by Zohra KhanOct 05, 2020
For years, Charlotte Perriand’s reputation rested on the tubular-steel furniture she designed with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in the late 1920s. Two of these pieces are indisputable icons of the machine age. The Fauteuil grand confort, that universal ornament of corporate lobbies, encloses users in a rigid yet relaxing cage of steel and down-filled cushions. The Chaise longue basculante is even more striking, a zigzag of leather suspended on an arc of chrome. Their elegance, and price tags, encapsulate modernism’s flawed mission to sweep away bourgeois clutter and culture.
In 1927, then 24-year-old Perriand was turned away from Le Corbusier’s Paris studio with a harsh “We don’t embroider cushions here”. She asserted her talent at that year’s Salon d’Automne exhibition – her open-plan Bar sous le toit was a glamorous reproduction of a corner of her loft apartment in the Latin Quarter, complete with its built-in aluminium bar, chrome-plated gaming table and tubular-steel stools. This concoction in glass and metal has been reconstructed at London’s Design Museum, alongside the apartment’s dining area, featuring mirrored cabinets, an extendable table and swivelling bent-metal chairs, the latter still in production today. Le Corbusier, unable to match the radical furniture emanating from the Bauhaus, rapidly backtracked, inviting Perriand to design “interior equipment” for his practice.
Remaining at Le Corbusier’s studio for a decade – its sole woman – Perriand brought new ideas and forms to its furniture, as Le Corbusier acknowledged. The exhibition is a delightful opportunity to see original production drawings, manufacturing plans, prototypes and more, alongside the finished pieces. Questions around respective design contributions are largely side-stepped, but the inclusion of Perriand’s extensive sketchbooks gives a clear indication of her pivotal role. She also engaged in the studio’s wider creative practice, with an increasing focus on modular open plans and social improvement, in keeping with concerns emanating from Germany around existenzminimum, the provision of space-efficient, affordable dwellings to address the housing crisis. Displayed here are Perriand’s studies for workers’ apartments incorporating reconfigurable modules and sliding partitions to provide living space during the day and bedrooms at night. She also designed a range of affordable furniture intended for, but never achieving, mass-production – despite her belief that design should benefit those of modest means, the bulk of the studio’s projects reached only a rich clientele.
One of the undeniable highlights of the show is a recreation of a substantial portion of Un equipment intérieur d’une habitation, exhibited to great acclaim at the 1929 Salon d’Automne. Largely Perriand’s work, this open-plan apartment was divided by gleaming modular storage units in chrome and glass, with a circular shower clad in aluminium rising in the centre of its bedroom-cum-bathroom. It was furnished with the studio’s bent-metal furniture, on public display for the first time, and carefully arranged as part of a total composition, one that remains startlingly futuristic today.
In the late 1930s, divergent political views caused a temporary estrangement between Le Corbusier and Perriand. When the former wrote to Jeanneret complaining that the younger members of his studio were shifting ever-leftwards, Perriand resigned, frustrated at the social and political hesitancy of the modern movement – and of Le Corbusier himself. Even so, she returned to work on elements of his radical post-war housing project, the Marseille Unité d’Habitation of 1949, and in particular on its compact kitchen, furnished with labour-saving equipment, aluminium surfaces and an open bar overlooking living areas.
Despite the undeniable attractions of this “Corbusian” phase of Perriand’s career, many visitors may find her later journeys more intriguing – to its credit, the exhibition gives equal coverage to all her work. On setting up on her own, Perriand turned to free-form wooden furniture, in part to shake off the machine age’s traces of capitalism and fascism, but also to pursue the productive capacities and creative potentials of craft. The most famous example is the Boomerang Desk, designed in 1938 for newspaper editor Jean-Richard Bloch, a curvaceous handcrafted hunk of timber with both aesthetic and ergonomic qualities. Displayed alongside is a sideboard of fir slabs and aluminium doors, indicative of Perriand’s desire to find relationships between the organic and the industrial in both material and form.
On a smaller, humbler scale, her low three-legged wooden stools, with their nods to Savoyard shepherds’ stools, are another indication of this embrace of artisanal production. For Perriand, design was not an abstract set of rules, but a reaction to context, and in particular to place, and this extended to vernacular crafts, materials and lifestyles. Like many of her peers, she also found inspiration in trawling beaches and forest floors for driftwood, shells, pebbles and bones, and in taking detailed black-and-white photographs of tree rings, snow on stone and animal skeletons. Both these objets trouvés and the resulting images are displayed in the exhibition, perhaps to excess.
