938
Refuge Tonneau interior, Pierre Jeanneret & Charlotte Perriand, 1938

In early 1940, during the “phoney war” in Europe, Perriand received a telegram from Junzo Sakakura, an architect with whom she had worked at Le Corbusier’s studio. He invited her to travel to Japan to work as the Decorative Arts advisory designer for the Japanese Ministry of Commerce. Although initially reluctant to leave France on the eve of war, she was encouraged by friends to take the opportunity. Her time there on this assignment was cut short due to the bombing of Pearl Harbour and Japan’s entry into the war in late 1941, but Perriand had immersed herself in the culture of design, craft and industry in the country, forging links and relationships that would have a significant impact on her subsequent work. This period particularly influenced her use of materials and furthered her interest in a more rounded approach to architecture, which understood and utilised traditional building methods as well as modern ones. After moving to Vietnam in 1942, Perriand was given a role similar to the one she had taken on in Japan, by her soon to be husband Jacques Martin, the Director of Economic Affairs of the General Government of Indochina. However, as described by Martine Dancer-Mourés, in the article concerning Perriand’s time in Japan, “after Hồ Chi Minh’s declaration of independence, she, along with Martin and their baby Pernette, had several brushes with death.”

Perriand would return to Japan in 1955, this time while it was in the grip of a financial crisis, to stage an exhibition alongside Le Corbusier and Fernand Léger entitled “Proposal for a Synthesis of the Arts”. Concerned with the idea of a unity of the arts, the exhibition presented furniture, fine art, textiles, ceramics, architecture, graphic art and everyday objects alongside each other. This unified approach is something seen throughout Perriand’s career; it exemplifies the art of living. The journalist Catherine Slessor, in her excellent 2018 article about Perriand for the Architectural Review, suggested that the period of post-war economic growth in Europe driven by Fordist mass production and consumption did not fit well with some of Perriand’s political or design instincts. This may have been true, but she still managed to deliver a wide range of projects. During this time she collaborated on furniture systems with Jean Prouvé, designed life-changing modular kitchen units for Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, and created the colourful interiors for Air France Travel Bureau’s and for the French Tourism Office.

Les Arcs ski resort in Savoie, Charlotte Perriand, Guy Try-Millet (AAM), architects.
Air France Agency London, Charlotte Perriand, 1957

Perriand always seemed focused on realising ideas, rather than just having them. After building her own modest chalet in Méribel in the 1960s, which was strongly influenced by her time in Japan, she become more involved in mountain life there. This led to her commission in 1967 to lead an architectural design office that was responsible for the construction of the Les Arcs ski resort in Savoie, which was enormous in scale. For this project, which was built over a twenty year period, she drew on all of her experiences in architecture, interior design, urban planning and in people. She understood how the success of the project was totally dependent on there being common interests between visitors and the local populace. Her approach, as so often, was to put people first.

Interior of La Maison au Bord de l'Eau, designed by Charlotte Perriand, 1934. First built by Louis Vuitton, 2013.

"There is no formula for design. I learned, and above all realised, that nothing should be excluded"

Charlotte Perriand

Writing now, in this time of crisis for humanity, it’s impossible not to think about whether there are lessons for today’s designer in Charlotte Perriand’s approach. Catherine Slessor wrote of the tensions and contradictions present in Perriand’s career, but also defined her core intention, which was ‘to devise spaces, objects and processes that went beyond bourgeois self-fulfilment or self-fashioning to activate a genuine transformation of daily existence.’ That seems to go straight to the heart of it. Perriand was trying to create objects, places and experiences that were transformative. Her methodology was to be deeply embedded in the subject, to be totally collaborative with all parties involved and to take heed of the lessons that nature and humanity had to offer. Today, her ideas seem more important than ever.

SCP would like to extend our thanks to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, who provided all of the images featured here.