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How Charlotte Perriand became a giant of 20th-century design

Charlotte Perriand escaped the shadow of Le Corbusier to become the globally respected architecture and design icon that she is today, writes Dominic Lutyens, author of a new book on her life and legacy: Perriand

In 1927, Charlotte Perriand, aged 24, applied to work at the studio of Modernist architect Le Corbusier – an unedifying experience. He rebuffed her with the witheringly condescending remark, “We don’t embroider cushions here”. Yet the Swiss-born, Paris-based architect would have to eat his words.

Perriand, who was born in Paris in 1903 and died in 1999, was influenced early on by the Art Deco style magnificently showcased in the city by the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. In the mid-1920s, she studied furniture design at the École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs and showed pieces designed there in the exhibition. But after reading two books by Le Corbusier – L’Art Décoratif d’Aujourd’hui and Vers Une Architecture – she rejected the luxe, exotic materials associated with Art Deco and espoused Modernism. Vers Une Architecture was a compelling manifesto for Modernism that advocated applying the streamlined beauty of machines and engineering to architecture.

Le Corbusier yearned then to create tubular-metal furniture that emulated the functionalist furniture of offices, hospitals and army barracks. He’d looked with envy upon cutting-edge metal furniture created by German designer Mies van der Rohe, Hungarian-German designer Marcel Breuer and Dutch architect Mart Stam. Frustratingly, France lacked a manufacturer to make it.

At the time, Perriand and her first husband Percy Scholefield lived in a former photographer’s studio on Paris’s bohemian Left Bank, which she furnished in the elegantly sparse, Modernist style. In 1927, she recreated its ultra-modern bar at the prestigious Paris fair, Salon d’Automne. Called Bar Sous Le Toit, it boasted an anodised aluminium cocktail bar, nickel-plated copper bar stools and a gramophone cabinet. When Le Corbusier spotted it, he promptly hired her to head up interior design and development of furniture in his studio.

Charlotte Perriand created the ultra-modern bar Bar Sous Le Toit, modelled on the one at her Left-Bank home, for Paris fair Salon d’Automne – leading Le Corbusier to hire her (Photo © Archives Charlotte Perriand)

He also admired another Perriand design – the seminal Modernist swivel armchair, Fauteuil Tournant, that pairs a simple steel frame with a leather-upholstered seat and backrest. The chair, used as a dining chair at her home, was exhibited at the fair Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in Paris in 1929. Years later, in 1984, Perriand wrote: “I think Le Corbusier took me on because I was familiar with current technology and had ideas about uses it could be put to.”

Fauteuil Tournant added a new dimension to the existing repertoire of Modernist metal furniture, which Le Corbusier no doubt clocked – it was kinetic. Perriand’s interest in seating with moveable elements was evident in the chairs she developed in 1928 with Le Corbusier and his cousin and close collaborator Pierre Jeanneret – the Siège a Dossier Basculant, which has a swinging back, and the Chaise Longue Basculante, a modern take on a rocking chair, whose seat can be positioned at various angles. Another design, the opulent Fauteuil Grand Confort, ironically incorporated the very thing Le Corbusier derided – cushions. Its steel, cage-like frame tightly encases plump, leather-upholstered cushions.

The iconic LC4 Chaise Longue Basculante, designed by Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanerret in 1928

The chairs’ names were prefaced with the letters “LC”, and as such were attributed to Le Corbusier’s studio. Perriand, who sourced their materials and oversaw their execution, wasn’t credited for her considerable input. Only in 1965, when Italian company Cassina acquired the licence to manufacture them under the direction of Perriand and Fondation Le Corbusier, were these attributed to her, Jeanneret and Le Corbusier. For this reason, Perriand was relatively unknown for decades.

But in the past 30 years, she has become more recognised, thanks in part to exhibitions held at London’s Design Museum in 1996 and 2021 and at Paris’s Fondation Louis Vuitton in 2019. The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Design highlighted that she has long been underestimated in its 2006 edition, stating: “Perriand’s designs are often associated with furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in the 1920s, but her contribution to design was significantly more profound”.

A fascinating peculiarity of Perriand is how she became one of France’s most successful designers in a male-dominated field. She was undoubtedly tough and independent – as well as socially progressive and culturally inquisitive – but other factors surely fostered her confidence and single-minded drive. A rising number of high-profile women artists and designers in France, such as Eileen Gray and Sonia Delaunay, may have emboldened her to make her mark. She had a strong role model in the family: her aunt studied at the Ecole de l’Union des Arts Décoratifs. What’s more, aged 18, Perriand was granted complete independence by her mother.