Perriand’s other great influence was Japan. Invited to visit as a consultant in 1940, she was charged with bringing industrial design to its provincial manufacture. She stayed for two years, invigorated by its crafts and culture, admiring the sense of order that permeated the empty (and flexible) spaces of Japanese interiors. Utilising materials such as bamboo and rattan, she reconceived her earlier modernist work: sometimes directly, for instance when remaking her iconic recliner; sometimes through a more poetic engagement with Japanese aesthetics and lifestyles. Her lightweight stacking Ombre chairs, formed from a single sheet of plywood, were inspired by origami and shadow theatre, but also by the Japanese ploy of storing furniture in closets when not in use.
Free-form furniture could be an expensive undertaking, but Perriand’s interest in affordable design and mass-production did not wane. This ambition was expressed in part through contributions to the influential Forme Utiles exhibition of 1949, but also through work on student accommodation in the 1950s. Recreated at the Design Museum, her open-plan dormitory for the Maison du Mexique drew on both her earlier modernist research and her time in Japan, including the use of storage as room dividers and of modular furnishing systems. Yet this was not just a functional space – it was a conversation between colours, materials and forms, with elliptical wooden furniture placed alongside industrial pieces.
Perriand’s bookcase designs of the time, manufactured by Jean Prouvé’s famous Maxéville workshops, drew on the rhythms of Japanese architecture, with standardised folded sheet-metal components that allowed the wooden shelves to be endlessly reconfigured and act as room dividers. Suited to both student dormitories and luxury apartments, they also furnished the numerous interiors Perriand designed for Air France. Her grand foyer for its London agency, with its floor-to-ceiling room divider framing a photograph of a statue from Angkor Wat enveloped by jungle, has been evocatively recreated at the Design Museum, accompanied by her expressive drawings for the project.
Many will feel that the best has been saved till last. In the final room are models of Perriand’s lightweight mountain refuges built of prefabricated aluminium panels, and the sketches of her own masterful chalet at Méribel in which Paris and Japan were given a rustic Alpine cladding. But the undoubted star is Les Arcs, the nearby ski resort at Bourg-Saint-Maurice. Between 1967 and 1989, Perriand led a team of collaborators on this enormous enterprise, completing three stepped complexes that nestled into the landscape, accommodating 30,000 people in meticulous yet diminutive apartments with generous balconies. Perhaps more than any, this project fulfilled her ambition to bring architecture, landscape and design together as one, drawing on a career’s worth of experimentation with modularity, flexibility, standardisation, prefabrication and compact living. Amidst plans, sketches, furniture, flyover footage and archive photography are two unexpected and ungainly presences – the stackable, prefabricated fibreglass kitchen and bathroom units used in the last of the Arc blocks, designed for functionality and density, and installed by crane to save time and labour. They are perfect, if belated, encapsulations of the modernist project.
In many ways, this exhibition is decidedly old-fashioned. Information about Perriand’s background and education is absent, as are discussions of her personality and personal life, beyond a mention of her lifelong friendship with Jeanneret (they were in fact lovers). Two excerpts from Jacques Barsac’s 1985 documentary provide welcome insights into her character and philosophy, otherwise given limited attention. And, except in a very limited sense, there is no attempt to tackle wider contexts. For instance, at no point is Perriand’s position as a woman in what was undoubtedly a man’s world tackled, nor the gendered nature of her work, particularly that undertaken for Le Corbusier.
Her encounters with “great men” abound (along with examples of their work), with the regrettable implication that this endorses her achievement – Jeanneret, Prouvé, Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, Isamu Noguchi, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Ernö Goldfinger, Verner Panton, the list goes on. No female customer, client, friend, colleague or collaborator is mentioned, bar a passing mention of the Eameses , and Sonia Delaunay’s appearance in a list of those providing colour schemes for Perriand’s bookshelves. The artist Marianne Clouzot is the only female creative in the show’s many photographs – a holiday snap making no mention of her professional status – outnumbered by models playing the roles of geisha and housewife. This was the reality of Perriand’s professional life. Perhaps such complexities and contradictions – and there are many – deserve more space than driftwood.
But this is probably as the formidable Perriand would have wanted it: being treated as equal to her male peers, rejecting distractions from the primacy of her artistic pursuit. It certainly allows visitors to engage with the design on its own merit, even if they must turn elsewhere for a richer understanding of Perriand’s life. The compact but beautiful catalogue is a good start, better expressing her joy in invention and discovery, and her dedication to the “art of living”. In total, the exhibition, and its predecessor at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, are achievements to be cherished, raising Perriand’s profile, recreating lost furniture and interiors, and reminding us of the breadth of Perriand’s achievement across her long career.
Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life exhibition is ongoing till September 5, 2021, at the Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High Street, Kensington, London.