In the 1920s, Perriand, who lived on Paris’s bohemian Left Bank, embraced avant-garde culture that chimed with Modernism: she was dazzled by Josephine Baker’s performances, learnt to dance the Charleston and watched Jean Cocteau movies. She wore flapper dresses, her hair in a gamine Eton crop. Her apartment, where she entertained such friends as André Breton, ringleader of the Surrealist movement, was an expression of her racy lifestyle.

Charlotte Perriand retrospective at the Design Museum, London in 2021, with the Chaise Longue Basculante and Fauteuil Tournant in the foreground

In the 1930s, against the backdrop of the menace of Nazism and Fascism, Perriand became politicised and joined various Communist organisations. This led her to examine and reconsider the purpose of design – and conclude that it should benefit society as a whole. Her enthusiasm for machine-age Modernism, which preached that mass-production could democratise design, waned with the realisation that only a privileged few had access to the seating issued by Le Corbusier’s studio.

Perriand looked favourably on a law introduced in France in 1936 that mandated 12 weeks’ paid annual leave for workers. This necessitated housing for holiday-makers on a mass scale, a requirement met by her mammoth project, Les Arcs, in Savoie, France, a ski resort co-created with a team of architects from the 1960s to the 1980s. Earlier on, she addressed the need for holiday homes with smaller prefabricated structures, such as the relatively inexpensive weekend home, La Maison au Bord de la Mer, of 1934. This waterside bolthole illustrates her prescient interest in environmentalism: it was easy to assemble and disassemble and so designed to avoid making a lasting impact on the environment.

Perriand’s personal passions, notably skiing and mountain-climbing, informed her choice of projects, notably her prefabricated, portable Tonneau mountain refuge of 1938. Its interior, which slept eight people, was lined with wood. Inspired by a profound love of nature, Perriand increasingly used natural materials, such as wood, rush and rattan and favoured organic forms, producing a series of free-form wood tables with curved or irregular edges.

Prefabricated and portable Tonneau mountain refuge designed by Charlotte Perriand, 1938

She explored natural materials in the 1940s while serving as a consultant in industrial design in Japan at the behest of the country’s Ministry of Commerce, which sought to boost exports of its contemporary homeware to Europe and the US. While there, she assiduously studied traditional Japanese crafts, such as bamboo-working and straw-weaving. Inspired by these, she developed pared-down products made of Japanese materials that chimed with her Modernist sensibility. She organised several exhibitions in Tokyo and Osaka that showcased these wares, along with her own designs, including a bamboo and wood iteration of the Chaise Longue Basculante.

Synthese des ARTS Tokyo 1955 (Photo © Archives Charlotte Perriand)

After the war, she reconnected with Le Corbusier, and designed modular kitchens for his project, L’Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. These were integrated into open-plan living areas so that women didn’t feel trapped in the kitchen – an indication of her feminist sympathies. In the 1950s, she designed colourful storage cabinets made of painted steel and wood, fabricated by the studio of metalworker and architect Jean Prouvé.

Gregarious and generous, she frequently instigated collaborations with like-minded designers and artists. For example, she incorporated art and tapestries by Fernand Léger and Le Corbusier into an exhibition she curated in Tokyo in 1955. In the 1960s, she co-designed the interior of French Railways House, the London HQ of French rail network SNCF, with architect Ernö Goldfinger.

Les Arcs, Perriand’s most ambitious project, was a distillation of democratic, environmentalist and feminist values. It included affordable rental units housed in angled buildings that followed the topography of the landscape, leaning into rather than looming over the slopes. Its kitchens faced on to living areas, ensuring women (at a time of more fixed gender roles) didn’t feel isolated while cooking.

Charlotte Perriand led a team of architects to design ski resort Les Arcs in the 1960s. It included affordable rental units housed in angled buildings that followed the topography of the landscape

Perriand evolved from pioneering shocking, radically contemporary furniture to endorsing and implementing aesthetically pleasing, socially inclusive architecture and design that were never divorced from human needs.

Perriand by Dominic Lutyens, published by Welbeck Publishing/Headline, is available now

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